Who killed Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812?
It is a sad, short controversy, one that tarnishes the sparkle of the brightest light on Broadway in recent memory. Unfortunately, it is also the story of the brutal reality of Broadway — with the departure of actors/musicians Josh Groban and Ingrid Michaelson earlier this year, the musical nominated for 12 Tonys was without a celebrity anchor. Sales nosedived. In an attempt to right the sinking ship, a decision was made to replace Okieriete Onaodowan in the lead role of Pierre with the flashier name of Mandy Patinkin. But replacing a black actor with a white one, all in the name of profit, immediately drew deserved fury from fans.
"It's apparently a weird show. Turns out it needs a name to sell it," tweeted Great Comet's creator, Dave Malloy, by way of explanation, although he fessed up to missing the "racial optics" of the decision. "The show was in desperate shape. Sales after Ingrid leaving Aug. 13 were catastrophically low," he added. "Show would have closed."
Ultimately it closed anyway, and the catastrophe is now of another kind — the loss of a musical as close to pure theatrical magic as any might be for generations.
Based on several of the middle chapters of Leo Tolstoy's 1869 tome War and Peace — innocent young Natasha comes to Moscow and falls in love with Prince Anatole while her betrothed, Andrey, fights in the war against Napoleon — Great Comet first opened in 2012 at the Ars Nova theater off Broadway. Conceptualized as a kind of dinner theater, the show was performed under a giant tent with the audience seated at tables around the room and served icy shots of vodka, creamy White Russians, and earthy borscht.
"Dinner theater," though, is much too tame a description for what the show really was — a grand party, perhaps, suits it better. Actors raced around tables and servers waited on guests in costume and character. Egg-shaped shakers passed to diners for the "just-for-fun" number "Balaga" became part of the thrilling cacophony.
Great Comet arrived on Broadway in November 2016, and the attempt to recreate the Ars Nova atmosphere of an intimate performance involved literally reconstructing the inside of the Gilded Age's grand Imperial Theater. Staircases were added to connect the floor to the mezzanine, seats were removed and added and rearranged. Audience members could even sit on what once was the theater's main stage, looking back toward the mezzanine.
As a result, every seat in the house offered an entirely unique view. Attendees were required to swivel their necks to take in every interaction; one particularly memorable dance, the recognizably Slavic "Hopak," takes place on opposite sides of the theater as the dancers mirror each other in an electrifying climax.
In addition to the jaw-dropping set, the costumes were another point of almost overwhelming originality, mixing the dress of the 19th century Russian aristocracy with Vegas Rat Pack and a more 21st century techno/biker look. Costume designer Paloma Young described her inspiration for Natasha's outfit as being "albino lunar moth + champagne + early Regency + young Jackie O." "One night, I saw a woman in total awe lean in at the edge of her seat to examine the embroidered details of an actor's denim jacket while he danced in the aisle," wrote Aaron Edwards in The Outline, a sight not uncommon in the house.
To diehard fans who experienced Great Comet at Ars Nova, the transition of the beloved musical to Broadway was wracked with anxiety. As New York Times theater critic Charles Isherwood fretted: "Could the show, essentially a chamber opera with a small chorus, retain its emotional potency in a house that seats more than a thousand people? Would the immersive staging, including plentiful frisky interaction between performers and the audience, be jettisoned?"
It quickly became clear there was no cause for concern: "[Great Comet] is both the most innovative and the best new musical to open on Broadway since Hamilton, and an inspiring sign that the commercial theater can continue to make room for the new," Isherwood wrote in his review, adding: "Heresy alert: I prefer this show to that one." (As do I.)
Less than a year later, though, Isherwood's rave has a tinge of irony. Broadway only momentarily made way for the new; it could not sustain it. Like a shooting star itself, Great Comet blazed in beautiful glory for the briefest moment before blinking out.
Theater, and perhaps musicals in particular, have a way of connecting complete strangers, of sweeping up even the most cynical attendees in a wave of excitement. "It's contagious," as one older audience member said to me during intermission.
The loss of Comet, then, feels deeply personal. In particular, the show's cast was impressively inclusive, throwing out any notion that Russian aristocracy ought to be portrayed as exclusively white. "You have a right to everyone's story, but as an actor of color, you often find that maybe you have access to very limited stereotypes of what people might think you are," the actress who plays Natasha, Denée Benton, told Vox. "Even then sometimes, the story gets whitewashed, and you get completely written out of the tale."
Great Comet was more than just a haven for many of us; it was a home. That much was clear at the final performance on Sept. 3, the theater filled with weeping fans who stood for minutes-long encores that disrupted the flow of the show. At the curtain call, a visibly emotional Rachel Chavkin, the director, apologized to anyone in the audience who was seeing the performance for the first time "because you probably couldn't hear the lyrics."
Even as ushers tried to corral people through the exits at the end, the audience lingered and hugged and comforted each other. Cast members visibly wept in the aisles. I wandered in confused, unhappy circles until I was sternly pointed in the direction of the door. The unfairness of it all was palpable — it shouldn't be this way, every accidental eye contact pleaded and begged. Great Comet deserves better.
The cast and crew have remained reassuring: "Into a new life," the musical's social media accounts vow, an echo of the final, hopeful promise of the show. Indeed, Broadway World reports that "plans for a national tour of The Great Comet are underway with an expected launch in 2019."
Again, that anxiety: Will it be as intimate? Will it be as magical? Will others understand what I understand?
— The Great Comet (@GreatCometBway) September 3, 2017
I find it easiest to explain Great Comet's power with a story about seeing it just a few weeks after it opened on Broadway, in December of last year. After the show, when exiting the mezzanine, the audience had to funnel into a small stairway in between buildings, exposed to the elements.
It just so happened that our exit from the theater was timed with New York City's first snowfall of the year. I was momentarily stunned by the white flakes floating down around me like they do around Natasha as she sings of her love for Andrey. Even though I could feel the icy flakes on my bare, upturned face, I was unable — or unwilling — to accept that I was back in the real world.
Shivering in the snow, I turned from stranger to stranger, as foolish and excited as a child. "Is this real?" I asked each aloud. "Could this possibly be real?"