Josh Canfield discusses the visionary direction of Rachel Chavkin, why Broadway is ready for The Great Comet of 1812


Before heading to a war-torn and frigid Moscow with Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812, Josh Canfield spent a few weeks on the warm, sandy shores of Ogunquit, Maine.

Leading the company of Anything Goes at the Ogunquit Playhouse as the charming Billy Crocker alongside Tony nominee Andrea McArdle as the dynamo Reno Sweeney, Canfield said he was having a blast exploring a timeless revival.

Canfield said exploring the elements in a revival after spending so much time working with The Great Comet of 1812 was an interesting experience to delve into.

In the midst of performances in Ogunquit, Canfield took time to sit and chat over coffee about the impressive pre-Broadway life The Great Comet of 1812 has experienced and what it’s really like to be on the hit reality show Survivor.

What is it like to know The Great Comet of 1812 is finally coming to Broadway and you’re part of it?

I knew it would continue on in some way because it’s such a special show. We all knew it. We had such a special group of people that we just loved coming to work every day because we loved the people we were around. I think that’s a rarity. In New York, especially, if you’re doing a show, you hang out with a couple of the cast members, but the entire cast doesn’t hang out together. Our entire cast would still hang out together. When it was announced we were going to ART, I was doing Doctor Zhivago on Broadway. We were closing, and they asked me to come back, and I said ‘Yeah. Of course I’m going to come back to Comet. Comet is amazing.’ A week later, Doctor Zhivago announced it was closing, and I was like, ‘Good thing.’ 

You have a picture of the theatre layout on your Twitter. It’s so beautiful and will be such an experience to see the production in a Broadway theatre. 

Yes, I still have that as my pinned tweet because I’m so excited about it. Mimi Lien, who’s the set designer, just keeps winning award after award for Comet. We won the IRNE award, which is the New England awards. She won for set design for that. Our show won Best Show, as well, but she’s so brilliant in what she’s done and how she’s going to change the Imperial Theatre. I don’t think it’s ever been done like this before. It’s exciting to be a part of something like that. It was exciting to be a part of it from almost the beginning, continue with it throughout, and finally come to Broadway and see the fruition of all the people who initially started this work.

What is it like to see something progress in that way?

I’m just really excited, especially for Dave Malloy, Rachel Chavkin, Paloma Young, and Mimi Lien — all those original people who are the creatives behind it. Dave Malloy created such an amazing piece of theatre that was so unique and so different that it could have failed. A lot of times things that are that creative don’t work because the audiences aren’t there for it. They aren’t ready to see it or it’s too quirky. Amazingly, we pushed past that and now we’re going into mainstream. It started so small at Ars Nova and it’s now blossomed into Josh Groban doing it on Broadway. I call him ‘Josh #2’ because I was there first.

I love that he didn’t take top billing in the show. I think it really shows the fellowship of the show.

Yeah, absolutely. I think that really shows what our show is and who Josh is as well. I’ve gotten to know him from a couple of rehearsals we’ve had and he’s just the most down to earth, coolest person. Fame has not gone to his head, he doesn’t care. He’s always wanted to be on Broadway since he was a little kid in musical theatre. This is his Broadway debut and he’s so excited. He’s doing it against Denée Benton in her Broadway debut as well, so we have two great people leading the cast. I’m just thrilled to be along for the ride with it. I feel extremely lucky and like I’m a part of history with this show in moving things forward. I think now with Hamilton, and how that has changed things, the Broadway community is ready for something like Comet. Before Hamilton was on Broadway, I don’t know if Comet would have worked, because Hamilton really paved the way for new and interesting works that allow for people of all backgrounds. I love that about our show. In that way, it’s completely colorblind casting. It doesn’t care about race; we’re telling a story, that’s all. I hope more shows start following that and saying, ‘Whoever is the best person for the show should be in the show.’

What have you taken from working with Rachel?

Oh, Rachel Chavkin. She is the coolest director I’ve worked with. She’s brilliant, down to earth, and fun. I love watching her work. She brings out the most interesting things in her performers and allows them to be themselves and do it how they want to do it, and then she takes it further and digs deeper. That’s a rarity with directors. A lot of times, directors already have exactly what they want in their head. From working with Rachel, I don’t think she has that. She comes into rehearsal completely open-minded. You start to rehearse and do good things, and she says, ‘Yeah, that. Keep going there,’ and they start taking hold, instead of walking in and saying, ‘Okay, we’re going to do this and this.’ Creativity just flows out of her, and she knows how to harness it and rein it in to make something incredible.

I think we’ve seen that with The Royale, which she just did at Lincoln Center. I saw that, and she did the same thing. It was so creative and interesting. If someone else had done it, it wouldn’t have been as interesting. I was so blown away by the direction of the entire piece. It let the actors really shine.

You were on Survivor. Tell me how someone goes from reality TV to Broadway.

I was already doing Comet when Survivor happened. I’ve been doing theatre for nine years now. I got my master’s at The Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama in Scotland in 2007. Comet closed in March of 2014 off-Broadway, and I loved Survivor. I’ve always loved Survivor because of the challenge of pushing your body until it snaps and the mind games you get to play with people. I’ve been a fan of the show for a while, and I was watching a bunch of episodes, and all of a sudden I thought, ‘I want to audition for this. I don’t want to just watch these people, I want to do it.’ During Comet in the fall, I made a video, I sent it in, and I didn’t hear anything. I sent in one more video right before we closed, and the weekend we closed, I got a call from CBS saying they wanted me to come to callbacks in L.A. the next week. I wouldn’t have been able to do it if it was one week before. Comet literally closed in that week.

You have amazing luck.

I was like, ‘Thank Jesus. Just line that up.’ I literally went right from Comet out to L.A. for callbacks, I booked it and I was on the show six weeks later filming in Nicaragua.

What was the experience of being out there? Everyone watches Survivor and says, ‘I could never do that’, but you actually went and did it.

The biggest thing for people to know is that it’s completely real, whereas a lot of other reality shows aren’t. Survivor was the original reality show with The Real World. Those two were the two initial ones that sparked all the reality television in 1999 and 2000. A lot of people, when they ask me about it, say, ‘Is that real? What about when the cameras get turned off?’ The cameras don’t get turned off. You’re on film 24 hours a day. You’re literally starving. I lost 20 pounds. It was the most insane experience of my life. It was the worst experience of my life, but also the best experience of my life.

It changed my perspective on life and it changed my perspective on how I do things. Everything is easy to me now. Even if it’s hard, I tell myself, ‘It’s not as hard as starving on the beach and then having to do a challenge.’ Nothing is that hard. When I’m exhausted in rehearsal, I think, ‘I have coffee, I have food, I can sit down and not be filthy and dying of hunger. I’m okay. I can get through this.’ It’s changed my outlook on life and made me a stronger and happier person. I’m thankful for everything.

They’ve asked me back twice now, and I’ll possibly go back, depending on schedules. It hasn’t worked out because of Doctor Zhivago, and my career is Broadway, TV, and film. I know that’s TV, but that’s not what I do. It’s not acting. It is acting, because I’m portraying a version of myself on the show, it’s not completely me, but it’s not what I like to do. Give me a script, please. I might go back and do it because it’s the experience of a lifetime. You don’t have your phone or any way of contacting the outside world for seven weeks. When can you not have your phone for seven weeks and not care? No one can get a hold of me and it doesn’t matter. I’m not calling anyone, not talking to anyone. It was such a refresher for life.

When you came back, were you like, ‘Give me all my emails’?

It was a little scary when they gave us our phones back. I thought, ‘Do I even want to turn this back on? This is so intense.’ It took forever to go through seven weeks of emails and texts, but it was fine, and the world still went on. Life moved on, even without me on social media for seven weeks.

Why do you think new theatre is important?

It’s important because it’s all about tapping into the creativity of individuals. As people, we all have our own strengths. There’s something to be said for revivals, but new musicals and plays are creating the voice of our generation and what’s happening right now. Whether you’re writing a story that’s taking place in history, like Hamilton, you’re still writing for today. That’s so important for people nowadays. Theatre changes people. You can’t just rely on the voices of people who wrote in the 80s and 90s, you need to hear from people who write today and are going through the same experiences. I think that’s why Hamilton has become such a phenomenon. It’s tapping into something that people care about.

New theatre in general is so much more interesting to me, personally, than seeing something that’s already been done. I’m doing Anything Goes, and it’s fun, and the majority of our audience is probably over 60. We go in there, and people can forget about their worries, forget about politics, forget about everything and just laugh for two hours. I love doing that, and that will always be the case for a strong show like Anything Goes. But I think you have to balance that out with new work. There’s a place for both. I’m excited I got to do Doctor Zhivago, then a revival here, and now I’m going back into Comet and doing new work on Broadway.

I’m so excited for this fall season on Broadway. What’s it like to be a part of that? It’s the perfect time for Comet.

It really is. I think Broadway is ready for it. We have some great shows coming in this fall. I’m excited for my friends who are in these shows coming up and for myself. I’m really looking forward to the fall. We start rehearsals in August, so it’s getting closer and closer. I get really excited to think about all the cool things. Unfortunately, I’m not going to get to see most of the fall shows. The only downside is that there’s so many cool shows coming, and I’m like, ‘Oh right, I’m not going to see those shows.’ Please, someone, do the Monday nights so I can see it. This season is going to be awesome.

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About Samantha S.

"I found the theatre and I found my home.” ― Audra McDonald

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