Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Great Comet: On Engaging Staging

I made a post last month with some of my thoughts about the new Broadway musical Natasha, Pierre, And The Great Comet Of 1812, based on the cast recordings and my research into the show. Now, having seen it live, I have a few more thoughts.

There's been a lot written about this musical already, so I'm going to keep the review part of this short. We already know that this is a well-written music with great music. The cast album is out. It's not up to me to tell you whether you'll like the music.

Josh Groban left the show on Sunday, and the Pierre I saw was Dave Malloy, the librettist and composer, who originated the role off-Broadway. I am generally opposed to writers and composers originating roles in their own works (cameos excepted) as a matter of principle, just as it's generally considered bad form for directors to cast themselves. That said, despite being in the title of the musical, Pierre is actually a fairly minor role, hardly featuring in the plot at all until the last half of Act II. It is an ensemble show, with the leading parts shared fairly equally among Natasha, Anatole, Helene, Sonya, basically every role listed before the "minor characters" section of the Prologue. Dave Malloy's voice is not as pleasant as Josh Groban's (I don't think this is a controversial opinion) but he physically inhabited the role quite effectively, with all the awkwardness and self-doubt called for in the script.

The performance I attended also happened to be the debut of Ingrid Michaelson in the role of Sonya. She was good too.

The two cast standouts for me were Grace McLean as Marya, and Gelsey Bell as Mary. It occurs to me that Mary, a much underrated character, is in some ways a counterpart to Pierre, resentful of the characters who are actually doing something to advance the plot. (Speaking of the scene with Natasha and Mary, I find myself wondering if Natasha's "I'm not afraid of anyone" was intended as a reference to Songs For A New World.)

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I discussed in my previous post how The Great Comet has what I called an "oratoric" nature about it, which makes it an extremely effective album to listen to, and will also lend itself nicely to concert productions in the future. I talked about how the "immersive" staging of the show may be considered a distancing effect, designed to keep the audience aware, rather than to immerse them per se. I have since found that, to my mind, the active and expansive staging actually detracts from the remarkably well-written musical.

For starters, The Great Comet is a particularly wordy musical and requires a good deal of attention to be paid. I found the staging to be too active, often slipping over the line into being distracting. Audience interaction also resulted in laughter at particularly un-funny moments (most notably the scene early on with Mary and Bolkonsky), and in general felt over-burdensome to me.

There is also a problem of staging theater in the round which was redoubled by the set for this show being essentially a series of walkways. When directing in a proscenium theater, the director may behave as though everything is seen through a picture frame, because, well, it is. When directing in a thrust theater, the director must take better care to make sure that actors don't spend too long with their backs to the audience on one side. In the round, actors must be constantly in motion, facing in all directions so that no audience members feel snubbed. And when a big part of the show being advertised is its interactivity, this is double true. The result is that the staging was seldom stagnant. Actors were always in motion, running all across the theater. This is fine for scenes in which a lot of things are happening, but The Great Comet has a wealth of small, intimate, and intensely focused scenes which suffer from this kind of staging. I found that the duets suffered from this the most. When many characters are in a scene, in makes sense for them to be walking about, interacting with the various other characters. When only one character is on stage, it's generally considered bad form to have them simply stand and sing. But when two characters are on stage, it doesn't tend to make much sense to have them wander this way and that.

The trouble is that, while The Great Comet has primarily been advertising its big ensemble numbers such as the Prologue and The Abduction, it has a great many small scenes, and, in fact, a big contributor to its dramatic momentum is how it alternates between big and small scenes. Rarely are there actually many things happening at once -- at least things that are related to the plot. "Find Anatole" is perhaps the only song which actually has multiple things going on at the same time. 

I wonder how The Great Comet will do on tour. Given that a tour goes through many theaters, it won't be able to build out all the walkways consistently, meaning that, for better or for worse, the show will likely have to be redirected in a somewhat more proscenium-esque way, although I expect there will still be on-stage seating. I think this may benefit the show from a dramatic standpoint, as scenes like "Natasha And Anatole" and "Pierre And Andre" (really any of the songs with a title of the structure "Character X And Character Y") will hopefully be able to get the tight focus they need, but it may disappoint audiences, as the interactive nature of the staging has been so heavily marketed.

In general, I worry that the marketing of The Great Comet will be its downfall. It is a wonderfully-written show, with a good story and a great score, and it ought to be able to stand on its own merits. But Josh Groban is no longer in it, and the staging is infeasible to recreate in subsequent productions. And much of the hype around the show has been on those two specific elements. When you advertise a show almost entirely on its star actor, any subsequent replacements have to carry equal cachet. At least unlike some star vehicle shows (*cough* Dear Evan Hansen *cough*), The Great Comet is an ensemble show with many prominent roles, and so the casting directors may be able to continue cramming in stars in an assortment of roles, not just Pierre. Still, it's a difficult business model for a Broadway show to sustain.

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I want to add the disclaimer that I did really enjoy this show, and I highly recommend it. As I said in my post about Dear Evan Hansen, I simply have more to talk about with regard to things I feel could be improved, because everything that doesn't need to be improved (most of it) has already been talked about at length in other reviews.

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One last point to my review, I will not criticize the lighting, as I am particularly susceptible to light-induced headaches and migraines. The club scene made heavy use of strobe lights throughout, for about four minutes. Other moments made use of bright flashing lights which were not technically of the strobe variety, but still bothered me. Attend at your own risk, and maybe bring sunglasses.

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