When indie/folk singer Ingrid Michaelson heard Brittain Ashford sing “Sonya Alone,” sitting tableside at Broadway’s The Great Comet, the musical suddenly seemed to stop. “That song really got me,” says Michaelson. “It’s very stripped down to this song about selfless love of a dear friend, which I think is such a lovely sentiment. There aren’t a lot of songs specifically about that.”
The song struck Michaelson so strongly she immediately went home and learned it on the piano. “It just was haunting me,” she says. While she knew right away she wanted to step into Sonya’s shoes someday, she never thought it would happen so quickly. “I was like, ‘I don’t want to do it until November, I need six months to practice,’” but when Ashford decided to take a break from the show this summer, Michaelson was tapped to play Natasha’s cousin.
Making her Broadway debut in the show, Michaelson feels strongly about honoring Ashford and the 12-time Tony-nominated musical as a whole. “I feel a very large weight and responsibility to do right by this role because the people in this show—including Brittain Ashford—has put so much of their life and their time into this,” she says. “Here I am coming in, the new kid on the block.”
But as the new kid, Michaelson brings a fresh perspective to the role. “She’s goofier,” Michaelson says of her take. “She’s funny, she really wants Marya’s approval. ‘The Prologue’ boils it all down to ‘Sonya is good,’ and [director] Rachel [Chavkin] said, ‘When we say ‘Sonya is good,’ we really mean ‘Sonya is honest.’”
That nuance opened up the character for Michaelson. “She’s 17 years old and she likes boys and she is a kid who wants to have fun, but she’s a truthful person,” says Michaelson. “She believes in honesty above everything else, but that doesn’t mean she’s a goody two shoes.”
In fact, there’s a little sly sass to Michaelson’s Sonya. “I look at Grace [McClean who plays Marya] during certain numbers and I try and mimic what she’s doing to impress her, but at the same time when she leaves the room I’m going to make fun of her because she has a stick up her butt.”
Michaelson also recognizes her pivotal role as the conduit for the audience’s reaction to Natasha’s fickle feelings for her betrothed and her sudden lust for playboy Anatole. “It’s infuriating when you’re watching the show and Natasha’s like, ‘I’m in love with him!’ and you’re like ‘You’re not in love with him! What are you, crazy?’” she exclaims. “Sonya gets to say that and that’s very cathartic.”
For the five-week stint, Michaelson is enjoying brushing up on her dormant acting skills. Great Comet may be Michaelson’s Broadway debut, but she grew up a theatre kid, taught theatre, and has close ties to the Broadway community through longtime boyfriend Will Chase. Still, there are things you can’t learn, you must simply do. “You can’t be taught to trust yourself,” she says. “I learned all the music, I learned the blocking, I learned the choreography, I practiced it to death… [but] the idea of trusting yourself and letting yourself have fun and explore is something I don’t think you can really be taught.”