NOTES: RIP “The Great Comet” (2012-2017)

NOTES: RIP “The Great Comet” (2012-2017)

Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812”—a musicalized 70 page excerpt from Tolstoy’s “War in Peace”—plays its final performance on Broadway today, capping a five-year journey that began at Ars Nova in 2012. 

From the get go, “Comet” demanded attention.  It was clear that something special was happening Off-Broadway.  Through its initial incarnation to its subsequent Kazino mountings under a tent in the Meatpacking District and in a vacant lot on 45th Street (2013-2014), and a run at the A.R.T. in Cambridge (2015), the buzz continued.  And for good reason.

I first caught the show at one of its final performances in 2014 at the lot on 45th Street.  An intimate melodramatic modern opera set against an epic, cosmic background, I admired the sheer ambition of the production penned by Dave Malloy and directed by Rachel Chavkin.  That admiration has not waned in the years since. 

It was refreshing to see something so new and fully realized.  I walked away swept up in the pure theatricality of the performance, if not a little unmoved by the underlying story.  I thought, perhaps, I had missed something about the plot or characters, both of which seemed to have bewitched the most devoted “Comet” fans.  Or maybe it was just a matter of personal bias?  The foibles and ennui of 19th Century Russian aristocracy just didn’t seem all too compelling to me.  Then again, maybe I was overthinking it.  The show was fun and transformative; isn’t that enough?

At the time I also thought there was no way “Comet” could transfer to Broadway because the subject matter was off-beat and, more importantly, there seemed to be no house (save maybe the Circle in the Square) that could do justice to the immersive experience, which increasingly seemed to me to be the whole point.  Slap the show behind a proscenium and it would be a nothing-burger.  Try to re-create the salon setting in a big auditorium and surely the immediacy of the performances would be lost.  When the show finally premiered at the Imperial Theatre on Broadway to rave reviews in November 2016, I was happily proven wrong on all fronts.

I paid a visit in January 2017, sitting amid the action onstage, and stopped in again last week, this time from a nice perch in the Rear Mezzanine.  Both times I was struck by how well the Imperial had been transformed—at no small cost—to re-create and in some ways heighten the atmosphere that had been devised Off-Broadway.  Taken together, the costumes by Paloma Young and Tony-winning sets by Mimi Lien and lighting by Bradley King created one of the most impressive mise-en-scènes of recent memory.  I love when a piece of theatre relies on a powerful visual theme and dares to be big—after all, I was weaned on Hal Prince’s “Show Boat” and “Phantom of the Opera.” 

This may be trite, but “Comet” was something you had to experience.  You couldn’t read about it (but thank you if you are still reading this), and pictures and video couldn’t do it justice.  It was a brilliant illustration of what makes live theatre unique and irreplaceable.

At my last viewing, a precious spirit of finality pervaded the air, with roars of sustained applause and cheers erupting as if I were at a rock concert.  The fans were clearly out in this final week, and it made the show all the more festive and enjoyable.  It also underscored a bitter point: this “Comet” was burning out too soon.  The show was always an unlikely subject to be a long-running hit, and never recouped in any of its manifestations, but it was a critical success and an audience favorite (parallels were once drawn to “Hamilton”).  Without a “star” on the marquee, though, following the departures of Josh Groban and Ingrid Michaelson this summer, and a recent, unfortunate casting controversy that marred the previously glowing reputation of the show and extinguished its hope of attracting another big-name draw, future sales and audience potential were suddenly grim, and economic reality forced a closing notice.

“Comet” was not my favorite show.  I still find the story rather un-interesting and a good amount of the music and lyrics unremarkable, but I can’t help but feel sad about its sudden demise.  Part of me wonders if it would have had a better chance at a longer run had it stayed Off-Broadway in the first place.  The bottom line—and harsh reality—is that this was a weird musical that needed a star to get butts (especially tourist butts) in the seats, which makes that casting controversy all the more frustrating.  After all the dust has settled, it is ironic that uproar over replacing an African-American actor with a Broadway legend who happens to be white has resulted in putting one of the most diverse casts on Broadway (recently so honored by Actor’s Equity) out of work, not to mention the loss of a platform for diversity and idiosyncrasy to thrive 8 times a week.

And so, today, after 336 performances, “Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812” bids us farewell.  It has no doubt enriched the New York theatre scene and deserves to be long-remembered and celebrated. 

I have been unable to confirm the provenance of this passage by Leo Tolstoy that has been floating around the internet in recent days, but it is appropriate for the moment: “I feel not only that the comet cannot disappear, as nothing disappears in the world, but it will always be and has always been.”  Nostrovia!

tl;dr for September 4th

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