Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812, an original musical composed by Dave Malloy based on a particularly scandalous section of War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, opened at the Imperial Theatre on November 14, 2016. The show takes place in Moscow, Russia and tells the story of young Natasha who is betrothed to Andre, a soldier who isn’t here and is off fighting in the war of 1812. I won’t spoil too much, but the plot is filled with love affairs, partying Russia style, and Pierre’s daily existential crisis as a lonely scholar and alcoholic stuck in a terrible marriage. There is no shortness of excitement and top line drama in this show, but what makes the show especially unique is the style and execution of the production. The entire production team took every risk they probably could have taken with a Broadway show. From the set design to Dave Malloy’s score, every inch of this show redefines what is possible for commercial theatre. This production is sure to be the most innovative musical currently on Broadway and here are some of the top reasons why:
1. The Set and Lighting Design
The design of the entire theatre, from the box office lobby to the iconic lighting fixtures hanging from the ceiling can all be attributed to Mimi Lien, the Tony Award Winner who did away with the traditional proscenium stage. Lien transformed the traditional Broadway Imperial Theatre into a fully immersive Russian club where the actors and musicians can intermingle within the audience. The stage is set up as a bar where audience members can sit amongst the pit where both the orchestra and Pierre reside for the entirety of the show. The remainder of the audience is seated in the traditional orchestra and mezzanine seating, however, there are platforms set up in each section where different parts of the ensemble migrate to throughout the show. One of the biggest moments of the major dance number, “The Abduction,” happens in the rear mezzanine so that the entire audience can be fully surrounded by the show. The mezzanines even have their own side tables and lamps!
The immersive experience of the set does not stop with the stage set-up. The set extends out into the box office lobby, which is designed to look like the concrete walls of modern-day punk rock Russia. This lobby is an indicator to the audience that what they are about to experience is not what they may be expecting.This show is a colliding of historical eras and cultures of Russia and the set evokes both of these at once. The remainder of the theatre is covered in red velvet with Russian paintings and lighting fixtures shaped like comets hanging from the ceiling. The Tony-Winning lighting design by Bradley King makes use of the fixtures and individual light bulbs to help tell the story in an eye-catching and innovative way that captures the spirit of the ever present comet. This is truly a set like no one has ever seen on the commercial stage and it compliments every other aspect of the show.
2. Diverse casting
Aside from the fact that the entire cast is incredibly talented, most of them making their Broadway debuts, this is also one of the most diverse casts in a musical currently on Broadway. The roles in the show are not restricted to one single race and the show has been committed to providing opportunities to actors of color. The first replacement for the role of Pierre after the leaving of Josh Groban is Okieriete “Oak” Onaodowan, who originated the roles of Hercules Mulligan and James Madison in Hamilton. With Denèe Benton continuing to head the show as the princess Natasha, this leaves Comet with two leading black actors and an ensemble to reflect this diversity. The show has been paving way to put actors of color on the Broadway stage, something we unfortunately don’t see very often.
3. Audience participation
The immersive experience of Comet does not stop at the set design. The audience is given pierogies at the beginning of the show so that they can really feel like they are in Russia and they are also given egg shakers during the big ensemble dance numbers of the show. The ensemble fills the audience during these numbers and encourages the audience to play along with them using their shakers. With the ensemble dancing and playing their instruments throughout the crowd and the audience playing their shakers, it feels as if we are part of the party too. The show creates a party atmosphere and the audience is invited to party along. Members of the audience sitting on or around the stage are also given love letters during the opening number of act two, “Letters.” The letters are often pick-up lines and doodles written by the cast members. One of the ensemble members, Heath, started an Instagram account for his letters, which can be found @feeltheheath. The company also often hosts pick-up line contests on their social media accounts where fans can submit their own ideas for the letters. One special audience member is pulled up on stage during the number and is instructed to give one of the letters to a cast member on stage (I won’t say which one to avoid spoilers). Alongside all of this, the actors interact directly with audience members throughout the show, making them characters themselves. If there is any way at all to include the audience, this show does it.
4. The ensemble
The cast of Comet, including the principal roles, creates an ensemble quite like any other. Each member of the ensemble plays their own instrument while they run and dance up and down the stairs of the Imperial, which has been said in interviews to be quite a workout. If you follow any of these ensemble members on social media, aside from just seeing their performances, you know that these are all highly dedicated and probably the most hard working ensemble on Broadway. The cast received the Actor’s Equity Association Advisory Committee on Chorus Affairs (ACCA) award for Outstanding Broadway Chorus which just goes to show how incredible this cast is. It is evident how well they all work as a team and you can really see how much fun they all have in this long, exhausting, high energy production. The understudies and swings are no exception and rise to the level of performance when filling in for lead actors, not that it was ever expected that they wouldn’t be. Finally, the conductor is involved in the action of the show, sitting in the center pit of the stage. Whoever is conducting is always highly involved in the show and always shares a special section of “The Abduction” with Pierre and the two duel play the piano. The whole team is magnetic and nothing less than a joy to watch.
5. The music
Finally, one of the most important elements of the show as a whole: the music. The electropop opera score was composed by Dave Malloy who combines the styles of traditional Russian opera with modern Electronic Dance Music (or EDM). Malloy’s score makes use of both the accordion, which is played by Pierre himself, and synthesizers. He writes using complicated dissonant chords and styles that reflect what is happening in the play along with the relationships between characters. In one particular moment, Natasha meets the sister of her fiance for the first time, and because of the mutual dislike between the two, they sing clashing dissonant chords, ones that are difficult to listen to, but brilliant considering the circumstances of the plot. Along with the entire production being sung, aside from one specific moment, which I won’t spoil, there is one more catch: none of the lyrics rhyme. Upon first listen, this may not be noticeable, but after reading the lyrics, it is evident that Malloy is doing something that no one else is. His innovative style is fully attributed to him and sounds like nothing that has ever been put on Broadway. The vocal styles of the actors also compliment his style, with the wide array of voices such as Brittain Ashford and Gelsey Bell with their folk-styled voices and Amber Gray with her raspy jazz voice and unbelievably charming performance. This show and Malloy’s music are making room for singers and actors who don’t have a traditional Broadway belt voice, which is exciting all around.