In 2013, costume designer Linda Cho made her Broadway debut, creating the intricate, Edwardian costumes for the Tony Award-winning musical A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder. Her character-defining creations (imagine Clue meets Downton Abbey)—which included an assortment of rapid-fire costume changes for leading man Jefferson Mays—earned Cho the 2014 Tony Award for Best Costume Design of a Musical.
Cho is back on Broadway this season, designing the stage musical adaptation of Anastasia, based on the 1997 animated film musical about the Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna of Russia.
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Anastasia is an ambitious project, one that carries with it an enthusiastic fan base—known as “Fanastasias”—who grew up watching the animated film and singing along to its breakout song “Journey to the Past.” (Some have called it the precursor to today’s “Let It Go.”)
Similar to Disney’s screen-to-stage adaptations, Anastasia’s creative team was challenged with delivering the essence of what fans loved on screen, while creating an original experience for the theatre.
Cho, who is Tony-nominated for her work on Anastasia, spoke with Playbill about the history that inspired her designs for the Romanov family, and how she honored what fans loved about the film.
In the first moments of the prologue, director Darko Tresnjak creates a striking tableau of the Romanov family dressed in sparkling white royal attire, a haunting moment that forebodes the fate they are soon to endure.
“I looked at photographs and paintings of the royal family,” Cho explains. “Tsar Nicholas was an early photography enthusiast, and he took thousands of pictures of his family in intimate settings, on vacation, and just at home, and in their bedrooms. There are also royal portraits and some costume exhibits that have happened, so I looked at the catalogs, and actual clothing at the museums.”
The black-and-white photos were often hand-tinted, with the young women in shades of pale pink and lavender, which Cho used as part of her color story for the royal family.
Cho notes that the designs aren’t exact replicas of the gowns and military uniforms captured in the Tsar’s photographs. “Even with period pieces, you have to make sure that you’re telling a story, and that the look of the clothes are understandable and appealing to the modern eye. Something that might have been attractive in 1907 may not have the same appeal to the modern eye. So you do a lot of cheating. You do whatever’s necessary to tell a story.”
During the prologue, and in recurring moments throughout the show, Cho had to solve how to establish focus among the members of the royal family, all of whom are dressed in similar tones.
A major focal point is the Tsarina, played by cast member Lauren Blackman, who is dressed in “50 pounds of costume that all dazzle,” Cho says. “She’s tall and gorgeous, and then she wears an eight-inch crown that makes her seven feet tall. Historically, the Tsarina would have been the most dazzling, and that real gown was covered in real diamonds and pearls. Historically, that dress would have been worth $10 million.”
Blackman’s costume is so heavy and massive, that it cannot be carried up the six floors to her dressing room, so it is housed in a changing area underneath the stage where a team of dressers help her into it just moments prior to the start of each performance.
“Her dress is an amalgamation of various different royal gowns,” Cho says. “The great thing about being a costume designer is that I get to just pick my favorite things from various pieces of research. Lauren has a tiny waist. The real Tsarina had five children, and was a very different shape than our actress. So you design for the actress in mind, and what will have the most impact onstage. We also had to balance the glitter factor. It sounds like sort of a frivolous endeavor, but you have to think about different qualities of shine, different textures, and different sizes. We lay out different things, and figure out a scenario that has the most impact.”
With more than 125 costumes in Anastasia, a pulley system has been installed in the dressing room stairwell at the Broadhurst Theatre to life and lower some of the heavier costume pieces, many of which are brocade and multi-layered.
One of Anastasia’s most beloved costumes, which elicits applause of recognition from the audience, was not originally in the production when it premiered at Hartford Stage last spring. The moment comes during a scene in which Anastasia (played by Christy Altomare) attends a ballet at the Paris Opera in the chance that she will be reunited with her grandmother.
In Hartford, Cho styled Altomare in a creamy, champagne-colored dress, a departure from the 1997 film where the character is depicted in a midnight-blue evening gown that evoked her royal lineage. “Fanastasias” spoke out during the out-of-town developmental premiere, saying that the dress was missed.
For fans of the film, Anastasia’s blue gown is equivalent to the classic princess dresses from the Disney catalogue. It signifies a transformational moment for the central character, much like Belle’s golden gown in Beauty and the Beast, or Elsa’s icy blue dress in Frozen. It is so beloved that it is often replicated among cosplay devotees.
When Anastasia transferred to Broadway, Cho granted fans' wishes, costuming Altomare in a stunning, deep royal blue gown, adorned with jewels and paired with opera-length gloves. Cho was inspired to create a full-circle moment to incorporate the gown into the show's visual storytelling, placing a bold blue ribbon in young Anastasia’s hair during the prologue.
Go behind the designs of Anastasia’s Romanov family below: