By Kaye Foley
With 12 Tony nominations, “Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812” leads the Broadway pack in a very competitive field for this year’s award show on June 11. The innovative musical, inspired by 70 pages of Leo Tolstoy’s tome, “War and Peace,” came to Broadway in the fall of 2016, and turned the Imperial Theatre into Imperial Russia — with a modern twist.
Yahoo Global News Anchor Katie Couric sat down with the Tony-nominated stars Josh Groban (yes, that Josh Groban), Denée Benton and Lucas Steele, as well as director Rachel Chavkin and creator Dave Malloy to discuss the show, its immersive and contemporary style and what it means to be honored with so many Tony nominations.
“It’s a longtime coming for a show that has had so many years of development and family around it,” said Groban, who plays Pierre, a philosophical man who is struggling to find his purpose in life. He continued, saying that shows as “out of the box and brilliant” as ‘The Great Comet’ aren’t always recognized, so “to be able to celebrate that understanding from the community and that welcoming from the community means a lot to all of us.”
“I think it’s a genius thing that has never really happened on a Broadway stage,” said Benton, who plays Natasha, a young countess in love. “To me, award ceremonies are worth it because they should honor innovation.”
“I realize what a once in a lifetime opportunity this may be,” said Steele, who plays Anatole, a playboy who seduces Natasha. “My heart is full of joy beyond measure to be on this journey with people that I’ve been with for a while, and also incredibly new, wonderful artists.”
Groban, who has sold more than 35 million records worldwide, joined the cast of “The Great Comet” for his Broadway debut. Though he clearly has what it takes to make it on the Great White Way, Groban said he waited to step onto the theater stage for the right project.
“My dream wasn’t just to do theater … it was to do something new. It was to do something fresh,” Groban said.
“I wanted to bring something that I felt would be an educated risk for me, something that was a little out of the box that people might not have expected,” he continued. “I didn’t want to jump into something that I knew immediately would be a vocal homerun. I wanted it to be something that would provide me with vulnerability and failing and getting back up.”
“The Great Comet” has been compared to that other show that recently took Broadway by storm — “Hamilton”— and earned 16 nominations and won 11 last year. In addition to the historical emphasis and diverse casting, the musicals have somewhat similar moments of conception.
Just as Lin-Manuel Miranda became inspired after reading a book about Alexander Hamilton while on vacation, Malloy read the classic “War and Peace” while playing in a band on a cruise, and was struck by a section of the novel that he felt would make a great musical.
“The way that Tolstoy kind of paired these two stories in parallel,” Malloy explained. “We have Pierre’s existential crisis, but then also Natasha’s much younger romantic crisis —and then … these two stories only collide at the very end, in this very simple interaction between the two of them, and then Pierre sees the comet. It just immediately sang to me.”
“The Great Comet” brought the same immersive spirit of its first staging at Ars Nova with 87 seats back in 2012 to the Imperial Theatre and its almost 1,200 seats. Stage seating was also created so audience members could become a part of the musical magic happening all around them.
“It’s ‘War and Peace,’ so it’s never been afraid of size as we’ve gotten bigger. … One of the brilliant things that Mimi [Lien, the show’s set designer] has done is that we’ve cast 1,200 people in the play with us because we have that audience there,” Chavkin said. “So that scope and variance of the past literally sitting next to the present … all of that intimacy and crossover, I think, is part of the heart, of the DNA, of the show.”
“The Great Comet” constructs a contemporary feel through a variety of musical genres,from old Russian classical and folk to modern electronic music, creative costuming and diversity.
“Tolstoy goes to great lengths to make his novel be about every single person in Russia, from the czar and Napoleon down to the lowliest peasants and troika drivers. So his ‘War and Peace’ is incredibly diverse,” Malloy said. “So for us, transposing that into 21st-century New York, well, our cast has to represent 21st-century New York.”
“I think you walk away from a show and you remember how a character made you feel and what they represented,” Benton said of diverse casting on Broadway. “You don’t necessarily remember the color of their skin. … For me, it’s a paradigm shift in the direction of justice.”