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

FIVE ESSENTIAL BROADWAY SHOWS THIS SPRING

As for the coveted Best Musical prize, the showdown will be between the intimate and hauntingly beautiful Fun Home (which I reviewed here) and the all-around brilliant, hilarious and blockbuster Something Rotten.

The Tony Awards also signify the end of the current Broadway season. Below, take a look at some of the most creative shows currently playing, and be sure to grab your tickets now. Some may become impossible to see after Tony’s success and some may close in their wake. Either way, this was one of the most daring seasons in recent years – and that in itself is something to be celebrated.

IT SHOULDA BEEN YOU

STARRING Tyne Daly, Chip Zien, Sierra Boggess, David Burtka, Harriet Harris, Lisa Howard, Montego Glover, Adam Heller, Nick Spangler, Edward Hibbert, Josh Grisetti, Michael X. Martin, Anne L. Nathan

WHERE Brooks Atkinson Theatre

NUMBER OF TONY NOMINATIONS 0

STORY It’s Rebecca (Boggess) and Brian’s (Burtka) wedding day, and their polar opposite families have gathered to celebrate the impending nuptials. But when a few surprise guests – including Rebecca’s neurotic ex-boyfriend (Grisetti) – show up, all bets are off and mayhem ensues. What deep secrets will be revealed? And what will they mean for the couple when it’s time to walk down the aisle?

WHY YOU SHOULD SEE IT Don’t let the Tony Awards snub fool you. This David Hyde Pierce-directed show is a laugh-out-loud satire and adorable exploration of love and family that turns the conventional wedding day comedy inside out. Think Meet The Parents mixed with a Jewish spin on My Big Fat Greek Weddingand the romantic musical chairs of The Family Stone. You’ll be smiling throughout this entire one act show.

STANDOUT SCENE The soulful song, “Jenny’s Blues,” finds the bride’s sister, Jenny (Howard) finally standing up for herself to her family. It’s the show’s biggest number and Howard cements herself as a rising star to watch with her powerhouse vocals and passionate delivery. See for yourself when she performs the song at this Sunday’s Tonys.

AN AMERICAN IN PARIS

STARRING Robert Fairchild, Leanne Cope, Max von Essen, Brandon Uranowitz, Jill Paice, Veanne Cox

WHERE Palace Theatre

NUMBER OF TONY NOMINATIONS 12

STORY Inspired by the 1951 MGM film, An American In Paris tells the story of three men – two American soldiers and a local Parisian – vying for the affection of the same French woman. Through the music and lyrics of George and Ira Gershwin, this quartet must navigate the city of love right after World War II.

WHY YOU SHOULD SEE IT Simply put, the dancing is nothing short of breathtaking. Tied with Fun Home for the most Tony nominations this year, this show is a visually stunning homage to the musicals of the Golden Age. It looks and sounds like a classic, making it the perfect show to reintroduce previous and older generations of Broadway fans to contemporary theater.

STANDOUT SCENE The show’s climax, a triumphant 14-minute ballet, is unlike anything on Broadway today. It’s impossible not to marvel at how meticulously choreographed and flawlessly executed this sequence is. It’s not often that an audience gives a standing ovation before the curtain call, but in this case, it is more than warranted.

THE VISIT

STARRING Chita Rivera, Tom Nelis, Mary Beth Peil, Rick Holmes, Matthew Deming

WHERE Lyceum Theatre

NUMBER OF TONY NOMINATIONS 5

STORY The world’s richest woman, Claire Zachanassian, returns to her impoverished hometown after fleeing it decades ago. Her mission: to exact revenge on those who had wronged her in her youth. Her homecoming challenges the moral core of the town and asks the eternal question: how far are we willing to betray our humanity when offered a glimpse of previously unimagined riches?

WHY YOU SHOULD SEE IT Not only does the show mark the Broadway return of the legendary Chita Rivera, it’s also the final collaboration of the prolific writing team of John Kander and Fred Ebb. Frequent Kander and Ebb performer (and muse) Liza Minnelli best noted how monumental this is in her recent USA Today op-ed: “To give you an idea of the kind of impact they had, at least one Kander and Ebb show has been running on Broadway during 41 of the last 50 years. This year alone, there have been three. Their work will live on in revivals until the end of time, of course, but the thrill and privilege of hearing their words and music sung out loud for the first time is singular.”

STANDOUT SCENE When Claire first arrives, nobody in the struggling town realizes her true intentions. Instead, they think she has returned to lend a helping hand. But when she dramatically reveals the nature of her visit and exposes the people from her past for who they really are, shock immediately morphs into a ripple effect of torn alliances, pointed fingers, and bloodlust. Meanwhile, as Claire deviously watches the town begin to unravel as a result of her announcement, she already basks in her victory – and thus gives Rivera one of the juiciest and most devious roles of her renowned career.

GIGI

STARRING Vanessa Hudgens, Victoria Clark, Corey Cott, Dee Hoty, Howard McGillin, Steffanie Leigh

WHERE Neil Simon Theatre

NUMBER OF TONY NOMINATIONS 1

STORY Another tale of romance in Paris based on a classic Leslie Caron film,Gigi tells the story of a young girl’s journey into womanhood at the turn of the 20th century. As she’s being groomed to be “perfect marriage material,” Gigi grows increasingly more interested in cinema, traveling, and speaking her mind. But when she and her lifelong friend realize the depth of their feelings for one another, will they live happily ever after or fall victim to the city ofamour?

WHY YOU SHOULD SEE IT Coupled with Catherine Zuber’s colorful costumes, Derek McLane’s art nouveau fortified set design makes for a gorgeous backdrop that bring early 1900’s Paris very much alive. The meticulous attention to detail allows audiences to feel like they’ve stepped into a Toulouse Lautrec painting. Plus, the music and lyrics of Alan Jay Learner and Frederick Loewe (My Fair Lady) are fully restored with songs from both the film and the original 1973 stage production, breathing new life into timeless numbers like “I Remember It Well,” “Thank Heaven for Little Girls,” and “It’s A Bore.”

STANDOUT SCENE The act one closer, “The Night They Invented Champagne,” is a celebratory and bubbly spectacle that makes Hudgens’ Broadway debut seem like something that should have happened long ago. It’s the show’s catchiest song (and rightfully the one chosen to be performed at the Tonys) and Hudgens shines as her title character begins her transformation from innocent little girl into a confident, modern woman.

HAND TO GOD

STARRING Steven Boyer, Geneva Carr, Marc Kudisch, Sarah Stiles, Michael Oberholtzer

WHERE Booth Theatre

NUMBER OF TONY NOMINATIONS 5

STORY Jason, a shy and quiet boy in a tiny religious town in Texas, deals with his beloved hand puppet, Tyrone, developing a foul-mouthed, unfiltered, and boisterous identity of its own. Acting as Jason’s voice when he doesn’t have one and getting him into trouble with everyone from the town pastor to the school bully to his crush to his mother, Tyrone flips Jason’s entire world upside down. But as Jason loses more and more control of Tyrone, what will the repercussions be for him and for those he’s terrorizing?

WHY YOU SHOULD SEE IT If Avenue Q and teen cult film Idle Hands had a child, this would be it. While not nearly as powerful as its Best Play competitor The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, Hand to God is a jarring, crude and filthy examination of what happens when people repress their true feelings.

STANDOUT SCENE The first time that Jason realizes the extent of his powerlessness over Tyrone, actor Steven Boyer performs a full out screaming match with himself. After Jason tries to get rid of Tyrone, the puppet comes back with a vengeance, threatening him so that he will never attempt to free himself of him again. Lying in bed, Jason doesn’t know how to handle the small Tyrone towering over him and barking orders. He cowers in fear, completely surrendering to his creation.

Originally published on PopBytes