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Inside the design of the new Broadway musical
In the most literal sense, Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 doesn't have a set design at all.
An electro-pop opera based on a scandalous romantic subplot in Leo Tolstoy's novel War and Peace, the show follows young Natasha as she gets seduced by a married man named Anatole, breaks off her own engagement to run away with him, and then gets thwarted by her friends, her family, and Anatole's roguish personality.
Written and composed by Dave Malloy, the musical sprawls across Moscow, traveling from private chambers to opulent opera houses, with an exciting interlude in a troika that races through the streets.
But we never actually see any of these locations. Instead, the actors evoke the settings through language. While Natasha (Denée Benton) is at the opera, for instance, she might sing a breathless aria about the people and décor. When Pierre (Josh Groban), a family friend who tries to help her recover from the scandal, gets pulled into a duel, another actor might sing a throbbing dance song about the club where the fight takes place.
And so, as they roam through Broadway's Imperial Theatre, where the show has moved after several Off-Broadway iterations, the cast members seem less like performers playing roles than hosts who are conjuring an entire world for us. Sometimes, they're embodying particular people, but sometimes they're teasing our imaginations with descriptions of 19th-century Russia.
And sometimes they're climbing over our seats, delivering love notes to random spectators. Or they're distributing egg shakers to let audience members accompany a jaunty song. Or they're passing out boxes of snacks and insisting we eat. As conceived by director Rachel Chavkin and her team, that's just how storytelling works in The Great Comet: It's immersive. It's relentless. It puts the performance all around us.
But what does that mean for set designer Mimi Lien? If she's not designing Natasha's bedroom or her box at the opera, then what exactly is she designing?
Mostly, she's creating the environment where this show unfolds. She's creating the context in which Chavkin and Malloy's wild narrative makes sense.
For instance, when we enter the Imperial, we walk through a lobby that has been transformed into an underground bunker. The walls are dirty and gray, and they're covered with fading Russian-language posters. That's the opposite of the world inside the theatre, which has the glittering opulence of an opera house. The walls are covered with portraits and mirrors. There are audience members sitting on the stage, being served cocktails as they huddle in intimate banquettes. Even audiences in traditional theatre seats will find small tables nearby, where they can rest a drink or a snack. Toss in the raised platforms and vaulting staircases that let the actors scamper around the room, and the inside of theatre feels like a lush escape from the dank bunker outside.
"I'm really interested in that contrast, which to me is almost literally the war and the peace – the war outside and the peace inside," says Lien, who has designed every version of the show. "There's a sense that there's this war going on outside, and all of these people are packed in the space inside together. And they have this sense of joie de vivre, even with the threat of war outside. It's like they have to live it up even more, and we feel that more because these two environments are there."
This concept is partially inspired by Malloy's own experience at a Russian club, and it's partly inspired by the Serbian film Underground. But mostly, it springs from Lien's vision of the show.
"From the first production, I've always been thinking about proximity between the audience and the performers and a kind of 'non-boundary' between those two," she says. "The feeling of sitting at tables together has always been really important to me – sitting around a table with strangers, the way you might when you're in a club. Because again, it's the war outside and the peace inside, and part of that convivial environment inside is being with other people. We want to get across that, 'There's a war outside. It's crazy outside. But we're all here together.' That's been the driving principle of all the design choices."
Follow Stages editor Mark Blankenship at @IAmBlankenship.Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.
Photos by Chad Batka. Top photo; Josh Groban and the cast of the show.
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