In the thick of action with stars

The upcoming Broadway show, Natasha, Pierre And The Great Comet Of 1812, will see actors perform in the midst of audiences

A staging of Natasha, Pierre And The Great Comet Of 1812 in a tent called Kazino in New York in 2013, with Dave Malloy (centre) as Pierre.
A staging of Natasha, Pierre And The Great Comet Of 1812 in a tent called Kazino in New York in 2013, with Dave Malloy (centre) as Pierre.PHOTO: NYTIMES

NEW YORK • In the beginning, there was the book. Famously long and a bit of a slog. But Volume 2 Part 5 caught the cruise ship pianist's eye.

There was that beautiful girl, killing time in the big city while her fiance was away; the ill-advised flirtation with a dreamy playboy; the unhappily married rich man starting to fall apart; the swirl of back- stabbing aristocrats, Russia at war and a comet streaking across the sky.

This section of War And Peace, Dave Malloy thought, would make a perfect musical.

That was in 2007, on an ocean liner travelling from New York to Bermuda. Malloy, a struggling musician, was earning his keep in the house band and passing the time talking Tolstoy, via e-mail and phone calls, with his on-shore girlfriend.

Now, nine years later, the musical birthed from that passage, Natasha, Pierre And The Great Comet Of 1812, is about to open on Broadway.

It is one of the most anticipated shows of the season and one of the most unusual, pairing a group of experimental downtown theatre- makers with Josh Groban, a chart- topping pop singer from the mellifluous mainstream. They are all making their Broadway debuts, as are most of the actors. The cast and creative team number 24 members in all.

The show, like most Broadway ventures, is an expensive gamble: In this case, a US$14-million (S$19.2- million) bet that what was once a wild night of bar-side storytelling - in its first incarnation, the show provided free vodka at every table - can retain its sense of intimacy and authenticity in an expanded space, while broadening its appeal beyond theatregoers to tourists who sustain commercially successful musicals.

The core creative team - composer Malloy, 40, director Rachel Chavkin, 36, and set designer Mimi Lien, 40 - is optimistic.

As daunting as selling an adaptation of War And Peace to a mass audience may seem, Malloy notes that the just-departed tenant of the Imperial Theatre, where The Great Comet begins previews on Oct 18 and opens on Nov 14, was also an adaptation of a sweeping 19th- century historical novel - Victor Hugo's Les Miserables.

"War And Peace wouldn't have lasted 200 years if he hadn't really tapped into something universal," Malloy said in an interview in his Brooklyn studio, with a portrait of Tolstoy on the wall.

Malloy has little interest in writing the living-room dramas that dominate contemporary theatre and instead finds himself drawn to classical literature for subject matter.

He first drew attention with a "songplay" celebration of Beowulf, is now working on a musicalisation of Moby-Dick and has even tried adapting the Zhuangzi, a foundational Taoist text.

"There's a perverse interest in picking the texts that have a reputation as being boring," he said. "Well, no. War And Peace is an amazing book and here's why. It's a trashy romance novel. It's not this unapproachable academic piece."

The Broadway production is the fourth for The Great Comet.

The musical, then billed as an "electropop opera," was commissioned by, workshopped and first staged, in 2012, at an off-Broadway non-profit, Ars Nova, with 87 seats.

Malloy had a strong sense of what he wanted the show to feel like, shaped by two experiences: a boozy night at Chez Poulet, a San Francisco warehouse space where Beowulf was performed amid the crowd, with actors staging their fighting among the drinkers; and another at Cafe Margarita, a Moscow bar with an unmarked door where musicians were cheek-by- jowl with vodka-swilling diners.

"The goal from the beginning has been remarkably the same: putting the performers in close proximity to the audience members, and putting the audience members in very close proximity to each other, sitting at a table together, drinking vodka and eating bread," said Lien. "It's not so much a show you sit back and watch from a distance, but it's an experience you're inside of."

The Ars Nova staging was a sensation, as much for the environmental production as the energetic storytelling. For example, in an effort to disorient patrons, Lien routed ticketholders past dressing rooms into a makeshift nightclub where actors and musicians performed atop bars and between banquettes, while patrons ate bread and rattled shakers.

Mr Howard Kagan, a board member at Ars Nova, was taken with the show and decided, with his wife and co-producer Janet Kagan, to test its long-term promise.

The first commercial production, beginning in 2013, was in a tent, named Kazino, erected on an empty lot in Manhattan's meatpacking district, with full dinner service; and then in Midtown on a lot - as luck would have it - next to the Imperial.

Late last year, Great Comet opened at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts - the first time in a proscenium-style house to test how the enveloping design and peripatetic players might work in a conventional auditorium.

Each production featured vodka (on Broadway, to be sold by vendors walking through the aisles) and free pierogies (on Broadway, served in boxes, after the hand-held variety in Cambridge proved too messy).

But with each move, the show has changed: songs rewritten and replaced, an ensemble and then roving musicians hired, a dance break inserted.

The Imperial is being rejigged to preserve the immersive feel: a couple hundred people will be seated on the stage; new internal staircases will permit performers to move between orchestra and mezzanine; there will be side tables with lamps and egg shakers interspersed among the seats, along with platforms to allow for elevated action by actors.

Among those who came to check out the tent production was Groban, who has sold more than 35 million albums and DVDs and has long wanted to perform theatre.

He tweeted his enthusiasm for the material. Later, the Kagans, looking for a star who could help them justify a Broadway transfer, reached out to him, just as he was also urging his agent to look for stage roles.

Over the past few weeks, as Groban began preparing for rehearsals, Malloy has been looking for places to trim the score, while Lien has overseen construction of the set at Hudson Scenic Studio in Yonkers. Chavkin has been holed up with her choreography team, moving coins around theatre blueprints to try to plot entrances and exits and quick costume changes.

Broadway beckons - the production bigger and grander, but, they hope, at heart unchanged.

"The whole beauty of the show is to make you feel like stuff's happening everywhere and that everyone's having a different experience, but no one is missing a central action," Chavkin said.

"We want to make sure everyone is feeling the life of the show."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 19, 2016, with the headline 'In the thick of action with stars'. Print Edition | Subscribe