Breathe Now, Anna  //  by Andrew Samonsky

Actor Andrew Samonsky turns inward as he recognizes himself in the complicated, courageous Anna Edson Taylor.

It’s been 11 years since I had the honor of playing Frank Russell in Transport Group’s beautiful world premiere of Michael John LaChiusa’s Queen of the Mist, and I still get emotional when I tell someone about it.  And I never really know why.  I just start crying.  Is it deep sadness or deep love?  Is it something else?  If you’ll allow me to investigate…

In 2010, I read an article on Playbill that Michael John was writing a musical about the first person to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel and live.  I had worked with the legendary composer before, but upon reading the article I thought that sounds like a terrible idea for a musical.  A couple of weeks later, I received an e-mail from Michael John asking if I would like to play the role of Frank Russell in his new musical.  “Of course!!  That sounds incredible!” I replied.  I wasn’t exactly lying because this was Michael John LaChiusa after all, and he had already written several brilliant musicals.  If anyone could create a compelling piece of theater about this, it was him.

I came to find out the story was more interesting than I’d expected.  The first person to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel and live was Anna Edson Taylor, a 63-year-old woman of no particular skill set—and she had even designed the barrel herself.  After a life of dead ends seeking fortune and fame, this was Anna’s latest attempt at relevance.  She was stubborn, blunt, abrasive, ambitious, and had burned bridges until no one would deal with her, not even her family.  The show, directed with great imagination and deep thoughtfulness by Jack Cummings III, went on to score several New York theater awards and nominations.

The primary relationship of the story revolves around Anna and her alcoholic, down on his luck agent, Frank Russell.  There is no romantic love story in the show, which is highly unusual in musicals.  Try to think of one that doesn’t.  Anna and Frank are both loners and full of flaws, but the two form a tight bond as they plan the death-defying (hopefully) stunt.  Perhaps they see a little of themselves in the other.  Frank sings to her right before she gets in the barrel:

Our deal is a deal
That only fools would make
Our deal is a deal
That even fools like us won’t break.
No idea where this is goin’.
No idea how this will end.
Guess you’ll have to call me crazy
Since I learned to call you ‘friend’.
We’re in together for the ride.
You can count on me to meet you.
I will be the first to greet you
On the other side.

He makes that promise to be there after she goes over the fall, but his fear leads him to the bar and he doesn’t show up when she gets out of the barrel, the moment she needs him most.  Their friendship is irrevocably broken.  Frank’s drunken apology is not enough to overcome his serious rejection of her by omission.  Trust is shattered.  A connection is lost forever—perhaps the only real connection Anna and Frank had ever experienced.  It is a love story, of sorts.  Of friends.  And it’s heartbreaking.

Trust.  It’s not sexy.  It’s not exciting.  But it is at the root of all relationships.  It takes a lot of time to build, and yet it can dissolve in an instant.  I have destroyed that trust with people I love.  And people I love have broken it with me.  And if you want to get that trust back, it takes exponentially more work to repair than build the first time—if you can earn it back at all.  It also takes an awareness of our own character flaws that caused that breach of trust.

At the end of the show, we find Anna near the end of her life, destitute, selling postcards on the sidewalk near Niagara Falls.  She gets a visit from Frank, and after some awkward pleasantries, he apologizes.  He then attempts to say something more.  He struggles to find the words.  And before it comes out, Anna cuts him off and calls him a failure.  It’s cruel.  Her resentment is still ever present.  Frank is hurt.  She continues, “You were my friend.  Friends are rare, I know this now.  But, no matter.  Goodbye.”  She gives him the middle finger.  Frank pauses.  He smiles.  He kneels next to her and kisses her on the cheek and as he leaves the stage, Anna distressingly calls out, “Frank?”

When Anna calls out for Frank, we see it for a split second.  She needs him.  She loves him.  The show ends with a ten-minute musical soliloquy where Anna, performed to perfection with overwhelming power and vulnerability by the great Mary Testa, relives her moment going over the fall.  Her life is ending, but she finally cracks open.  It is one of the greatest musical theater moments ever composed, looking deep into the spirit of this complicated woman.  In the final sequence, the other actors lead her to a throne, and adorn her with golden mementos of her life.  She is a queen, celebrated amongst her “family,” finally given her moment.  Frank’s hand firmly on her shoulder, connected.

The “great pause” of the last two years has given me a lot of time to assess many of my own relationships.  It has exposed some of the deep resentments I still cling to.  The righteous anger.  The inability to forgive because I’d rather be right.  It’s a plague on the soul.  And Anna had it as bad as anyone.  If you’re like me, you relate to Anna and her destructive ego.  Her blinding pride.  Her twisted need to be celebrated more than be a part of.  If you’re like me, all of these flaws are just hiding an intense fear of loneliness, of not being a part of this world in any real way.  And if you’re like me, you relate to Frank Russell, too.  To the missed chances to put those relationships most important to us back together.  To making terrible mistakes, that tragically never get resolved.  To hurting those whom we love the most.

I know this pandemic has been immensely hard on all of us.  But there was also a great gift in it for me.  I was forced to stop and reexamine my life, my mistakes, and where I hope my future lies.  Right before the pandemic shut down the world, I had been on tour with a show for a year and a half.  Away from my two-year-old son, who I couldn’t see nearly enough, and a marriage in trouble.  But when the pandemic hit, I was suddenly given an opportunity to be back with my family and take a hard look at myself, take ownership of my glaring deficiencies, and make amends for my hurtful actions.  To rebuild that trust.

It took (and still takes) a lot of work.  It’s messy, uncomfortable, sometimes painful, and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.  Except to say that as I come out “the other side,” as Frank sang, and open the barrel, there is light, and healing.

Anna came out the other side abandoned and angry.  And I would have been, too.  She never had a “great pause” to reassess those moments.  She held tight to the resentment, fear, and pride.  But she deeply wanted relief, I believe, and never found it.  Except…  In the final sung moment of the show, before her community takes her to her heavenly throne, Frank sings, “Breathe now, Anna.”  Anna responds:

I rise.
I reach.
I step.
I walk.
I bleed.
I ache.
I laugh.
I weep.
I breathe.
I glow.
I see.
I know:
That I must fall
That I may die;
That I must die
That I may live.
So I will fall
That I may die,
And I will die
That I may live.
So I will die
That I may live!

And here I am crying again.

About the author:

Andrew Samonsky was nominated for a Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Featured Actor in a Musical for his portrayal of Frank Russell in Transport Group’s Off-Broadway world premiere production of Michael John LaChuisa’s Queen of the Mist.  He appeared on Broadway as Lt. Cable in the Tony Award-winning revival of South Pacific, where he was also seen in the Live From Lincoln Center PBS broadcast.  Also on Broadway: Neville Landless in The Mystery of Edwin Drood and Kenneth Ormisten in Scandalous.  He most recently appeared as Kevin T. on the North American tour of Come From Away.  He also played Tadeusz Lempicki in the world premiere production of Lempicka at Williamstown Theater Festival where it became a NY Times Critic’s Pick.  He played Robert Kincaid in the national tour of The Bridges of Madison County.  He originated the role of Captain Phoebus in the American premiere of The Hunchback of Notre Dame at Paper Mill Playhouse and La Jolla Playhouse.  He appeared in the New York City Center Encores! productions of Fiorello! and Merrily We Roll Along.  He has originated roles in Benny & Joon (Benny, Old Globe), Somewhere in Time (Richard, Portland Center Stage), Tales of the City (Beauchamp, ACT), Little Miss Sunshine (Joshua, La Jolla Playhouse), and Disney’s On the Record (Nick, First National Tour).  Cast recordings include The Hunchback of Notre DameScandalousQueen of the Mist, On the Record, and Merrily We Roll Along.  He’s been a soloist with symphonies across the country, including the New York Philharmonic and Boston Pops.  His television and film credits include Madame SecretaryElementary, The Guiding LightThe Ceiling Fan, and The Secret Song.