Behind the Scenes of ‘Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812’

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Located in a custom-built venue on the West Side of Manhattan that doubles as an ornate Russian-style supper club, Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 is reinventing the musical — and Tolstoy — for the 21st century. Based on an excerpt from War and Peace, the show is an elaborate production that surrounds its audience in a fully immersive environment, complete with a tasty meal.

The response so far has been as ecstatic as the show deserves (we’re already desperately wondering when we can get our hands on a soundtrack), and after witnessing it for ourselves, we hastened to catch up with the people responsible for such a unique spectacle. Fortunately, writer, composer, and star Dave Malloy and director Rachel Chavkin were more than happy to provide some insight and reveal how something as stunning as this can come to life.

Phillipa Soo as Natasha. Photo by Chad Batka.

Flavorwire: How did the concept of the show originate, and what made it a reality?

Malloy: I read the book about six or seven years ago. I was working on a cruise ship, and my girlfriend and I were reading it at the same time; she was on land and I was at sea. And when I got to this particular section, it immediately hit me that the structure was like a musical. So I kind of tucked the idea into the back of my head, and in the intervening years, Rachel and I met, and we worked on a couple of shows together.

Chavkin: When we were doing our first show together in 2009, I asked Dave about dream projects, and he said that he had been wanting to adapt this section of War and Peace. So I went out and got the book and re-read it.

Malloy: And then Ars Nova commissioned me to do a piece. They had gotten to know my work through another piece called Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage , which was a rock opera based on Beowulf. I became their composer in residence, and part of their residency program is to commission a new work. So I rather sheepishly proposed an opera based on War and Peace, and they immediately said, “Yes! Sounds great.”

Lucas Steele as Anatole. Photo by Chad Batka.

How did the play evolve as you began to develop the production?

Malloy: Ars Nova is a great place to develop, because they give you a lot of workshop opportunities. So we did two workshops, one in the fall of 2011, and one in the spring of 2012. By the spring, I had almost all of the songs written. The prologue, the very first song, actually wasn’t originally in the show. Originally, the show just started with Pierre, but I always got this note from people at the workshops saying, “It took me a while to get into it. I couldn’t tell who was who.” And I got so sick of that note that I wrote that song out of spite. I was like, “I’m going to make it as clear as humanly possible who’s who” — and it ended up being one of the best songs in the show.

Chavkin: The cast ended up being incredibly game. With music, it’s a lot easier to learn lines than with play script, but they got off book for a huge portion during the workshops and we actually got to stage it. That enabled us to really experiment with the immersive set design. It became very clear that we had all these sightline issues, and how the in-the-round setup would actually function. So that was where we got the idea to create this raised bar that would trace through the room, allowing us to bring the action up.

Ensemble member Catherine Brookman. Photo by Chad Batka.

Malloy: Mimi Lien, our set designer, actually modeled it off drawings of comets. If you look at the ground plan from a bird’s-eye view, it was abstracted from the tail of a comet and the curves of that.

Did you always plan for the performance to be as immersive as it is?

Malloy: It was always intended to be staged with no stage, that the action would happen in the room. For me, some of my favorite nights of seeing theater or music are in environments like that. In San Francisco, I remember seeing a show in a junkyard once, and it was one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen. There was no stage; it was just a junkyard. Everyone was sitting wherever they could, and these two beat poets, basically, were just riffing off each other and climbing all over the place. It’s just so exciting to not have that division of, “I am the audience, and I am the performer” — to have everyone in the room together.

Chavkin: Dave and I both come from more experimental and more downtown backgrounds, and it’s such a value there. The idea of the presence of the personality of the actor, as much as whatever character they’re playing. So that was a big thing from the start — the idea that there would be a really thin veil between the actor as a human next to the audience member as a human, and the character in the story is kind of sitting alongside both of them.

Blake DeLong as Bolkonsky. Photo by Chad Batka.

Malloy: And that also goes into casting. We cast the show pretty non-traditionally, in that several of the people in it are actually not actors. They come from the music world. So they’re singer/songwriters, experimental music people, who I kind of had to rope into acting. Brittain, who plays Sonya, hasn’t acted since high school. But she’s a singer/songwriter, so she performs all the time. Her band is called Prairie Empire. And several other actors are musical-theater actors or cabaret performers, so we tried to have a real mix of performance styles.

What made you decide to take on the role of Pierre yourself?

Malloy: Pierre is such an incredible character, and I was going through many of the things that Pierre is going through at the time I was reading it, so I related to him immediately. And I like the role because, even though it ends up being very important in the end, for much of the show, he kind of takes a backseat and just watches the action unfold around him. As a composer, and originally as a musical director, that felt like a good fit for me. Only in the last 20 minutes of the show do I step out from behind the piano and kind of take over.

Dave Malloy as Pierre. Photo by Chad Batka.

Do you think you need to have read War and Peace to fully appreciate the show?

Malloy: I don’t think you need to have ever read the book at all. That’s a lot to ask of your audience. I think if you have read the book, you’ll have a slightly richer experience, because you’ll understand some of the relationships, and you’ll know what happens to these characters 20 years later, and what had happened to them 10 years earlier.

Chavkin: And there are Easter eggs for people who have read the books. Like, Dolokhov and Sonya have a non-verbal moment in the production that no one would recognize or even see, if they weren’t looking for some history between the two characters, which there was in the book.

Malloy: And Anatole and Hélène. In the book, it’s implied that they have an incestuous relationship. We didn’t ever explicitly say that in our production, but we definitely staged them in lascivious ways to acknowledge that. Plus, a fair amount of the libretto is taken directly from the text. I always get a kick from going back into the text and saying, “Oh yeah, this sentence turned into this line,” and just seeing the little changes from the prose to the lyrics.

Rachel Chavkin and Dave Malloy on opening night at Kazino.

How has the show changed since the original run at Ars Nova?

Malloy: The biggest thing moving here is that it’s a bigger space, so we added an ensemble. So we actually have six additional people in the show now. And we wrote two new songs. Natasha has her aria in Act 1 that wasn’t there before. A lot of that was actually about getting to know Phillipa Soo as a performer. Because when we cast her, neither of us had ever heard her; she was fresh out of Juilliard, and she came into the casting room and just blew us away. It was only once I knew her for a couple of months, and knew her voice and what she could do, that I felt like I could write a song that was tailored to her voice.

Chavkin: And it was also just things getting bigger and fancier. The DNA is the same for the production values, but everything is done ten times more elegantly and exquisitely, and with more detail. What had been handmade chandeliers with eight spokes are now fixtures with cascades of light bulbs coming off them. And the floor treatment is this beautiful shiny, gold, lacquered mirror treatment that was just plain wood at Ars Nova. So it’s just an incredible step up in the level of opulence, and the level of atmosphere. And there’s now a full meal, whereas at Ars Nova, it was just dumplings and vodka.

Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 runs through September 1 at Kazino.