There is a collective gasp from the audience every night when Christy Altomare steps on stage as the Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna Romanova. She is poised, graceful, scrappy, and it’s quickly realized that Altomare is the best suited to tackle the role of the lost Russian duchess.
Altomare, who has been seen as Sophie in Mamma Mia!, Wendla in the U.S. National Tour of Spring Awakening, and Sue in Carrie, blossoms in her transformation from lost Anya to Grand Duchess in the highly-acclaimed Anastasia.
Currently at the Hartford Stage in Hartford, Connecticut, Anastasia is quickly becoming not only a success with fans, but with critics as well. The musical borrows from literary accounts, the 1997 animated movie, and real history and follows the fictional story of the real-life youngest daughter of Tsar Nicholas II, after it was speculated that she survived the execution of her family.
Anastasia is led by an all-star creative team all of whom have a Tony Award and are widely celebrated for their work. The production, directed by Darko Tresnjak, with music and lyrics by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens and written by playwright Terrence McNally, is a collaboration of some of theatre’s most accomplished artists coming together to create a truly memorable experience in all regards.
Altomare met with Stage Door Dish to talk about her wonderful co-stars, her career as a singer/songwriter, and what it is like to live her dream each night.
Last night as the curtain closed, you looked positively radiant. Your face conveyed a thousand emotions; you are living your best life!
I get to be Anastasia! Also, I can’t believe I get to wear this dress! I look like a princess, and that’s how it feels! I get to live my best self every day in this role, and I can’t believe that this is my life!
When I went to the audition I thought, ‘I get to be Anastasia for two minutes. For two minutes, I get to be her.’ I felt joy just getting to be her for that tiny bit of time. And then they called me back! I got to sing with Derek [Klena] who I had worked with before in Carrie. We sang ‘A Crowd of Thousands’ in our final callback, and it was magic. And here we are!
How familiar were you with the story beforehand? Did you grow up watching the 1997 movie?
I loved the animated movie. The songs were so beautiful. I would dance around my house singing them; and I even had the Dimitri and the Anya dolls!
I had ‘Journey to the Past’ in my audition book; I can remember multiple auditions where I sang it. And then when I got the audition for Anya, and I was asked to sing four songs, one of them being ‘Journey to the Past’. I thought, ‘Okay, good, I’ve got that one under my belt!’
Did you know anything of the Romanov Family?
I had a little familiarity. I knew of their tragic execution and that there was a rumor that Anastasia, the youngest daughter, may have survived. Once I got the role, I did more research on the Romanov family and Anastasia to prepare myself for playing the character.
What about Anastasia do you relate to the most?
That she’s so optimistic and so tough. She wasn’t tough in a mean way; she was tough in a secure way. She was a survivor, and so is Dimitri. I, like Anya, am also optimistic. When things get rough, I always have that excitement that things are going to get better. You need to be optimistic in this business. And you also have to be tough.
This is a show about family; finding your family, but also making your own and finding your own home in the world. How does that relate to you?
Home, Love, Family and finding a place to belong is what Anya wants. It is what everyone wants. I am blessed that I have two families. My mom and dad and sister have been very supportive in helping me deal with the craziness of this business. My second family is this fantastic cast and creative team. They are not only all so talented, but they are great people with great hearts. They inspire me and keep me whole.
A bit about the Anastasia cast, do you have any fun backstage stories you’d tell at a cocktail party? Is there a resident prankster? Any pre/post show rituals?
One of our great dancers is also a great cook. For Cinco de Mayo, we all went to his place to eat. Everyone brought a Mexican dish and we had a party. Derek and I made cronuts. We all have these great kitchens in the apartments where we’re staying. The cast has caught the cooking bug. You may have seen some of the pictures of our food creations.
People all around the world are so excited for this show to transfer to Broadway, many people grew up watching the film, and also the history behind the story is widely known. But, if there is somehow someone out there who does not know the story of Anastasia and doesn’t know why they should come to see this show, what would you say to them?
I say that it is about a young Russian woman who is trying to discover the mystery of her past because she has amnesia. And in that process, she finds herself. Everyone has had those feelings of being lost and trying to find themselves as they were growing up. This is why the audience relates and cheers for Anya during her journey. So there’s the humanity of that, and it’s also a love story, and a mystery. And who doesn’t love a love story and a mystery, as it slowly unravels throughout the course of a show?
You are on your way to becoming a Broadway princess! Were you a Disney princess fan growing up?
I was never the princess, never the girl in the tiara. But I was more the girl who liked to get her hands dirty. I liked arts and crafts, and I really liked being creative. Creating is really where my heart is. When I was young, mom had this chest of dress-up clothes in our basement. My sister and I would dress-up and act out shows. We’d write and perform our own musicals. I did love the Disney princess films. I remember Pocahontas and The Little Mermaid were two of my favorites.
Joining the ranks of Broadway Princesses is a big deal- you will be the first Broadway experience for many little girls.
When I was in Mamma Mia!, and here in Hartford too, I always love talking to young girls at the stage door. Some will say that they want to be an actress. I see myself in those girls because I was very young when I saw my first Broadway show. Ironically, it was Cats at the Winter Garden, the same theater Mamma Mia was in when I played Sophie. And Liz Callaway was playing Grizabella cat, another irony! I was about 6 or 7 years old and will never forget it. I see the same excitement and passion that I had at that age in those young girls. I’m inspired by them. I tell them that they can do it, that they really can! I truly believe that excitement and passion are an important part to being able to accomplish whatever you set your mind to do.
So who was your Broadway role model?
When I was growing up my favorite musical was Miss Saigon. I loved Lea Salonga. She always played those tragic but hopeful characters and played each role so beautifully. Her performances always made you feel what she was feeling.
How has your songwriting changed since you’ve grown over the last 15 years, and what has been the impact on your music since performing on Broadway?
I started writing songs at age 12. Jewel and Joni Mitchell inspired me most. I also loved musical theater and acting. When I was in high school, I was uncertain what path I should choose. I was accepted to Berkeley School of Music and CCM. I chose to go to CCM for musical theater, and believed I could always continue to write songs along with musical theater training. So I continued to write my pop songs, and then, my senior year, I was asked to write music for a couple shows at CCM. One of them was a main stage production and even won a couple of awards. It was such a great experience for me and helped me grow as a writer. Right now I am working on a musical adaptation of Pericles with a friend and we have done a couple readings. I also have some demos of my new pop music and hope to have it produced in the near future.
Is there a book or film that you grew up on that you’d love to see on the stage?
Almost Famous. I would love to play Penny Lane! She is such a fun character, the ‘Band-Aid’, very cool, very hippy- dippy. There would be some awesome 70s music in there.
I recently found of that you played Jerusha in Daddy Long Legs, which I am obsessed with.
I am obsessed with Daddy Long Legs too! It’s such a good show! I can’t believe it’s closing. Paul Gordon, the composer, is incredible. If you like that show, you should look at Paul Gordon’s other work. His music is incredible.
It’s so funny because people will ask if Anya is the biggest part I’ve ever played. Well Anya is demanding, but I would have to say that Jerusha in Daddy Long Legs was the largest and most demanding role I ever played. She does not leave that stage from beginning to end. It’s almost like a one-woman show. And I was so happy to see Megan McGinnis in it when it came to New York. She was really wonderful.
Do you feel similarities in Jerusha and Anya?
Oh yeah. They have the same character traits. Both Jerusha and Anya are strong women who are hopeful and optimistic.
You and Derek have such a great on-stage chemistry.
When I heard Derek was going to be my leading man, the pressure was off. Having worked with him in Carrie, there was none of that awkward nervousness you sometimes feel. And I knew it was going to be a good experience because he is so nice and just so much fun to work with! We have the best time. And we get to work with John Bolton too. All three of us are like a trio in life. There is a real connection between the three of us. We sincerely enjoy each other’s company and have so much fun laughing and joking. They are just great people to work with along with everyone in this cast, on and off stage. For example, at the stage door late at night, John and Derek both wait for me. It takes me a while to get out of costume, and they wait for me every single night at the stage door so we can all walk home together. We’re like a family.
So your other leading man is Bob Lenzi, whom Stage Door Dish recently interviewed.
Bob was my high school leading man and my first leading man. He’s amazing. We both came from Bucks County; we both went to the same high school. When Bob and I were in 8th grade, we were both cast as the leads in Big the Musical. He played Josh Baskin, the Tom Hanks character, and I played Susan Lawrence. As you know Susan is much older than Josh. There is a song in the show where Susan Lawrence sings about when she was young, ‘I was 12 and alive, nothing stopped me from dawn till bedtime’ and I was actually 12. Bob and I took every role we got seriously. We were very lucky to have worked together in several shows throughout high school. We had great teachers. Bob and I owe them the world for their inspiration and undying support over the years. Some of them even came to Hartford to see Anastasia.
If you could star in any revival, what would it be?
This is hard! This is really hard…maybe Jane Eyre, which is also a Paul Gordon show.
Your breakout role was Wendla. Did you have a chance to see Deaf West’s Spring Awakeimg? What were your thoughts on that?
Yes! I loved it! So many differences, good differences – and I loved our production too. Andy Mientus was the same Hanschen when I was on tour. It was kind of amazing to see how he’d grown in the role. He was fantastic then and fantastic now, just different. It was really heartwarming to see. In many ways, that tour was like a second college education. Everyone was so young and they paid us to tour the country and be in this rock musical everyone liked. So it was almost like we were mini rock stars at that time. It was surreal.
Describe a dinner party with Wendla, Anastasia, and Sophie all together.
I definitely think that Sophie and Anastasia would be schooling Wendla a little bit. Sophie would be the one throwing the party at her mom’s place in Greece. There would be lots and lots of food. Anastasia, being 27 years old and having walked almost across Russia, will give Wendla all the information her parents never told her and, being less naive, maybe Wendla’s future would go on to be much brighter because of this. I do like happy endings.
Do you have a pre-show routine? Something you’ve carried from show to show?
I always try to remind myself, and I never say this out loud, but I always try to remind myself to play and be in the moment before every show. Sometimes people will come up to you and say, ‘Last night’s show was amazing!’ or ‘I really liked how you did that scene!’ or ‘I really liked how you did that specific thing’. And in your mind you start to think, ‘How do I recreate that again?’ So what I always remind myself, before I go on stage is to play, have fun, and it’s okay to find new things. And that is what makes live theater so special. It’s like you’re passing a ball back and forth and radiating energy to one person and then they’re radiating it back to you. So when I go out I always think, ‘How can I give energy to this person so they can give energy back?’ I am so lucky to be working with such great artists that support this show on stage and off. They are all giving their best energy. And then the audience receives it and gives it back us.