If you’ve scored seats in what was the stage area of the Imperial Theatre, where Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 is running, be prepared to negotiate a daunting catwalk in and around the backstage of the sprawling show. It isn’t necessary, this semi-arduous detour – you could just come in with the rest of the crowd – but it is part of the plan by director Rachel Chavkin and her set designer, Mimi Lien, to separate you from the mundane world outside. The set is no less than a total transformation of the auditorium into a gilded and glittering evocation of Moscovian opulence, to provide a framework for composer-lyricist Dave Malloy’s slice of Tolstoy, a chapter from War and Peace that describes a juicy doomed romance among the Russian aristocracy.
Brass-and-crystal chandeliers like the ones at the Metropolitan Opera dangle throughout. An actors’ runway snakes through the audience, and the minimal actual stage is surrounded by audience members in banquets or at night-club tables. Over the course of the evening, they will be fed pierogies in brown cardboard containers while suggestively costumed and made-up members of the troupe cavort, hustle and generally get up-close and personal. Somewhere in the middle of it all, star singer Josh Groban, plumped in a fat suit and sullen with depression, hoists an accordion and roars out a few tunes as Pierre, while Denée Benton, youthfully hormonal and poured into Paloma Young’s sleek gowns, flits sinuously through her ill-fated romance with the incorrigible rake Anatole, played with rock-star intensity by Lucas Steele.
All of these folks are nominated for Tony Awards; the musical picked up 12 nominations in all, the most of any show this season. It’s a remarkable culmination of a process that began in 2011, when Malloy first shared with Chavkin the pieces that would provide the framework for the show. Also shared was his experience at Moscow’s Café Margarita, where, as Chavkin describes it, the classical musicians “were spread throughout the room and everyone had vodka and dumplings, and [egg-shaped percussion] shakers on the table.” The Great Comet had its premiere in the handkerchief-size space of the invaluable developmental company Ars Nova and then moved to a big tent in the Meatpacking District, where patrons had the option of ordering a full Russian-style dinner and getting blazed on vodka throughout the show. It was further developed at the American Repertory Theatre, in Cambridge, MA and in another tent, this time in the Theater District, before settling in at the Imperial (could there be a more appropriately named house?) in a $12 million production that involved considerable alteration of the theater’s interior. Not since Cats has a musical been so powerfully identified as much with its setting as with its characters and score.
I spoke with Chavkin a few days ago about the show and her work as director.
Deadline: From the moment you enter the Imperial, everything is working to disconnect you from a conventional Broadway theater experience.
Rachel Chavkin: I knew Dave’s music, this was our third project together. He is drawing on so many traditions, from his initial background in jazz to classical snobbery to indie rock and experimental, composition both classical and contemporary. All of that is there. Mimi talks abut the set as the “delivery system” from the performers to the audience. We can’t talk about traffic patterns separate from talking about how audience gets into the space, which at the Imperial is through this thing we call the bunker. And then actor traffic, in terms of how actors are entering and exiting the space, where quick changes are happening, all of those logistics had to be talked about in the same breath as the aesthetics of the red curtains.
One of the things I love most about working with Dave – and it has to do with our coming out of the experimental theater – is his thinking outside of the box. He had this incredibly ecstatic musician experience at Café Margarita, of hearing one instrument in his ear while another was being heard from across the room. All of that was part of the initial conversation we had. But the opulence, all the aesthetics of the room, what the room culturally needed to be beyond this community, that was where Mimi and I picked up the ball and ran with it. It’s deeply collaborative at its core.
Deadline: I just saw it for the third time, in this case up in the playing area. I had to crane my neck to see some of the action, and there were other parts I only heard but couldn’t see.
Chavkin: I think everyone can tell immediately that they are seeing stuff that no one else sees. That makes up for the feeling that “I can’t see everything.”
Deadline: How much of your background is in music?
Chavkin: Zero! I’ve always been the person whose best friend is a musician or is music-obsessed, so I always leeched off them. I grew up playing soccer in DC but my parents, especially my dad, are huge lovers of theater, so I was taken to everything. I remember being eight or nine, seeing Sting in Threepenny Opera. I don’t remember Sting but I remember Mr. Peachum dropped his watch and another actor picked it up, and my dad leaned over and whispered That was not supposed to happen. I still remember having my mind blown by that moment of chaos and the fact that they just dealt with it.
Deadline: In the pre-Broadway productions, Natasha was played by Phillipa Soo, a daughter of Chinese and caucasian parents, who later joined the cast of Hamilton. On Broadway, Natasha is played by Denée Benton, who is African-American. Was race ever an issue in casting the show?
Chavkin: I’m very happy to say it wasn’t. Internally – and this emanates from Dave and me, but it’s a value shared by everyone on the team – there is a commitment to color-conscious casting, to ensuring diversity at all levels. I’ve been acutely aware of my own failings to ensure always diverse creative teams, and that’s something I’m beginning to be more conscious of in my career.
‘[T]he idea that our cast would be representative of a small sliver or portion of the faces that make up this country would be more boring and also not truthful, not honest, not as large as the book is. It’s War and Peace! If a show is not about race, then I don’t think there’s an excuse any more for having an all-white company.’
With this piece particularly, it’s so important to us. Tolstoy is writing about every aspect of society, and so the idea that our cast would be representative of a small sliver or portion of the faces that make up this country would be more boring and also not truthful, not honest, not as large as the book is. It’s War and Peace! If a show is not about race, then I don’t think there’s an excuse any more for having an all-white company.
Deadline: And can you tell us more about Denée?
Chavkin: That’s the other half of it. Denée was just the best person for the role. We saw hundreds of actresses, and 80 per cent get knocked out just because of the vocal demands of Natasha, which are profound and were only made more extreme because Phillipa Soo, her voice is just unreal – as beautiful as she is spiritually, she also has this unbelievable technical prowess. Denée had this unmatched grace and sense of self and intelligence and spine that illuminated things we had never seen in Natasha before in terms of the layers of war between adolescence and womanhood. We in no way cast Denée because she is African-American, we cast her because she was the best for the role.
Deadline: Not all of your colleagues share that commitment to what you call color-conscious casting, which is a better term than “non-traditional” or “color-blind.” Where does this vision of the theater come from?
Chavkin: My parents are both civil rights lawyers. I grew up on stories of the civil rights movement. I love the world. I love living in it. Either you are interested in living in a more socially just world, or you’re not. At the end of the day, all of the decisions you make – which include casting and hiring of directors – either you’re ensuring parity in those decisions or you’re not. I think that opportunity gap is a big part of why it’s slower to change than I would certainly like.
The Tony Awards will be telecast live by CBS June 11, beginning at 8 PM New York time.