TALKING “NATASHA, PIERRE AND THE GREAT COMET OF 1812” WITH STAR GRACE MCLEAN

Grace McLean

THE RUSSIAN EMPIRE IS CONQUERING BROADWAY.

Later this season, audiences will be invited to journey to the past with the opening of Anastasia, a story based on the 1997 animated film about the last surviving Romanov. But for those looking to explore this era of history through a grittier, sexier, and more unconventional lens, they need not look further than the Imperial Theater.

Now playing there, Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 is a breathtaking and electrifying new musical inspired by a 70-page portion of Leo Tolstoy’s seminal literary masterpiece, War and Peace. Taking a page from more than just Tolstoy, however, this innovative production blends various musical genres, creates a distinct and remarkable ambiance, and demands that its audiences have a theatrical experience unlike any other.

Written by Dave Malloy, The Great Comet tells the story of Natasha (Denée Benton), a young woman who begins an affair with a hedonistic rebel while her fiancée is off at war. When Natasha comes to Moscow, she and her cousin stay with Marya (Grace McLean), a grand dame who commands who’s who within her aristocratic circle. Meanwhile, a man named Pierre (Josh Groban) seeks answers for the existential crisis he faces while he watches Natasha’s new romance flourish.

McLean spoke with me about this ambitious and unique show, its journey to Broadway, interacting with audiences in unprecedented ways, and much more.

ALEX NAGORSKI: As Natasha’s godmother and one of Pierre’s oldest friends, Marya provides a central link between the two titular characters. How do you think her relationship with each of them informs and/or defines the journey they each take during the show?

GRACE MCLEAN: Marya is called a “dragon woman” in the book, and I think this tells us a lot about who she is and what she expects of people. She’s strong-willed and fierce, she loves hard, and she despises laziness of mind, heart, and intention. She loves Natasha because she sees this same fierceness in her, and she loves Pierre because of his lack of pretension. At the point in the story when our show takes place, it is ultimately the clash of ferocities between Marya and Natasha that pushes Natasha over the edge. As for Pierre, I think Marya is there to pull him out of the stupor he’s found himself in and to give him a real call to action – something he feels he’s lost touch with at the start of our play.

You’ve been with this show for several years now, from Off-Broadway to the out-of-town run (in Cambridge, Massachusetts) to Broadway. In your opinion, how has the show evolved throughout its various incarnations?

It has been a real gift and a luxury to be able to work on this show in its various incarnations because although the story itself is largely unchanged, we’ve gotten to play with refinements and details in our storytelling. I think now, at The Imperial, we’ve achieved our greatest clarity in the storytelling because we’ve been able to experiment with ways to achieve both intimacy and a sense of grandness in the staging.

You provide much of the show’s comedic relief. What do you think it is about Marya’s personality and delivery that provides so much humor to otherwise serious and/or complex scenes?

First of all, thank you! I don’t think I approached Marya thinking of her as a funny character, but I think there is something about her severity which, in certain circumstances, comes off as comical simply because she’s in juxtaposition to other very tender and delicate moments. Of course, this severity becomes quite unfunny – or at least I hope it does – when circumstances get out of control. Marya doesn’t like being out of control.

How helpful was the original Tolstoy text when it came to fleshing out Marya and landing on your interpretation of who she is? Who/what else inspired your understanding of her?

It was definitely helpful to have an understanding of Marya within the text of War and Peace, to find out who she likes and why, how she operates within this decadent society, the kind of mother figure she is. Natasha’s mother is very different from Marya, her whole family is really, and I think Natasha needs an authority figure who delights in, fans, and hopefully shapes her fiery nature.

Also, in terms of inspiration, I think a lot about love in this play. There are a lot of different types of love flying around in our show. When I, Grace, can latch on to that, then I start to know what to do with my character. So for me, I’m thinking about deepening Marya’s love for Natasha because that says something about how she’s treated in the first act versus the second act, when Marya is still acting from a place of love – but of love betrayed.

The show’s set is quite possibly the most interesting I’ve ever seen. Without giving too much away, I can say that immediately upon stepping into the theater, the audience is fully transported to Imperial Russia. What do you think this unconventional staging adds to the experience of the show?

I think the audience is asked to step into the world of the play from the moment they step into the Imperial, even before the “set” is seen. It is a total experience, not one that the audience is necessarily asked to be an active part of, but this is what I love about the design- it’s that even in the audience’s passivity, an inescapable and palpable tone has been set to prime them for the story.

As an actress, what advantages and obstacles does performing on such a radically different and unique set present?

I don’t think in terms of disadvantages, so I’ll just talk a bit about the things it has taught me. I’ve had to really become aware of my whole body. Because the audience is all around, I think about finding ways to include everyone. There’s also an interesting game to play between giving something to someone a mile away, and sharing a little secret with someone else right next to you. This all requires great particularity and intention, because people can really see the fake or the phoned in when it’s up close.

The show allows for (and encourages) a good deal of actor interaction with the audience. What has been the most memorable encounter (either good or bad) you’ve had during a scene in which you engage directly with audience members?

Early on, during the off-Broadway run in the tent downtown, we got a lot of good lessons about unruly audiences. There was one night when a woman I was sitting with during “Pierre & Anatole” would not stop shaking her shaker. She was drunk and loud and talking to her friends. I took the shaker from her and she demanded I give it back, but of course I didn’t and kept watching the scene. She grabbed another shaker from one of her friends and shook it in my face. At this point I stood up and tried to take it from her again but she hung on very tight like she wanted to wrestle. Oy! This was a poor decision on my part because it just made both of us look like assholes. So lesson learned! Never get angry at the crazy because then you look crazy too.

Marya is a very fabulous woman who clearly has a penchant for fashion. What are some of your favorite costumes that you get to wear?

I love all of my costumes! They are so beautiful! But truly, my favorite piece is the little jacket I wear to the opera with the fox trimmed sleeves and neck. I want it for my life.

The show is filled with so many high-energy and visually spectacular musical numbers. Do you have a favorite to perform each night?

I wish I could watch them! But one of my favorite moments in the show happens in the middle of the opera right before Anatole makes his big entrance. We all have opera glasses and have been moving in slow motion before we all point our glasses at Natasha and sway in this slow eerie manner as the lights dazzle around her and slowly turn red. Basically, Natasha is getting high and I think this is the moment in the show when the audience feels it too, and can feel the palpable anticipation of something really different about to enter the world of the play.

The music combines so many genres – such as traditional Russian folk music, indie rock, and EDM just to name a few. Stylistically, how does singing this type of “electropop opera” differ from performing a more traditional musical theater score?

I have so much fun singing this music because it uses a lot of my range, not just in terms of notes on the page but stylistically. I get to use many sides of my voice, the rough, pretty, operatic, screlt, choral. And honestly because of the workout my voice is getting and the care required to be able to do all of those things, I’ve never felt healthier.

When you’re not performing in the show, you’re working on your own original music. Your band, Grace McLean & Them Apples, headlined Lincoln Center’s American Songbook in 2015 and 2016, and even toured Pakistan as U.S. State Department musical ambassadors. How do you find the balance between your acting career and being a singer/songwriter?

I find it necessary! I love that I have the opportunity to use my creative impulses critically in my own work because this allows me to approach the show with a fresh and present mind. Honestly, if I haven’t thought about or made other work before I go to the show, it’s harder for me to concentrate on the task at hand. Also, each informs the other. Performing my own music with my band in front of a very real, very present crowd prepared me to be able to perform in a show like this where the audience is very much a part of each moment. There is no fourth wall in a concert, nor is there one at The Great Comet. And I’m writing my own first full-length musical right now, so being inside of one gives me that extra perspective about how to approach character and storytelling, and about how to acknowledge my audience.

What do you find to be more creatively fulfilling – playing a character on stage or expressing yourself through your own original music?

Both are useful in different ways- writing is an outlet for my obsessions, and performing a role is an opportunity to learn about someone else’s.

What is your Broadway dream role?

Fanny Brice in Funny Girl!


Click HERE to purchase tickets to Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812, playing now at the Imperial Theater in New York City.

Click HERE to purchase The Great Comet: The Journey of a New Musical to Broadway, a behind-the-scenes look at the making of this acclaimed musical.

PHOTOS | CHAD BATKA

 Originally published on PopBytes

CONCERT REVIEW: AUDRA MCDONALD AT NYC’S CARNEGIE HALL

Audra McDonald doesn’t need to sing a single note to get a standing ovation.

Audra McDonaldCarnegie Hall04.29.2015The second she walked onto the Carnegie Hall stage for a one-night-only concert last Wednesday (04.29), she was greeted with the same type of rapturous applause typically reserved for the end of an evening of phenomenal performances. This entrance alone was a testament to the star she has become: a living legend whose accolades not only are unprecedented, but one who is the envy of any aspiring Broadway actor.

McDonald, 44, is the recipient of two Grammy Awards and a record six Tony Awards. She’s also the first—and only—person to have won Tonys in all four acting categories. Most recently, she took home the prestigious award for her jaw-dropping transformation into Billie Holiday in last year’s Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill (which I reviewed here). But for her solo show, unofficially titled “Songs from My Living Room,” McDonald wasn’t trying to be anyone but herself.

Having curated a set list that consisted of everything from musical theater standards to contemporary compositions and lesser-known favorites, McDonald tied her song selections together by recounting how she grew up in Fresno, California, dreaming of one day becoming a Broadway performer. Citing idols and influences like Chita Rivera, Barbara Cook, and Judy Garland, she took her audience on a deeply personal journey through some of the songs that have inspired, impacted, and shaped her illustrious career thus far.

Accompanied by her music director Andy Einhorn on the piano, McDonald opened her show with “Sing Happy,” the first of four Kander & Ebb pieces she performed. A celebration of the uplifting power that music can have, this song perfectly introduced the theme of singing as an emotional outlet, something that McDonald would continue to underline in various ways throughout the night. Her other Kander & Ebb selections included “Chief Cook and Bottle Washer” from The Rink, and an interpretation of Cabaret’s “Maybe This Time” so heartfelt that it would make you want to start a petition for her to play Sally Bowles.

But of all the Kander & Ebb she chose, it was McDonald’s rendition of “Go Back Home” from The Scottsboro Boys that packed the hardest punch. Before singing the song, she talked about how once in between Lady Day performances, she walked over to Covenant House (a charity benefiting homeless children in New York) to make a donation. While she waited there, a teenage boy with only a trash bag full of belongings walked in, unsure of what to expect. She watched as the same workers who only moments prior had joked around and flirted with her went into superhero mode and welcomed the boy, offering him food, shelter and, above all, a sense of safety and belonging.

McDonald was so overwhelmed with emotion upon seeing this that she is now is a member of the Covenant House board. She dedicated the hopeful and gorgeous “Go Back Home” to the children (or “my kids” as she now calls them) the organization helps – including those who were in attendance at the concert.

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As much as she loves classics and revivals, McDonald emphasized how important it is for musical theater to continue to evolve and remain current. Thus, she spotlighted the music of some very recent and rising composers who have particularly resonated with her.

These songs included “No One Else,” a haunting ballad from Dave Malloy’s War and Peace-inspired 2012 electropop opera, Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812, and a children’s lullaby by Shaina Taub called “The Tale of Bear and Otter,” which was divided into chapters to feel like a real bedtime story. The true standout of this newer material, however, was Kate Miller-Heidke’s “The Facebook Song,” a breakup song that McDonald believed to perfectly encapsulate “heartbreak in the 21st century” and that allowed her to dare to drop a number of F-bombs in Carnegie Hall.

But McDonald didn’t only pay tribute to up-and-coming composers. The crowd went wild at the end of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “Mister Snow,” the Carousel staple that produced her first Tony win back in 1994. She slowed things down for Kurt Weill’s “It Never Was You” and picked them up for a revamped version of Cole Porter’s “Let’s Not Talk About Love” that featured a new hilarious verse (with additional lyrics by Larry Dachslager) about all things Audra – including her undying love for Chipotle, manipulating her voice to sound like Billie Holiday, and advocating for marriage equality.

And speaking of custom-written lyrics, McDonald called upon the prolific Stephen Schwartz (who also was in attendance) to tweak “Proud Lady” from The Baker’s Wife, making the song from Genevieve’s rather than Dominique’s perspective. This revised version of the song showcased McDonald’s stunning lyric soprano voice in ways that were nothing short of triumphant.

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Before going into “How Could I Ever Know” from The Secret Garden, McDonald took a moment to reflect on a very difficult chapter in her life. She spoke about how, when she was still a student at Juilliard, she survived a suicide attempt. Not long after, she booked her first Broadway role as Ayah in The Secret Garden, and she officially transitioned from focusing on opera to musical theater. While “How Could I Ever Know” was never a song she sang in the show (it’s performed by characters Lily and Archibald), it was one that she would listen to from the sidelines. It helped her find a new purpose in life and emerge from the darkness she felt in her past.

When it came time for “Climb Ev’ry Mountain,” McDonald applauded NBC for resurrecting the lost and incredibly difficult art of putting on live televised musicals. She told the audience that she never expected she’d be cast as the Mother Abbess in The Sound of Music, and was so grateful to the network for giving her the chance to play such an iconic role.

She joked that she liked to tell people that she was “from the really sunny side of the Alps.” She also told an amusing story about how her nerves were calmed about performing for so many millions of people live when she received a text message from her daughter asking a question about the laundry moments before stepping in front of the camera. And just as it sounded during that telecast, her rendition was a true show-stopping tour de force.

Other highlights throughout the evening included the Depression-era “My Buddy,” which McDonald sang in honor of a World War II veteran she heard singing the song outside of (you guessed it) a Chipotle while she was in Cambridge, Massachusetts working on Porgy and Bess; and “Rainbow High” from Evita, which she performed for the first time since starring in the show as Eva Peron at age 16 back in Fresno.

She also sang “Make Someone Happy” from Do Re Mi because the song’s lyrics about finding fulfillment through bringing joy to someone else falls in line with some of the best advice she’s ever received; paid homage to Betty Buckley with The Mystery of Edwin Drood’s “The Writing on the Wall;” and impressively showed off just how high she can sing with “Vanilla Ice Cream” from She Loves Me.

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McDonald wrapped up her encore with a sensational take on “Over the Rainbow.” Before she started to sing it, she spoke to the audience about how original singer Judy Garland’s funeral in 1969 helped inspire the Stonewall riots. That turned into a brief discussion about why she’s such a vocal champion for marriage equality. She talked about how, as an African-American, there are so many experiences she’s had that she wouldn’t have been able to have had she been born earlier. And that it was thanks to the civil rights leaders who stepped up to fight for what was right that she’s been given the chance to accomplish all that she has. Why then, she asked rhetorically, would she not support another part of the population who was being discriminated against?

Listening to McDonald speak about this, especially knowing that hearings on this topic were taking place in the Supreme Court at that exact time, the audience knew they were witnessing a truly monumental moment. Naturally, then, her “Over The Rainbow” shined with new meaning and beautiful encouragement.

McDonald will next be seen in the Meryl Streep film, Ricki and the Flash, and the upcoming HBO special presentation of Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill. There was a lot of speculation about what her next Broadway foray would be. Would it be in a revival of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play ‘night, Mother, opposite Oprah Winfrey in her Great White Way debut? Or a revival of Kiss of the Spider Woman alongside Alan Cumming? Or a new musical adaptation of the film Corinna, Corinna written for her by composer Alan Menken?

As it turns out, McDonald’s next project will be Shuffle Along, a new musical (set to open in 2016) that explores the origin of the nearly forgotten 1921 all-black musical of the same name. Helming the show alongside director George C. Wolfe and choreographer Savion Glover, McDonald may need to begin preparing room on her shelf for a seventh Tony Award.

After all, if her concert at Carnegie Hall was any indication, hers is a voice we’ll all be clamoring to hear for years and years to come.

Originally published on PopBytes