I Saw Myself in ‘Anastasia.’ And I Knew I Had to Leave Honduras.
Anyone who grew up in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, would tell you that by the winter of 1997 the glory days of the Cine Variedades were long gone.
What had once been a palatial movie house with velvet curtains, a wide lobby and marimba concerts before each show was now a rundown establishment where rats were rumored to run between patrons’ legs, and college students sneaked in for loud make-out sessions followed by cigarettes, despite the bright neon “No Smoking” signs.
But anyone could’ve fooled me the weekend before Christmas that year, when I sat down to watch Fox Animation Studio’s “Anastasia.” Warm buttery popcorn and Coke in hand, I sat dazzled by the images conjured by the animators in Don Bluth and Gary Goldman’s film.
Given that I thought myself a very mature 11 year old with a taste for classic Hollywood films and the finer things in life, I lost myself in the story about how the young orphan Anya seeks to reclaim her title as the Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna Romanova, youngest daughter of Czar Nicholas II, who was killed during the Russian Revolution.
I was particularly enthralled by sequences in which the young Anya dreams of finding her grandmother, the Dowager Empress, living in exile in Paris. Growing up as a gay boy in a conservative country that has become one of the most violent in the world, I knew even then that, like Anya, I’d have to find a home elsewhere.
And while I was certainly not an orphan, I recognized that, unlike most people in my country, I wouldn’t live with my parents long. The coincidence that my own grandmother, whom I adored and who was working in the United States at the time, didn’t escape me, and when the film was over I knew that in Anya I’d found the character that best described who I was.
When a Mexican magazine came up with a trivia contest to win an Anastasia doll, I answered all the questions but asked my mother to send the entry under her name. I was more worried about what bullies would think about me owning a doll than about not winning. What a thrill when a couple of months later we received a box from Mexico with a brand new doll that had a secret locket like the one in the movie.
Growing up I was the kind of kid who wanted dolls and plush animals, never toy cars and police kits — the kind of kid likelier to pretend to be Anastasia than to be her love interest Dimitri. On several occasions my mother sat me down to congratulate me for embracing female characters, but also to remind me that, as a boy, there were other heroes to value. “Give it a try, pretend you’re Aladdin next time,” she would say. I wish I could have pleased her.
Two decades passed, and I learned they were turning my beloved film into a Broadway musical. Would my affection for it feel the same? Could I have outgrown the tale of the Russian duchess?
I sat excitedly at the Broadhurst Theater this spring to see “Anastasia” onstage, and had my answer: The opening notes of the overture began, and I was 11 again. It didn’t matter that I had a full beard, some gray hairs in my head, and had survived a hate crime, heartbreak and more farewells than I’d like to count.
Christy Altomare stepped onstage and she was exactly the Anastasia I dreamed of as a kid, all spunk and heart, fierce and regal, with a voice to match. She was who I’d wanted to become.
Many of my fellow critics have pointed out flaws in the show (and the movie), but I find its charms outweigh its imperfections. Given the times we live in, I welcome any opportunity to dream and escape, and there are few journeys I’d like to emulate as much as Anya’s.
When I saw the show a second time recently (I loved it even more), I saw Ms. Altomare’s effect on other audience members, young and old, who waited to meet her at the stage door. For almost a half-hour, she walked the line as fans yelled her name, some of them with tears in their eyes.
Even though I often interview Broadway artists and see over 200 shows each year, I can still be a giddy fan at a stage door. And I was happy to see that among the many girls who requested a selfie, there were also little boys who timidly handed Ms. Altomare their Playbills. I asked one of them what he liked most about the show. He raised his eyebrow and blurted, “Duh, Anastasia.”
Audience members were there from Japan and New Zealand, and it became clear that through the show’s much-loved anthem “Journey to the Past” the character of Anastasia had connected with many of us, immigrants in one way or another.
When it was my turn to speak to Ms. Altomare, she showed me the same warmth she’d displayed with countless others. I could see her eyes get misty when I told her about having left my home country and knowing that returning there could mean death for me.
The animated “Anastasia” includes such fantastical elements as talking albino bats and an evil wizard, all of which are gone from the show, which instead focuses on a story about people who are forced to leave their homes. A song that was once sung by gargoyles and a bat now becomes a mournful farewell to the bridges, rivers and forests of one’s homeland.
Ms. Altomare acknowledged that the song, “Stay, I Pray You,” which she performs with the ensemble, has new meaning for her, now, too, given world events. “I think of all the people who’ve had to leave their homeland, I think about the refugees in Syria, young kids who have to move,” she said. “Anyone can relate if they’ve had to say goodbye to a place that they loved.”
I left the Broadhurst both elated and filled with melancholy. I’d finally met the Grand Duchess from my childhood dreams, and she was divine. But for the first time I realized that despite the happiness I’ve found in a life of safety and opportunity in New York City, I did miss Honduras.
With its vast rivers, pine forests, crystalline beaches and imposing mountains — and despite the fear I feel every time I listen to news coming from there, memories of violence, macho bullies, and decaying movie theaters — like Anastasia, I too will “bless my homeland till I die.” A doll and secret locket are waiting there for me.