Meet the Eccentric and Clever Creatives of Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812

Special Features   Meet the Eccentric and Clever Creatives of Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812
 
The team behind the unconventional new musical, including creator Dave Malloy and director Rachel Chavkin, explains how they brought the world of 19th century Russia to Broadway.
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Creatives Monica Simoes

The acclaimed new immersive Broadway experience Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 was a long time in the making. It began in 2012 at Off-Broadway’s Ars Nova, which seated an audience of 99, and now it plays Broadway’s Imperial, housing over 1,000. To cross the Broadway finish line, though, creator Dave Malloy and director Rachel Chavkin enlisted the help of some of the most artsy and intelligent designers in New York City to transform the piece into the grandiose theatrical experiment it is today.

A few blocks from their Broadway home on 45th Street, the creatives congregated at the 53rd Street Russian Samovar, a vodka/piano bar, to chat in the venue’s Tolstoy Room.

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Dave Malloy Monica Simoes

Dave Malloy, creator (book, music, lyrics)
“It’s so different,” says Malloy on watching the show from the audience side—after originating the role of Pierre Off-Broadway. “It allowed me to completely activate my pure writer-composer-orchestrator mind. When I first stepped out—the first time my understudy went on and I was in the audience [during the run] in the Meatpacking District—I was so freaked out! But I very quickly got really, really used to it and both valued it as a tool as a writer and just started to love and embrace what all these other actors brought to this role. Pierre is such a complicated character…and I think what Josh [Groban] is doing with him right now is heartbreakingly beautiful. I think he’s tapping into this sensitive beautiful side of Pierre that I just don’t have the voice to do, so that’s been really incredible.

“I think when I played Pierre there was a meta-theatrical element to the writer-composer playing this character that kept him a little more active in the audience members’ mind, whereas when I stepped out of the show, it became more apparent to me that Pierre was too underdeveloped—that he’s actually absent for too much in Act I to make the payoff in Act II as big as it could be. So that’s something that I filed in the back of my mind once I stepped out and thought, ‘If we ever get back to this, maybe Pierre needs a little more meat, especially in Act I.’ Then, when we started talking to Josh, it was such an incredible opportunity—not only do I get to write a new song [‘Dust and Ashes’] for Pierre, but I get to write it for Josh Groban, for this voice that literally can do things that my voice never ever could. That was a huge gift that this transfer gave me as a writer. That song actually feels so essential to Pierre. It baffles me that we went so long without a song like that in the show, so it never felt shoehorned in at all. It felt organic and necessary.”

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Rachel Chavkin Monica Simoes

Rachel Chavkin, director
Directing the show, Chavkin says, is like creating “football plays. What our ensemble has to do in terms of coverage, in terms of distance that some of them run in a single number, is crazy. Sometimes, to make an entrance, they might leave out of Door D and have to come in Door K, which means going out and around, and up and down, and up again, and then someone meanwhile is running up to the mezz… We have a physical therapist on staff. I think some of the ladies wore a Fitbit during a show… Some people run like 60 stories over the course of a show.”

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Or Matias Monica Simoes

Or Matias, music director
“We’re working with probably three or four times the square-foot of any other natural show, just because we are using the entire space of the Imperial,” says Matias. “As you can imagine, it was no easy feat, and we pretty much spent the entire summer figuring out every little nook and cranny [concerning the show’s sound]. Some of our actors wear in-ear monitors, and some of them are positioned in a way that they can very strategically see me during certain moments. There’s that whole element of putting together the orchestra, which is also sitting in the stereophonic surround setting, so each player is kind of in his own nook—often dozens of feet away from me. So there is this element of: how do we make sure, between 30 onstage actors and roving musicians and seated musicians, that everybody hits the same downbeat and that every single person in the audience hears that same downbeat the same way? … We have an incredible music team.”

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Sonny Paladino Monica Simoes

Sonny Paladino, music supervision
“My job changes every day based on what needs to be done. Over this past summer, as we prepared to move to Broadway, I was mostly working with figuring out what the orchestration was going to be,” says Paladino. “But lately my job has been 100 percent just sitting in the house… Now, it all sounds pretty cohesive, but when we first got in that room, there were problematic sound issues in everywhere we sat.”

“Without a question,” he adds, the biggest challenge was “adding the element of the roving musicians and what that meant for the orchestrations, and how was that going to change. Dave Malloy really wanted it… He loved the original show, and the beauty has been taking that original Ars Nova show, which I saw, and first bring it to a tent, then bringing it to the A.R.T. in Boston, and then bringing it to this enormous theatre. And one of the coolest aspects of the show was that wherever you were sitting, there was a musician somewhere nearby, whether or not you were seated next to the clarinet or the three-string players or the oboe player or the piano, etc., you were never too far away from that, so we wanted to make sure we continue that experience in every seat of the theatre.”

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Sam Pinkleton Monica Simoes

Sam Pinkleton, choreographer
“I’m the world’s least qualified choreographer,” Pinkleton admits. “I don’t know how to point my feet! I grew up in the South, and it’s super confusing how I got into the arts because I’m not surrounded by any of it, but I was just a little gay kid who listened to cast albums. I came to New York to be a chorus boy and immediately realized what a terrible idea that was and was lucky enough to be at NYU, and went to study directing and very much thought of myself as a director… I just started choreographing things, I think, because I was the person with the most energy in the room. I jumped around a lot, and I wore a lot of sweatpants, and I super fell in love with it. A few signs from the universe told me that I was decent at it. Because I was never a dancer, ever—and I don’t think of myself as a concert dance maker, I think of myself as a theatre maker—what I do and how I do it, and how anything moved totally depends show to show.”

For this show, “It’s not like we could rehearse in the theatre for a year, so we had to prepare every inch of it in a [rehearsal] room that the show doesn’t fit in [and] tell the cast, ‘Please have confidence in us. We got you. We figured this out,’ and cross our fingers that when we walked into the theatre, it would actually transfer because we were truly working in the abstract for like a month. You would be like standing in a corner up against a closet, marking choreography, and then [we’d say], ‘Hey, where are you right now?’ and they’d be like, ‘I’m in the rear mezzanine.’”

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Mimi Lien Monica Simoes

Mimi Lien, set design
Going to school for Set Design at New York University, “I was interested in conceptual architecture,” says Lien. “I basically wanted to still keep doing the fun stuff; I think of set design as fictional architecture.”

With Comet, “I started basically with a ground plan of the space,” she continues, “and I kind of always start, particularly with this show, with these pencil sketches, where I just draw these curvy shapes. It’s almost like drawing a Baroque ornament. I looked at a lot of architectural detail, and there are these kind of curlicues. I draw these lines and shapes over the ground plan of the theatre, and once I get to something that I find pleasing, I start to turn those into pathways and give them three-and-a-half-foot wide platforms, making it real basically.”

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Bradley King Monica Simoes

Bradley King, lighting design
“Honestly, we worked out a lot of the challenges in Boston, which is why the A.R.T. production was so critical to making the Broadway version work. In some ways it was a lot easier than the tent production because I wasn’t limited by like a nine-foot ceiling anymore, but probably, too, the biggest challenges were making sure that people in the orchestra—especially underneath the mezzanine—got the same experience that those folks in the mezzanine would have,” says King. “I have a two-year-old as well. … She came to visit a tech rehearsal a couple weeks ago, which was so adorable. She sat next to me at the tech table [with her toy] zebra and was great for ten minutes. [Then] she got a little a bit bored, and then the entire theatre knew she had gotten bored!”

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Nicholas Pope Monica Simoes

Nicholas Pope, sound design
“This is most certainly one of the largest, most challenging pieces I’ve ever run into as far as sound design is concerned,” Pope admits. “I think sound designers, in particular, have the opportunity to drive the emotion of the piece more so than other disciplines. One of the things that I always key off of in doing the sound design is the emotional state of the actors’ characters at the time, and ensuring that anything that I’m doing is representative of that. Oftentimes, the music is the starting point for that, but the manipulation of the aural space can really heighten that in a way that is not necessarily directly perceived by the audience, but when it’s done well I think can be really crucial to the piece.”

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Paloma Young Monica Simoes

Paloma Young, costume design
“I’ve been with it since Ars Nova,” says Young. “Actually, I got called in to have an interview with Rachel Chavkin. I hadn’t worked with her before, nor had I worked at Ars Nova before. I had just been nominated for a Tony Award [for Peter and the Starcatcher], so it was in the middle of awards season, and I was totally exhausted, and I had also just moved, so I didn’t really have a functional portfolio. I was sort of digging around in boxes and throwing [something] together… I listened to the demos, which were all sung by Dave Malloy, including the women’s parts, so I had a very strange, hazy conception of the show. I went into the interview, and I was showing examples of my work that were directly from the Regency period, and Rachel is talking about how she really wanted the show principals to be in period costumes. I just kept talking on and on about how I never actually done a show in the 1912 period, and I walked out of the interview and I realized I had been saying 1912 instead of 1812 because I was just totally tired, and I was like, ‘That is the worst interview I have ever had,’ and then I got the job.”

She adds, “When we moved to Kazino, we introduced an ensemble. It was very much an ensemble piece, even though the story centers around Natasha and Pierre, and their sort of swirling apart in different realms until they meet at the end of the show, but we didn’t have a chorus of any kind, so when we went to the tent, we got six chorus members, and they did serve as this sort of Greek Chorus. They were amplifying the messages that were being sung by the principals, which is a lot of internal thoughts and feelings, and then sometimes also telling the audience what else is going on, and that really allowed us to expand some of the anachronism that we had at Ars Nova and how important that is to the design.”

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