The long-buzzed about Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812 opened at Broadway’s Imperial Theatre November 14 after previous runs in October 2012 at Ars Nova, a 2013 Off-Broadway run in a pop-up tent known as Kazino in the Meatpacking District, and then a transfer of the tent to Midtown later that year.
Playbill met the cast and creative team of this musical adaptation of Volume 2 Part 5 of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace on the after party red carpet at the Plaza Hotel in New York City. With 19 Broadway debuts in the cast, a Broadway directorial debut for Rachel Chavkin, a Broadway debut for composer/writer/lyricist Dave Malloy, and more, it was a night to remember.
Fox TV's Gotham stars Robin Lloyd Taylor and Cory Michael Smith arrived early after enjoying the show from the audience. Dance captain Paloma Garcia-Lee told Playbill (24:00) that the key to nailing Sam Pinkleton’s choreography is “committing like you’ve never committed to anything before. This is extraordinary dance.” Pinkleton joined later (49:00), wearing a comet pin his mother gifted him in honor of opening night. “I have loved this show since I was an audience member at Ars Nova,” said Pinkleton. “To sit there tonight and think that I could be a small part of that is brilliant.” Pinkleton discussed his vision for the movement and the specific inspiration behind the incredible party of a number, “Balaga.”
Pinkleton’s choreography had to work in the completely renovated space of the Imperial, designed by Mimi Lien, and in the costumes of Paloma Young. Both designers joined the livestream (26:30) to reveal the secrets behind their vision. “The whole idea has been to create a total environment that the entire audience is in, so I used very similar tools that I have in previous spaces and we just kind of had to expand that to fill this space,” said Lien. Draped in plush red curtains and framed paintings, Lien transformed the Imperial Theatre into a Russian vodka den and gave clues about the hidden-in-plain-sight treasures to look out for—including a corner of Leo Tolstoy portraits (house right) and a photograph of Audrey Hepburn in the movie version of War and Peace. See if you can find it when you go.
Young shared how she found her way in to dressing the company of this contemporary opera, putting the principals in pieces that are a bit more period and using elements of Russian folk and more in the ensemble to capture the undercurrent of war and anxiety.
Creator and Great Comet mastermind Dave Malloy answered (31:00) what must be on everyone’s mind: Why War and Peace? “It was very much when I read the novel for the first time, this section immediately stood out to me as being a perfect musical,” said Malloy. For those who have heard the previous cast recording, Malloy’s music is far from classical musical theatre, more of a blending of genres and sounds and embracing the natural voices of each of his actors. “That was very much part of the original casting of the show, I wanted to cast non-musical theatre voices,” he said. ”Tolstoy, too, is obsessed with all of humanity and telling these stories that are about the troika drivers and the peasants, but also the Czar. ... To have singers who are indie rock singers or jazz singers or cabaret singers was very important to us, to have a mishmash of voices.”
Malloy and Chavkin aren't taking any breaks—they’re already working on a musical adaptation of another classic text: Moby Dick (34:00). And yes, the whale will sing...in Act IV.
Not to miss is Malloy’s advice to young composers (36:00) and the revelation that the show is based on an actual café, Café Margarita, in Moscow.
SEE PHOTOS FROM OPENING NIGHT:
Phillipa Soo, John Cameron Mitchell, and More at The Great Comet Opening Night
Lighting designer Bradley King entered the spotlight (38:00) for a change to answer questions about how he lit this 360-degree experience. King experienced the show from 26 different seats to make sure that the show would work from any seat in the house with lights “in every square foot of the theatre.” King has been with the production since Ars Nova and talked about what it’s been like to work on the production in all of its iterations. In fact, his favorite moments are “‘No One Else,’ which is Natasha’s big solo, because you've been sitting in this red/gold world for 25 minutes and she sings to the moon and it's the very first time you see blue light in the room, and it's really stunning; I love ‘The Ball,’ I love Sam Pinkleton's choreography, and I love how the lightbulbs are sort of dancing all around; and then I think the finale is always going to be my favorite.”
Members of the company continued to pour in. Music director/conductor Or Matias (45:00) talked about conducting the band; Amber Gray, who plays Hélène, (52:00) talked about the surprising physical challenges of singing “Charming,” before ensemblist Josh Canfield and Pierre standby Scott Stangland (54:00) joined her to talk about interacting with the audience night after night. Members of the male ensemble Alex Gibson, Azudi Onyejekwe, Ken Clark, and Andrew Mayer stopped by to say hello (56:45) before Brittain Ashford, who plays Sonya (59:20), talked about her musical influences. Lucille Lortel winner Lucas Steele, who plays Anatole, joined (1:01:00) to talk about his crazy vocal technique.
Ensemblist Nick Gaswirth talked about keeping the show fresh, not just for eight shows a week, but for years as it's been developing (1:05:00) and the audience reaction from opening night. Gelsey Bell explained how she produces the crazy vocal fry healthfully as the Opera Singer (1:07:00); her advice is invaluable for any vocal performer. Nick Choksi, who plays Dolokhov, (1:10) revealed what character he’d like to play if not his own.
Grammy nominee Josh Groban, who makes his Broadway debut as Pierre, stepped onscreen (1:14:00) and talked about his debut, the rehearsal process, and what it’s like to work on Broadway.
“I was there just to experience great theatre and I left as a complete fan, I did not actually think at that point that this would be a thing I would join,” Groban said of seeing Great Comet in the tent at Kazino. Last year, Groban released Stages, an album of Broadway tunes, and he told Playbill what songs he would consider if he ever made a sequel album (1:17:00) and the new record he’s currently working on.
Grace McLean, who plays Marya D., talked about how Great Comet changed the course of her life (1:20:00) before Natasha herself, Denée Benton (1:25:00) closed out the night. Television audiences may recognize the Broadway newcomer as Ruby on Season 2 of Lifetime’s UnREAL. “Ruby and Natasha find themselves in similar situations,” she said. “I think Ruby would just tell her that everything is going to be OK. Make that mistake ... and embrace it.”
Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 plays at Broadway’s Imperial Theatre, starring Denée Benton and Josh Groban. Tickets are available via Telecharge.com or at the box office.
The cast also features Brittain Ashford as Sonya, Gelsey Bell as Princess Mary, Nicholas Belton as Bolkonsky/Andrey, Nick Choksi as Dolokhov, Amber Gray as Hélène, Grace McLean as Marya D, Paul Pinto as Balaga, Scott Stangland as Pierre (standby), and Lucas Steele as Anatole. The ensemble includes Sumayya Ali, Courtney Bassett, Josh Canfield, Ken Clark, Erica Dorfler, Lulu Fall, Ashley Pérez Flanagan, Paloma Garcia-Lee, Nick Gaswirth, Alex Gibson, Billy Joe Kiessling, Mary Spencer Knapp, Reed Luplau, Brandt Martinez, Andrew Mayer, Azudi Onyejekwe, Pearl Rhein, Heath Saunders, Ani Taj, Cathryn Wake, Katrina Yaukey, and Lauren Zakrin.
The new musical features choreography by Sam Pinkleton, set design by Mimi Lien, costume design by Tony Award winner Paloma Young, lighting design by Bradley King, sound design by Nicholas Pope, music supervision by Sonny Paladino, musical direction by Or Matias, casting by Stewart/Whitley, and production stage management by Karyn Meek.
The Broadway production is produced by Howard & Janet Kagan and Paula Marie Black.