Both stars of Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 will make their Broadway debuts come October 18, 2016, when the show begins previews at the Imperial Theatre. One is a two-time Grammy nominee and a multi-platinum recording artist; the other is a 24-year-old fresh-faced actress named Denée Benton.
The actress, who played Natasha when Dave Malloy’s critically acclaimed electropop opera took on a new life at Boston’s American Repertory Theater this past winter, has been chosen to reprise her performance for Broadway opposite Josh Groban as Pierre when it bows in October of this year.
The opportunity is “the understatement of the century,” she said on the Tony Awards red carpet, the day after her first rehearsal with Groban for the Broadway production. “I am overwhelmed. I break into tears when I think about it too much because I’m so happy.”
Before Broadway, Benton attended high school at Trinity Preparatory School in Winter Park, FL, and graduated from Carnegie Mellon University in 2014. She then starred as Nabulungi in The Book of Mormon in the West End and its U.S. national tour. But, she first caught the theatre bug much earlier, she explained.
“I was first bitten definitely when I was a child, just sort of singing in church and things,” she said. “Some fun facts: When I was in middle school, I was a part of this girl group that we created called Vanilla, Chocolate and Caramel Swirl. We performed and were very famous in my cafeteria! … My parents brought me [to New York City] in the seventh grade to see Wicked, and I cried the entire time, and I was like, ‘I’ll be back if it’s the last thing I do!’”
Fate worked in her favor, and Benton is back rather quickly. When it was announced that the Off-Broadway production of Natasha, Pierre would go out of town to rework and test new staging—transforming from an immersive supper club-style venue to a more traditional setting with a proscenium stage—its original Natasha had other plans. Phillipa Soo, the breakout star from the Off-Broadway production, was preparing to make her Broadway debut as Eliza Hamilton in the smash theatrical endeavor of the decade, Hamilton. Benton was then brought on.
“I came on board at the A.R.T. for that rendition of figuring out how to fit it into the proscenium-style space. That was back in the wintertime of 2015,” she said, explaining that she didn’t even have time to see the show in its original incarnation. “I was rehearsing for Book of Mormon when they just moved down to the tent [in Times Square], and I couldn’t get a ticket, so I’m happy that I can get a ticket now!”
Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 tested its wings at the New York City developmental space Ars Nova in 2012 and, in May 2013, transferred to a custom pop-up venue in the Meatpacking District named Kazino. Kazino then moved uptown to Times Square in September 2013, where the show played through March 2, 2014. It was speculated that the show would eventually play Broadway, but without a space to set it in the round, it had to be reshaped.
“The space is completely transformed,” Benton explained. “It’s not going to be like any theatre space that you’re used to seeing—in a very exciting way—because they really reconstructed it to make it work [without losing the] essence that people were so excited about: feeling like you were in the middle of this Russian nightclub and [the action was] happening all around you. Mimi [Lien], the set designer, is a genius, and I think it’s really successful. We’ve gotten to see some renderings, and it’s pretty special.”
She said she’s most exited to “tell this story. Natasha is a dream role, and the cast is so diverse. People of color getting to really play roles that haven’t necessarily been provided for us…and to be a part of a show that is so special in its own right, written by Dave. I think it’s just going to be an incredible time.”
As for working alongside Groban, “We had our first rehearsal yesterday,” she said. “He’s been learning all of the score, and it was incredible. He’s so gracious, and it’s hard to keep acting when he starts singing because I’m like, ‘Is that really happening?’”
Watch Benton sing from the show at this year’s BroadwayCon below.
Michael Gioia is the Features Manager at Playbill.com. Follow him on Twitter at @PlaybillMichael.