The highly charged theatrical experience that is Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 begins the moment you step inside the dramatically transformed Imperial Theatre.
The first five orchestra rows have disappeared and small round tables with lamps have sprouted among the seats; the stage is reconfigured to accommodate cabaret-style seating. The playing area is everywhere: on curved elevated ramps and stairs that wind throughout the orchestra and mezzanine, raised platforms at the back of the theatre, and an oval disk in the center. Clusters of starburst chandeliers hang low from the ceiling, galleries of 19th century paintings adorn the walls, and lush red velvet drapes surround you. For the next two and a half hours, both the audience and the performers will be immersed in a Russian-accented salon that seems to effortlessly time-travel between two centuries.
“What I want most is for the audience to have as visceral an experience as possible,” says director Rachel Chavkin. “I want the place to be palpable under the skin. So creating the world of the play and then putting the audience inside that world is a very clear avenue to achieving that goal.”
Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 is the brainchild of Dave Malloy, who took a 70-page fillet from Leo Tolstoy’s epic Russian literary masterpiece War and Peace and turned it into an electro-pop musical. Writing the music, lyrics, and book, Malloy focuses on two parallel stories: the near-calamitous tale of the young, ravishing debutante Natasha (Denée Benton), who falls helplessly in love with a licentious bounder, the dashing Anatole (Lucas Steele), interspersed with the story of Pierre, a schlubby intellectual who is stumbling toward a path of spiritual and emotional fulfilment (played by the multiplatinum recording artist Josh Groban).
Even before he started writing the musical, Malloy had discussed with Chavkin his dream of re-creating a very special experience that he’d had in Moscow. “We were working together on a show up at Vassar College in 2009 and Dave talked about this night when he stumbled into the Café Margarita, where there were these people eating dumplings, drinking vodka, and listening to a pop string trio,” the director recalls. “He found himself sitting at a table right next to the trio and ended up having this intimate relationship with the viola player. He loved it.”
“That was actually the core idea —being inside this Russian café, and the idea of spreading the musicians throughout the room,” Chavkin explains. “And once you take the leap of breaking up where your band is, a series of decisions flow from there: Maybe there’s no stage; then maybe you use the whole room. From there, I thought about what the place actually needed to feel like in order to tell this story. There were two main things. One was opulence. This is an aristocratic society and Tolstoy is very much critiquing that society and their hypocrisy, so it needed to feel rich. There also needed to be a blend of period and contemporary. I felt very strongly that we had to meet the characters on their own terms, which is the period element, and then Dave’s music has this incredibly contemporary element to it with the electronica, so we really needed to be able to do both things.”
At age 35, Chavkin is making quite a splashy debut on Broadway (as indeed are Malloy and most of the talented cast, including Groban). She credits the world of experimental theater with shaping her particular aesthetic. She made her mark directing several acclaimed Off-Broadway productions, including the recent Small Mouth Sounds, which takes place at a healing retreat where the participants mostly observe a rule of silence — the polar opposite of The Great Comet. Chavkin reports that since age 18 she has spent her professional life watching masters of experimental performance style — particularly the avant garde Wooster Group and Elevator Repair Service. “Both those groups take the work seriously but they don’t take themselves too seriously. I find a real matter-of-fact quality in the performance style that is absolutely present in The Great Comet as well,” she notes.
“If you are doing something, you really do it,” the director continues. “In our show, our cast is really running all over the space, creating this incredible energy of exhilaration. At the same time, there’s an acknowledgment that it is a performance. There is a really pleasurable tension between someone saying they are doing something and what they are actually doing,” she says. “One of my favorite moments is when Pierre says, ‘I put my fur coat on my shoulders unable to find the sleeve,’ while he’s putting his arms into a coat. You get the emotional vibe of what that character is going through and the feeling of wonder and dreaminess he’s experienced after his encounter with Natasha, but it doesn’t have to be a literal representation of that.”
Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 first exploded Off-Broadway in the fall of 2012 in the intimate shoebox space at the Ars Nova theatre. It subsequently transferred to two separate pop-up tent spaces in Manhattan the following year, retaining the same immersive dinner-cabaret theater vibe evoked by set designer Mimi Lien in the original. When the show landed at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in December 2015, the creative team reworked the production for the more traditional space and then expanded it further for its Broadway debut at the Imperial Theatre last November. However, the “basic DNA of the show,” as Chavkin puts it, never changed. “But it has just gotten bigger and fancier in every way,” she adds.
While the original production featured just a cast of 10 principals, Chavkin reports that they added a 14-member ensemble for ART, making a total of 24 performers on stage. For Broadway, they increased the ensemble to 20, which choreographer Sam Pinkleton showcases in the big dance number that takes place during the attempted abduction of Natasha in the middle of Act Two. Chavkin is clearly in her element when the action is at its zaniest. “I love it when it feels like it could almost spin off its axis at any moment,” she says enthusiastically.
Of course, the director has complete mastery of the controlled chaos that erupts inside the Imperial Theatre auditorium. “I think very often chaos can be approached like just sloppiness,” Chavkin continues. “This production is quite the opposite, in part because of the sightlines.“ She says that with the help of a team of five others, she spent a lot of time making sure that no member of the audience would lose out because of their vantage point. “It’s the same as staging in the round,” she explains. “You have to have somewhat constant motion, otherwise the audience behind the actor is only getting part of the story. We also wanted there to be an absolute democracy of access,” she adds. “So the people in the very rear get dumplings and get shakers. They get all the stuff that everyone in the more expensive seats in the orchestra receive.”
Beyond the whirling action, the partying and the absurdities of 19th century Moscow haute society that she and composer Malloy orchestrate with flair in Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812, Chavkin’s great hope is that audiences will also be touched by the plights of Natasha and Pierre. “At the end of day, I want them to take away the story of selfishness and grace,” she says. “I love that a woman is at its center, and I think what is most moving is that it is the story of a young woman who charges into this disastrous choice with her eyes open; Natasha is a very active party to her own destruction. And there are these few characters who end up being the quiet heroes of the show — Pierre and Natasha’s cousin Sonya — not because they are equipped but in fact because of the opposite. They are unfit for the task of saving someone and yet they take this leap. I just think that it is remarkably beautiful.”