Theatre Bites: Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812

“There’s a war going on out there somewhere/And Andrey isn’t here…”

So starts Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812. Or at least, that’s when the performance proper begins.

As soon as you enter the lobby of the Imperial Theatre, you’re no longer in the crowded Theatre District in New York City. Instead, you’ve been transported into what at first seems like a Soviet-style bunker, which then turns into an opulent Moscow salon.

The musical/electro-pop opera by Dave Malloy and directed by Rachel Chavkin is based on a 70-page chunk from Leo Tolstoy’s epic War and Peace, covering a small portion of the Russian masterpiece.

And I would love to continue to gush and critique Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812, which I got the chance to see in late July.

I would love to discuss how I loved the set and lighting design (by Mimi Lien and Bradley King, respectively), how I thought the show struck the right balance as an immersive theatre experience, how the acting was impeccable, how much fun I had, and how I openly weep whenever I hear “Dust and Ashes” because it’s just a little too relatable.

These things are all true, but I have to address the Moscow-sized elephant in the room: the casting and PR scandal that is bringing Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 to an abrupt end on the Broadway stage on September 3rd.

The production started (and in my opinion continues to be) strong, with Josh Groban and Denee Benton as Pierre and Natasha respectively at the helm. The timeline, as far as I can tell, went as follows: Groban announced his planned departure for early July, which was then followed by a steep drop in ticket sales.

Okieriete “Oak” Onaodowan was contracted to replace Groban, as he is relatively well known as an original cast member of Hamilton. This didn’t help ticket sales as much as anticipated, and after an unfortunately lackluster showing at the Tony Awards, where the show won only two of the twelve it was nominated for, things took a turn.

Ingrid Michaelson was brought on to be Sonya, Onaodowan’s start was pushed back a week for reasons still unclear, and ticket sales still weren’t improving.

Then, it was announced that Mandy Patinkin would be stepping into the role of Pierre, replacing Onaodowan, whose run would be ending sooner than anticipated.

From here, a whole lot of things happened, from PR disasters in announcing the change to the outrage over the racial optics of the switch, ultimately leading to Patinkin backing out of the production, Onaodowan ending his run on August 13th, and the show announcing its closing sooner than anyone had hoped for.

I could go into a deep dive of the controversy, but others (specifically Diep Tran from American Theatre and Michael Paulson from The New York Times) have examined it with more nuance than I could. And while it is incredibly frustrating that the show is closing on Broadway this weekend and the loss of work for the 100 people of the Imperial Theatre is upsetting, I also want to focus on the power of Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812, and what its presence on the Great White Way could signify.

First, the fact that it got there at all. It was a show that was a staged immersive experience, with a score that is difficult to describe, based on a Russian novel that most people only know by name.

But Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 DID get to Broadway. It had an extraordinary amount of Broadway debuts, an extraordinary cast that was praised both for their diversity and their virtuosity, and it brought the fans of Josh Groban and Ingrid Michaelson alike to Broadway.

Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 also demonstrates what can be done on commercial Broadway stage. Mimi Lien’s design is revolutionary for Broadway, breaking the proscenium wall in a truly extraordinary way. Cast members were interacting with audience members, throwing pierogies, handing out letters, and engaging patrons in a way that I have not often experienced in large theatres. The joy of the production was infectious, and despite being a perpetual underdog, it illuminates, for me at least, what happens when experimental work is brought to a wider audience.

Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 closes on September 3rd, sooner and quicker than it should have.

For me, it raised my expectations for what can be brought to Broadway, due to both its successes and failures. I still can’t shut up about the actors, or the costumes, or the set, or the lighting, which truly takes center stage by the end of the show. Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 burned brightly for its over 100 performance on Broadway, and I have to hope that what it showcased will continue to be seen for years to come. As the play itself says:

And this bright star

Having traced its parabola

With inexpressible speed

Through immeasurable space

Seems suddenly

To have stopped

Like an arrow piercing the earth

Stopped for me

 

It seems to me

That this comet

Feels me

Feels my softened and uplifted soul

And my newly melted heart

Now blossoming

Into a new life

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