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'The Great Comet': 'Hits All Of The Checkmarks' Of A Broadway Experience

Denée Benton stars in the multiple-nominee hit Broadway musical <em>Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet Of 1812. </em>
Denée Benton stars in the multiple-nominee hit Broadway musical Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet Of 1812.

The 71st annual Tony Awards, which recognizes achievements in Broadway productions, will be held Sunday at Radio City Music Hall in New York City. Topping the list of nominees this year, with 12 nods, is the hit musical Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812. It's somewhat based on Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace and has been lauded by critics for its diverse casting, wildly innovative set and fresh take on a classic story.

Written by Dave Malloy, who is also its composer and lyricist, The Great Comet of 1812 is lavish in its staging, and its genre-bending music helps whisk audience into the lives of Moscow's aristocracy. The musical chronicles the misadventures of young, beautiful and very naïve Natasha, played by 25-year-old Broadway newcomer Denée Benton, previously known for her role as Ruby Carter in the Emmy-nominated Lifetime series UnREAL.

Natasha travels to Moscow to wait for her fiancé who is away at war. While there, she falls under the sway of an unscrupulous but handsome nobleman who starts an affair with her for the fun of it. Meanwhile, Pierre, a disillusioned aristocrat, played by multiplatinum recording artist Josh Groban, tries to help save her reputation. And yes, there's a comet. Other than that, it's challenging to explain.

Our industry has a lot of power to change that and represent the truth of what actually exists in the world, which is that there are tons of ingénues walking around on the Earth, of every race.

The musical is directed by three-time Obie Award-winning Rachel Chavkin, who's also artistic director of the Team, a Brooklyn-based theater company. Chavkin and Benton are among the key reasons for The Great Comet's breakout success. For their stellar contributions, both women have been nominated for Tony Awards this weekend.

Chavkin and Benton spoke with NPR's Michel Martin about the epic production that is The Great Comet.

Recording artist Josh Groban plays Pierre to newcomer Benton's Natasha in <em>The Great Comet Of 1812</em>, based on Leo Tolstoy's <em>War and Peace.</em>
Chad Batka / Courtesy Matt Ross Public Relations
Recording artist Josh Groban plays Pierre to newcomer Benton's Natasha in The Great Comet Of 1812, based on Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace.

Here are interview highlights

On the guiding principle for directing The Great Comet of 1812

Rachel: I mean, the original north star for the whole production was this night that Dave had in Moscow a number of years ago, where he stumbled at this café, Café Margarita, and there was a classical pops trio playing, and he ended up sitting next to the viola. And there were shakers and dumplings and vodka on the tables. So that story was the spirit that Mimi Lien, our incredible set designer, and I took and ran with. And, so it was very much about creating chaos, but also making sure that every moment of the story was as clear as possible. So there's this huge amount of energy in the room.

On whether she ever had a moment of self-doubt in taking in directing a Broadway musical

Rachel: Sure, of course. I mean, I think that the happy thing is because the project has grown so slowly, you know? Our first production was at Ars Nova in 2012, and that was for a room of 87 seats. And the following spring, we got to take it to a theater that we actually built ourselves in a tent for 199 people. And then, two years later, we went to ART, which was an incredible home to us and allowed us to grow it to what it would be like in a more traditional proscenium theater space. And then, we arrived on Broadway.

So I think because we got it to grow so slowly, by the time we got to Broadway, even though it was midday view. ... I've never, ever known a work better than I know this piece, and I've never known something that I have seen and felt be as emotionally and spiritually effective as I think this work is. So, I went into it really trusting my material and trusting my creative team and my cast, and I don't know how we would've done it without that.

On whether when she was growing up she ever thought she'd be playing a rich Russian countess

Denée: I have to say that I'm probably the one person who did. It was always my dream to be in the center of the stage telling those stories, and it's very ambitious that I would get to this place. So, I'm very thankful because Natasha is the type of character I always saw myself in. I heard her song for the first time, I feel like we were kindred spirits. Our souls just really get each other, so I'm thankful to have had people like Dave and Rachel in the room, who were awake enough to see what I had to bring to this character and who allowed me to pour myself into it.

On whether there was a part of her that she had to release to fully embrace this role as a princess

Denée: It's interesting, I think, that a lot of people are still shocked that that's the culture that we still live in. But it is, and I think that our industry has a lot of power to change that and represent the truth of what actually exists in the world, which is that there are tons of ingénues walking around on the Earth, of every race. I think for me, more than having to release those insecurities, I think it helped me embrace parts of myself that I always knew to be true.

And I think that's been the beautiful part of it. And an extra layer of already getting to do a role that I feel I'm so perfect for is also getting to affect this conversation and affect how other black girls see themselves and how other people see them, and what they feel they're capable of.

Oh what she'd like for people to know about this production

Rachel: The world that we have created inside the Imperial Theater is high and low. It's opulent and luscious but deeply funny and raucous and relaxed. And it really is the world that I personally feel like I want to live inside, always. And that spirit of joy and community that the cast creates with the audience. It's an unbelievable amount of energy and integrity, and it makes space for these moments of really quiet grace.

On what she would say to make to make people come see The Great Comet of 1812

Denée: The heart of the show will move you, and it will make you feel connected to humanity, connected to your humanity. There will be tears. There will be laughter. It really, it hits all of the checkmarks for me into the kind of experience I want to have when I spend that money to sit in a Broadway theater for a couple hours.

NPR producer Denise Guerra contributed to this report.

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Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered and host of the Consider This Saturday podcast, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.