Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 scene-stealers Brittain Ashford and Grace McLean discuss working with the Tony-nominated creative team and the escapist nature of the musical

Grace McLean (L) and Brittain Ashford

Grace McLean (L) and Brittain Ashford

Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812, Dave Malloy’s innovative chamber musical currently playing at Broadway’s recently renovated Imperial Theatre, has fused word-for-word Tolstoy with an eclectic score including opera, EDM and folk-rock to tell the story of one man’s search for meaning in life. Currently starring Josh Groban, who plays his final performance on Sunday, and Denée Benton, the production was conceived by Rachel Chavkin as an immersive, 19th-century Russia filled with punk and purity. The ‘electropop opera’, as Malloy calls it, began its journey off-Broadway at Ars Nova, and swiftly entranced audiences with an irresistible folky sound and a fresh theatrical approach never before seen on the Broadway stage.

Stage Door Dish caught up with Brittan Ashford and Grace McLean about their respective roles as Sonya and Marya. True to the opening song ‘Prologue’ lyrics, Sonya is ‘good, Natasha’s cousin and closest friend’, while Marya is ‘old-school, a grand dame of Moscow.’ After Comet swept up 12 Tony nominations including Best Musical and walked away with two awards for the production, and in the midst of a successful Broadway run, Ashford and McLean chatted with Stage Door Dish about their personal journeys with the show, audience participation stories, and the idea of theatre as an escape from the outside world.

Can you tell me how long you’ve been with Great Comet?  

GM: I have been with Great Comet since the Kazino tent . . . I was hired in February of 2013.

BA: And I’ve been with it since the very, very beginning – since the first workshop, whenever that was. It’s been such a beautiful journey.

Great Comet is such a unique being. When did you, as someone involved with the show, realize that it was something very different and very special?

GM: I saw it November 2012 at Ars Nova on its last night, and it was unlike anything I’d ever seen. It made me laugh and cry and drink a lot, which are all things I like to do.

BA:  Prior to being in the show, I don’t even think I saw a lot of theatre. I had seen some very traditional musicals, and in high school I’d seen shows like Rent, Secret Garden and Ragtime, and I knew what modern musicals were. And I loved classical musicals like Oklahoma!, but I hadn’t seen a lot of New York theatre other than comedians. I’d seen some really amazing people, but I’d never been in a show . . . You know when you can’t see something when it’s right in front of you? It was exactly that, and I don’t think I realized it until we had been open for several weeks. I tried really hard not to read any of the press, but the show was selling out and it was hard to get in – I knew that much. At first I was like, ‘Yeah, it’s different and I’m really enjoying it, but does that translate to other people also enjoying it?’ It’s really easy to enjoy something when you’re inside of it. But it wasn’t until we’d been running for a couple of weeks until I realized that it was something very special.

I want to ask about Rachel Chavkin because she is such a genius, incredible woman. What’s it like to work with a female director, and especially someone of her caliber who’s able to bring to life such a beast of a show?

BA: She’s a fantastic person to trust and to look up to.

GM: She always seems to know what she’s doing, but she also has a really deep ear. She wants to know how you’re doing, and why you’re doing what you’re doing. Even if she has an idea about a moment, she’ll want to know your ideas. She is a fantastic collaborator. That’s how she came up with her creative team. The people that she works with and their journeys and processes are important to her, and that makes it really easy to trust her when she has the big decisions to make.

BA: I echo all of that. One of my favorite things about working with Rachel is that, like the best directors, she’ll plant a seed or make a suggestion that somehow makes you think that you came up with this brilliant idea. I’ve watched her do it again and again, and it’s this collaborative thing that I think is what maker her so special, and what makes her productions so unique. She brings out the best of people in their characters.

The reason I wanted to talk to you two together is namely because of your characters. In my understanding of the show, I find both Sonya and Marya very feminist, and they’re incredibly strong female characters, which is rare on Broadway, and so desperately needed, especially in this day and age. Can you speak to that a little bit?

GM: I have started thinking about ‘What would Marya’s politics be if she were around in 2017?’ So that got me thinking about this. She definitely doesn’t need a man, I’ll say that. Marya D. makes her own decisions because they’re the things she believes in. I think we see that a lot with these characters. For Natasha, she’s young and she’s thinking with her ‘hooha.’ But I think that Marya D. and Sonya are thinking with their hearts, and they’re thinking about real, lasting love. I’m not really talking about feminist choices, per say, but about the way in which they view their relationships with people in this world. I don’t really think of them as gendered. For me anyway, when I approach a character, I always try to think about who it is that they love, and that helps me know how they deal with people. I think Marya has a lot of love, and she has high expectations for people because of that love. And if you’re not in that circle, you’re really not in that circle.

Because I, Grace, know that Marya loves Natasha and there are two girls visiting me, in order to make that interesting for myself, if she loves one, she doesn’t like the other one. So I’m continually finding out what it is that she doesn’t like so much about Sonya. And it’s really that Sonya is not a part of the family. I have a moment to your [Sonya’s] back, while we wait on our fiancées fighting in the war – you’re engaged to Nikolai, Natasha’s brother, and Marya doesn’t like that so much, because Sonya’s got nothing to offer the family in terms of money or status. It seems like Marya doesn’t quite approve of Sonya and Nikolai being together. And so I have a moment where I say, ‘Darling, yours isn’t real.’ Oh, Sonya’s so fucking sad. Sam note: Do you want to keep this in here?

BA: I think about my character as being this sort of sexless character. She’s so fiercely devoted to her family – not so much in the show, but more in the text – that she doesn’t have to marry anyone, and she ends up alone. She’s a servant to Nikolai and Princess Mary – Princess Mary marries Nikolai, because she has money. And so Nikolai decides to marry her.

Because you have been with the show for quite a while, how has your character infiltrated your own life and changed you a little bit?

BA: This sounds really cheesy, but I feel like playing Sonya has in a way made me a little bit of a better person. Maybe part of that is because I’ve been with the show so long, and I just got older and make better choices, but I feel like I find myself trying to do the ‘good’ thing. I can’t say with certainty that this is a reflection of playing my character, but I can definitely draw a line and see that there is a part of my life that wasn’t very great . . . and maybe that’s because this part of my life completely disintegrated, and then I came back to New York after being gone for a couple of months and started with Comet. So maybe it’s just two chapters, but I would like to think that she’s positively influenced my life.

GM: I don’t know if, or how, or in what way the character of Marya has affected me personally, but the act of playing her and playing with her is definitely influential. I think I’ve put a lot of work into this lady – to understanding her, and understanding who I am with her. I’ve gotten to do it so many times now that I’m always trying to learn something new and different about the performance of this person. So purely technically, the things that I’m doing vocally, I only get to do with this person, but it makes me wonder why I can’t bring this kind of range to stuff I’m writing. Normally when I write for myself, or my fans, I have one voice over there. But this character has all these other voices. Those characters – they live within me. So how can I bring that over here? That’s sort of opened up this other conversation about the work, which I’m really appreciative of.

We also spent a lot of time just silently sitting in sadness at the end of the show. Once everything has kind of gone to shit, we all sit there, and sometimes I use that time as a character-mining time. I definitely use some moments in the show to actively exercise and get out demons, because there’s an opportunity to do so in this show. I get to draw a map for the passion that I have to have on account of Pierre, and then the aftermath of that and the consequences that it has. And sometimes, like on Election Day, that passion and that rage was real, and I got to use the construct of this show to get out some of that.

I want to transition and talk about the past a little bit, because you have had different paths of this show. When I heard the buzz that they were going to cast a name as Pierre, I wondered if someone other than Dave was up for it. I messaged Josh to thank him for playing this so authentically, and as someone who genuinely cares about theatre. It’s also interesting because Phillipa [Soo] went from Comet to the Hamilton world. What’s it like seeing the transition of the cast while having this body like Lucas or Amber who have been with you through it all?

 BA: It’s been really wonderful, I’ll say that. I personally enjoy everyone in the cast for everything that they offer, and I think that everyone’s offered something a little different – nobody has ever played the part the same way. We were talking about Pippa versus Denée, or Dave versus David Abeles or Scott, and ultimately Josh, and I can say with certainty that they’ve all been such wonderful humans to work with. They all did it in their own way, which I really appreciated. Dave playing that role brings something so different than Josh. Bringing in a celebrity had this potential to be super weird, especially in a show that really is an ensemble piece. We’d all been working towards this thing, and I think there was a little bit of apprehension, not just on my part, that it was going to change things. And while of course it has changed because Josh is a different human, he is so gracious, so open to direction and feedback from Rachel, and so willing to engage . . . he’s fantastic. A giant celebrity could’ve gone into that role, shut themselves in their dressing room, and easily not have come to 95% of the rehearsals. So much of Pierre’s time is spent in that pit. It would’ve been easy for someone who thought perhaps too highly of themselves to just remove themselves and not engage, but Josh has been 110% throughout the entire show. He’s always around and he’s always working hard and pushing himself and is present with himself, with us, and with the audience.

GM: It’s always been a community, and it’s a community of individuals, which is pretty unique for a show like this. There’s no cookie-cutter part at all. There’s no real ‘type’. Everyone in the ensemble is their own type of weirdo, and that’s why it works. Everyone is an open-hearted weirdo – and that’s Josh Groban. So it all works out. And that’s what this show champions – it’s not about clean lines, and five-six-seven-eight. I mean, it is a bit, but it’s also about your weird life.

I want to spin the question a little bit and give you a chance to talk about each other. Is there any moment or song in the show in which you’re watching each other just in complete awe?

BA: When I’m watching ‘In My House’, I am in awe of what Grace doing. When you hit those notes and sing, ‘Listen to me when I speak to you’,  I kind of do a spit-take thing, and I am terrified of you in that moment. Sometimes I have moments where I’m like ‘I’m really terrified’ and then sometimes I’m like ‘Damn, I don’t know how she’s doing that.’ I don’t know how she does it.

GM: I’m unfortunately not onstage for ‘Sonya Alone’ but I’ve seen it, and I hear it. It’s just the perfect eleven-o-clock number because it’s such an anti eleven-o-clock number. It’s not some big flashy thing – all of a sudden it gets to be this intensely tender and beautiful moment, which like anything in this show, is both surprising and perfect. I think there’s a reason that song has never changed. It’s just pure. When you get something right and you get the right person to do it, everyone responds to that.

Because the show has literally gone from a tent production to Boston to now the Imperial which is a giant, beautiful Broadway house, is there anything that has changed in the show that you wish would’ve made its way into the Imperial production? Or anything that surprised you?

GM: There are a bunch of small, silly things that I personally loved, but with them gone, the show does not suffer for it. The show is very concise and it plays to that giant room exactly as it needs to.

BA: The thing is, I don’t remember all of the small, silly things, because we had the opportunity to build new ones, and that was fun to do when we were first remounting it at A.R.T., but it had been a lot of time between the tent and A.R.T., but between A.R.T. to here, it was harder to let go of or build new moments. But that’s also part of the fun of the job that’s like, ‘There’s this new person here, and I really loved this little thing I used to do that was a great choice’ but you know, sometimes you have to make a new choice.

Between Ars Nova and the tent, they massively changed Marya, because Grace is a badass, and Dave saw that he could use that tool in so many ways. The original ‘Sunday Morning’ was fairly short. I remember really liking it in the moment, but it’s so unnecessary. Of course now I think the new ‘Sunday Morning’ is perfect, and it fits into the Imperial in such a magical way. The old version wouldn’t have been good or interesting. I think all of the changes have ultimately been for the best, and for the sake of the story.

I have a question about the audience participation in the show. Whether in the Imperial or in another theatre, is there a moment that you had with an audience member, or some crazy thing that happened to you?

GM: When we were in the tent, we had a lot of people who were not interested in the story at all, so there would be a lot of people just talking through things. Shakers are a difficult thing to give an audience, especially to people who are not interested in listening to the story. I remember there was one night in the tent when I made this cross in ‘Find Anatole’ to sit down at the table, and there was this woman just shaking her egg. The night before, someone else had been doing it, and I walked up to them and asked with my hand to give me their egg and they did. I’ve found that if anyone in the audience is giving me attitude when I’m giving a line or something, I can very easily just give them attitude back, which is very satisfying because it’s a two-way street. We’re in this together. But anyway, in this one moment, I went over to her and tried to get her to give me her shaker and she didn’t, and I had to sit down and do the rest of the scene, but she kept shaking it at me. I very stupidly tried to engage with her and grab it out of her hands . . . I was boiling over with rage, and she wouldn’t let it go. I think I finally got it from her, and she just took another one and shook it in my face. I didn’t handle it well at all.

BA: If something crazy has happened to me, I don’t remember it. The only thing I can remember is the cell phone thing. It wasn’t happening to me, but it happened in the quietest, most tender moment of the show. You may have heard about this – I encourage you to look for it. As Grace said, there were definitely moments in the tent where it was a little harder to reach audience members, and in this particular instance, there was a woman on her cell phone. An audience member tried to tell her to put it away, and finally (and I don’t know why he decided this was the most appropriate time to do it), in the middle of ‘Sonya Alone’, he takes her phone boiling over with rage, and throws it down the stairs. They were sitting in the top tier of the tent back against the wall, and he hurls it down the stairs – I knew instantly what that noise is. You know the sound of an iPhone hitting the floor. So again, it didn’t really happen to me, but I had no idea what was going on and the woman just huffed the whole length of the theatre. I just sang the song trying not to be distracted by what was happening, only I found out exactly what happened later. I also don’t have a lot of opportunities to engage with audience members directly in any particularly meaningful way. I hand out egg shakers, and occasionally people don’t understand . . . it’s noisy, there’s a lot happening, and I hand them a basket of shakers. Sometimes they’re immediately like ‘Yeah, shaker!’ but sometimes I’ll say “take one and pass it back,” and they’re just confused. You only have a number of seconds to get where you need to be and do your thing in theatre.

GM: I give people the basket sometimes and they just shake the whole basket. Eventually I think they figure it out, though.

If you could take on another role in this production, who would you want to play for a night?

GM: This would never have happened to me when I was age appropriate, but I would love to play Natasha. But in a benefit or something, I think I would play Dolokhov. I love ‘Preparations’ – it is the funkiest jam!

BA: I also must admit – I’ve heard Grace sing ‘Charming’ and it’s off the hook. So good. It was at an Ars Nova benefit or something, and Amber couldn’t come. This was before we’d even started rehearsals for the tent.

GM: They knew that I would sing it because I’d auditioned for it. Amber wants to play Bolkonsky, and Lucas wants to play Mary, so they would keep their family intact. Oh, and Nick Choksi wants to play Sonya.

BA: Let’s make it happen – gender-swapped Great Comet!

So I want to talk about escapism and theatre and how Great Comet is relevant today. People are so heavy-hearted right now and things are kind of scary. Great Comet can be this place of solitude, where you can go and enjoy and be all fired up and sad and happy.

BA: I think it is that. What I hope for every single person who walks into that theatre is that they are able to completely give themselves over to the moment. You’re right, there are really high highs and there are really sad lows. But I hope that someone can come in and leave the outside world outside. I think that is what good theatre does – it doesn’t matter what it is.

GM: I think it has cathartic opportunity on many levels for joy, for laughter, and also for pain and loss, and I think that it’s a particularly great show to see in these times because of the subtle reference. I mean, the show starts with ‘There’s a war going on out there somewhere’ so we are recognizing that the world outside of this place sucks. But we’re not going to think about that right now. We’re going to have this whole other journey. But by the end of the show, that world starts to creep back in – the real world – and you see how it affects those other things. Andrey comes back from the war out there, and if you know the story of War and Peace, after Pierre has this cathartic moment of connection with divinity through another human being, we hear about how the comet is supposed to protect the end of the world. It is the end of the world after this, and in the book, the Moscow that we’ve been living in goes up in flames. So I think that however much of an escape the story is, it’s also deeply related to what’s going on in the world and I think there is a place for forgetting about that – forgetting about the political, global scheme of horror, and just dealing with individuals and their hearts and minds. Hopefully that sets you up to then go back out into that world on a larger scale and take some of that human interaction with you.

About Samantha S.

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

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