64 Years Before Great Comet’s Director Tore Down Walls at the Imperial Theatre, Her Great-Great Uncle Did the Same Thing

Special Features   64 Years Before Great Comet’s Director Tore Down Walls at the Imperial Theatre, Her Great-Great Uncle Did the Same Thing
 
As the revolutionary musical closes, we look back at the ancestral legacy of Tony-nominated director Rachel Chavkin and its ties to groundbreaking theatre.

After a five-year journey from Ars Nova to the tent at Kazino to Boston to Broadway, the most Tony nominated show of the 2016–2017 season, Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812, closes September 3. The show took home two Tony Awards, one for Lighting Design of a Musical and the other for Scenic Design of a Musical. The production was a technical feat of gigantic proportions, including the physical renovations of the Imperial Theatre. Great Comet’s visionary director conceived of the show nestled in the swaddle of a Russian vodka den and tore down walls and broke ground to do it. Turns out, she was not the first in the business to do this to the Imperial, nor the first in her family. Great Comet’s associate director Sammi Canold shares the history behind the theatre.

On June 25, 1952, master carpenter Abe Kurnit made his Broadway debut when he opened a new musical at the Imperial Theatre. Sixty-four years later, his great-great-niece, director Rachel Chavkin, did the same upon opening the musical Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812, also at the Imperial. Cool, right? It gets better.

These two artists share more than genetics and a theater; in making their Broadway debuts, both artists broke ground quite literally. For Great Comet, Rachel and her team created an opulent 360-degree Russian supper club on the stage of the Imperial—for the musical Wish You Were Here, Abe and his team built a swimming pool.

Abe Kurnit_Wish You Were Here
The cast of WIsh You Were Here around the foundation of the swimming pool on the Imperial Stage in 1952 Greenstone & Co. Publishing

Rachel told me this story one day when we were in tech for the Broadway production of Great Comet, so I looked up Abe to find out more and then I couldn’t stop reading.

Abe’s story begins in 1937 when a writer named Arthur Kober penned a play called Having Wonderful Time about a summer camp for adults.

Years later, Kober and others adapted the play into a musical called Wish You Were Here, for which titan set designer Jo Mielziner designed a summer camp—complete with a fully functional swimming pool in the middle of the stage. Mielziner then brought on Abe Kurnit as master carpenter to engineer installing said pool. Each night on the stage of the Imperial, 12 actors swam in it.

When awards season rolled around, the show won two Tony Awards—one of them, the Tony for Best Stage Technician (a now defunct category used to recognize a range of artists including property masters, master electricians, and master carpenters from 1948 to 1963, sadly retired thereafter for unknown reasons), was awarded to Abe Kurnit.

Abe Kurnit_Wish You Were Here

A deep dive into the history of Wish You Were Here reveals a number of similarities to Great Comet.

To start, a Wish You Were Here souvenir program, produced by Greenstone and Co. Publishing in 1952, describes the show’s company as one that “...differ[ed] from all other Broadway casts in that the performers [were] talented in many fields. The locale being a summer resort, the players had to be...exceptionally good swimmers and divers [and] many of them had to be...more than average basketball players.”

The actors who perform Great Comet at the Imperial every night are similarly renaissance men and women. The best example of which is that 16 of them play musical instruments onstage at every performance.

My personal favorite similarity between these two musicals is that Wish You Were Here went on to have a touring production housed in a massive tent, not unlike the one in which Great Comet opened Off-Broadway.

Abe Kurnit_Wish You Were Here
A scene around the pool in Wish You Were Here Greenstone & Co Publishing

But perhaps most importantly, as far as similarities go, both shows exemplify extraordinary commitment on the part of a company onstage and off. The 1952 Greenstone program tells us that “Wish You Were Here demanded a far greater investment of time, talent, and energy than has ever before been seen in the theater, much more than the producers had contemplated when they set out on their ventures... Probably,” the writer said, “we shall never see its like again.”

As part of the creative team, Great Comet and many productions that preceded it are proof that writer was wrong. Wish You Were Here and Great Comet are two in a line of Broadway musicals that represent advancement, but Wish You Were Here was not the first and Great Comet will not be the last.

And that’s why I asked Rachel if we could share this story as we prepare to leave the Imperial. I asked because I’ve been thinking a lot about Great Comet’s legacy and how I’m concerned that it will be about casting controversies and Twitter fire-storms instead of about the show’s advancement of the art-form, not just in terms of physical existence, but in terms of musical vernacular, racially diverse casting, and the design, staging, marketing, financing, and managing of a Broadway musical in 360 degrees as well.

To me (and I’m admittedly quite biased, but...) what Rachel and her great-great uncle share—along with Dave Malloy, the other creators of Great Comet, and the other creators of Wish You Were Here—is the extraordinary achievement of having moved the needle in the development of the American musical.

Still, if we’re being honest, history has forgotten Abe. No one working on Broadway to whom I told this story knew of Wish You Were Here, no one knew about the swimming pool, and no one knew about Abe.

I found a single photo of Abe in a small folder housed in the basement the New York Public Library and started imagining someone shuffling through folders labeled “Great Comet” in 2082. Will they know about our show?

Perhaps it’s up to us. After all, how we remember a show depends on how we pass on the story, right? And to me, this story is not the story of a controversy and an untimely end—it’s the story of a show and a team that allowed us to expand the boundaries of what we believe commercial theatre to be and invited us into a world unlike any we’d ever been to. Great Comet will close today and that’s out of our hands, but how its legacy lives on is still ours to decide.

To read more about Abe Kurnit and Wish You Were Here, check out Kay Green’s Broadway Musicals, Show By Show or visit the New York Public Library for Performing Arts where you can find the original text, photographs, and news clippings.

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