Growing up, I was obsessed with the 1997 Academy Award nominated movie “Anastasia.” Every weekend, I sat my theater-loving self in front of that old VHS tape for hours. Between the music, the dresses, the snarky talking bat, and the whole “discovering you’re a lost princess” thing, how could you not love “Anastasia?” Clearly, I’m not the only one who felt this way, as “Anastasia” was made into a Tony Award nominated Broadway production in 2017.
For context, “Anastasia” tells the story of the orphaned, amnesic Anya and her journey from Russia to Paris as she tries to discover who she is, eventually learning she is the lost duchess Anastasia Romanov. Side note - can we appreciate the theater royalty that appeared in this film? Liz Callaway, Bernadette Peters, and Angela Lansbury all make an appearance.
But even with a Disney-esque plot and the glittering promise of happily ever after, the city of Paris is one of the main attractions of the film. Paris became a beacon of hope for Anya, and was a shining representation of the happiness that awaited her. They even have a whole musical number about it for goodness sake, singing “Paris Holds the Key to Your Heart” as they prance through the streets of the city. As the characters strolled past the Seine, climbed the Eiffel Tower, and bought dresses from the world’s most luxurious brands, we all watched the romanticization of Paris from a very young age.
Now, I know that the secret to life’s happiness is not trekking across Eastern Europe to Paris with a hunky con man and former royal palace guard. But I’ve always wanted to see the City of Lights, and I have no doubt a large part of that comes from the romanticism of the city in childhood films.
Last week, I was finally able to see Paris for myself, and I’m proud to say that the “Anastasia” song “Paris Holds the Key to Your Heart” was only playing in my head 6 of the 7 days I was there.
After getting off the plane, the first thing we did was get lunch in a restaurant overlooking Notre Dame Cathedral. And like most other theater children that grew up watching Disney movies, I see Notre Dame and think about another fateful childhood movie, “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” While this one never made it to Broadway, it had successful runs at La Jolla Playhouse and Papermill Playhouse in 2014 and 2015, respectively. Side note- if you have not listened to this soundtrack, you are missing out. It includes the best parts of the movie, as well as original content from geniuses Alan Menken (because no Disney production would be complete without him) and Stephen Schwartz. With a pairing like that, you can’t miss. But anyway.
As I made my way through the city, I found myself on a sort of pseudo theater tour. Near-ish to the center (my understanding of Paris geography still leaves something to be desired) is a lavish opera house that can be seen from just about every rooftop in Paris (at least, the ones I was on). The Palais Garnier, also known as Opéra Garnier, is the opera house that inspired Gaston Leroux’s 1910 novel “The Phantom of the Opera,” and according to Tripadvisor, Box 5 is permanently reserved (if you know, you know).
While I ran out of time to go inside the opera house myself (and therefore verify this Box 5 fact), we were able to go up to it. The opera house is still in regular use for scheduled performances, and its front steps are a common place for performers. The night we were there, we watched a social ballroom dance event.
There’s also an entire section of the city with street names devoted to novelist Victor Hugo, the creative mind behind the 1862 novel “Les Misérables” and the 1831 novel “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.”
And of course, who could forget Moulin Rouge? This cabaret club is the location for one of Broadway’s newest musicals of the same name. It’s odd- the club is in an old part of the city that’s one of the highest points in Paris. Then you walk down a little street, and that bright red windmill just smacks you in the face. We intentionally went at night to see it lit up, beckoning passersby to come in and see its famous show.
I’m sure there are plenty of other spots around the city with theatrical roots and I know there are plenty of shows I missed. “Beauty and the Beast” and “An American in Paris” are just a few that come to mind. But with my very limited knowledge of Paris and French culture, it was fun finding little things I could relate to while walking around this gorgeous city.
Feature Photo: My view of the city from the top of the Arc de Triomphe