Grace McLean makes her Broaway debut as 'Marya D' in NATASHA PIERRE & THE GREAT COMET OF 1812. Dave Malloy's original new pop opera is adapted from a slice of Leo Tolstoy's 'War and Peace,'and tells the intricate tale of young ingénue Natasha who, in a moment of weakness, destroys her position in society and puts her ultimate fate in jeopardy. Her only hope lies with Pierre, the lonely outsider whose love and compassion for Natasha may be the key to her redemption.
Today, Grace McLean speaks exclusively with BWW about making her Broadway debut and explains the importance of telling new, original stories in contemporary theater.
[NOTE: BroadwayWorld's fabulous photographer Walter McBride captures images of the Broadway stars profiled in our monthly column in a special photo shoot. Check out the pics of Ms. McLean throughout the feature!]
You are coming from the off-Broadway production of THE GREAT COMET which was performed in a much more intimate space. How does the larger house change the dynamics of the show?
I actually think the larger space is a huge benefit for this show because there is so much going on and it really helps to center the story. It's easier to create pictures where you can really direct where you want people to look, even though there are so many funny little Easter eggs happening everywhere for people to look at, yet you still really follow the story. And I think the larger stage is the right place to tell that story. In the tents, we had a lot of opportunity for intimacy and small moments, which was great, but I think it was still difficult for people because there was a lot of craning of necks all of the time and a lot of things were lost. So now you can just turn your eyes and you still get the intimacy because we are everywhere, but you can follow the storyline easily, and I think that is helping with the success of the show right now.
I would describe this show as a true feast for the senses, and I mean all the senses!
Right? Yes, I love that those things, those little moments of personal connection were retained for this show, the moments that really don't have anything to do with the story except to say 'you're here, we're here, I see you!' And it gives a feeling of real community.
Do you remember your reaction the first time you walked into the Imperial Theatre and saw how they had transformed it?
Well there's a really ridiculous picture of me that [Director] Rachel Chavkin took, where I look like a huge goofball. My jaw is on the floor and my eyes are just as large as can be. I was just so excited by it. Earlier on, during our first week of rehearsals, our producers took us on a little tour of the theater, and at the time they were still reconfiguring, where most of the stage is now was not there, and there was just dust everywhere. But we all knew there was an idea there - we were all just sort of imagining then. But as soon as we got in there that day we returned, it all made perfect sense.
Your character Marya is a woman of great strength, and we really get to see many different sides of her throughout the show.
Well she's described as strict, yet kind, but I guess it's more fun for me to lean on the idea of, 'how strict can one be?' I have a lot of fun with her in the first act, she's very expositional, she's there to tell you why Natasha is there. But then in the second act, everything changes. From the moment when the story changes right into a melodrama, that moment she says 'you won't enter my house scoundrel!' - I call that the marathon part of the show. I love this track because I get to go from being this motherly figure who loves these girls, but then it's been really interesting for me to explore where her rage is coming from. I don't have children but I get to imagine what it's like to love somebody so much and then be betrayed by them. And I do look at it as a betrayal. Natasha has betrayed me and my trust. She comes into my house and I take care of her. This is a girl she comes to love so much, and then Natasha just spits in her face. So that's real passion right there and I love that I do get to have a real moment of passion in this show. It's really fun because her anger is her way of expressing her love for Natasha. Even though she freaks out so much, she does love her so, so much and that's the thing that I try to tap into, how much love can I have for a person and then how much can I feel the betrayal from her? It's really a broken-hearted moment.
Can we talk about this wonderful score by David Malloy? What is it like to sing these lyrics and how difficult was it to learn the music?
It's interesting because a lot of the time, David is drawing directly from the text of Tolstoy, so when you first look at the music on the page it looks very daunting. You're like, 'how am I going to learn that?' But then you realize it is actually quite conversational. He's written everything to try to fall into a syntax or a rhythm that makes sense. He wanted it to sound like people, who just happen to be on pitch, are just talking to one another. And the score is just so innovative, it draws on so many different styles, and that's the thing that I really love about it. There have been a few critics of the show who complain 'it's a mismash of styles and sounds' but that's exactly how the story is! 'War and Peace' is stylistically all over the place - it is a melodrama, it's a drama, it's a comedy, it's a love story, it's a history lesson, it's philosophy, it's so many things at once ground into this one book. I don't know if they didn't have editors back then, or maybe Tolstoy was just like, 'I am the voice of this nation and I'm going to do whatever I want' but it is all things at once. And Dave ran with that. So we have Russian folk influences, but also electronic, but also almost Americana, folk, and then there's a crazy club scene where it's suddenly all EDM. So it's all things happening in one show, but all tell the same timeless story.
For me, it's like time-traveling, especially at the end when we are all just looking at the comet and watching Pierre. In fact the text of that song is basically taken right from the book. So we get to listen to those words that were written over two hundred years ago and we get to look at the comet and stars and space and things that were created a millennia ago. We get to look at them and hear them now. And these characters and these words will continue to live on for centuries. So to me, it's surreal and it's beautiful.
Speaking of that epic Tolstoy novel 'War and Peace', had you read it prior to your casting?
Yes, I had read in 2005 when I was traveling in Europe, I was studying abroad in college and I just liked Russian literature and I like classic literature, so I wanted something to read on my off time and I chose 'War and Peace.' And it was hard, and maybe a little bit ambitious on my part, but I read it then, and then I read it again when we were doing the show off-Broadway. And the thing is, because I got to know some of these core characters through the show, it was so much easier to latch on to them the second time around and to follow their stories. I would actually really love to read it again. The first time I really read it for the narrative of Pierre and Andre and Natasha and Marya and all those characters, but there's so much more in there, there's so much history that I'd love to go back and explore more deeply. It's a really beautiful book, assuming you get the right translation. But I do think this show may serve as a good introduction for people, because they will get to know these characters and will want to learn more.
Very much in the way that HAMILTON has inspired people to want to learn more about American history.
Exactly! Because it gives not only a face to these characters but also a visceral experience of caring about them, whether it be historical or classic literature. But having that visceral experience with some characters and seeing them in front of you and feeling things for and about them, of course you want to know more about where that all came from. It's actually very cool - thank God for musical theater right?
Another unique thing about the show is that it marks the Broadway debuts for the writer, the director, the two leads and so many of the cast members including yourself of course. What has it been like to all be experiencing that together?
It's really wonderful. We are a group of weirdos and I love that! Everybody is such an individual and they have such rich and interesting lives. There are so many creators in this group, so many people who have their own bands and write their own music and write their own plays and have a very strong point of view about art and art-making. And to all be in the room together in this show, at this level, I think it gives us all a lot of hope that there really is an audience for the weirdos out there and that's really great. I think we're moving in the right direction. There was a show recently called 'Futurity', it won the Lucille Lortel Award for Best New Musical, and the reason I reference it is because of the heights and accolades that it got. To see these kinds of shows, that are breaking conventional rules around musical theater, is heartening for those of us who want to continue to do that kind of work. And I really hope there will be a commercial audience for them, because now is the time that we need to be telling new stories, we have to, we can't keep telling the same stories over and over.
What was it like to make your Broadway debut in THE GREAT COMET OF 1812?
Well the night of our first preview was just great. Our tech process was so fast, our rehearsal was very efficient but it was still pretty fast, and we were doing it in a space that totally approximated what we were going to be in. The set has a lot of stairs, but at that time we didn't have any stairs, we had to just tape out things and pretend we were walking up stairs or be like, 'you'll be up in the mezzanine now' even though we didn't have a mezzanine at that time. So we were all just like, 'I hope this works!' And we did get in a couple of runs in the actual theater which was great. But as soon as the audience was there that first night of previews, we all felt like, 'oh, here we go, this makes sense. I know how to do this!' And I expected it to be overwhelming nerves, but really, as soon as people were in those seats, it all made sense and everything fell into place. Because we really do need the audience to tell this story. It's not interactive, we're not asking you to do anything, but we need you there to tell this story. So as soon as the audience was in their place, it all felt right. It all felt really good!
NATASHA, PIERRE AND THE GREAT COMET OF 1812 is currently playing at the Imperial Theatre, 249 W 45th Street.
Grace McLean's theater credits include Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812, Kazino; Brooklynite, Vineyard Theatre; Bedbugs!!!, Arclight; The World Is Round, BAM; Sleep No More, The McKittrick Hotel; Twelve Ophelias, Woodshed Collective. Regional: Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812, A.R.T.; Pump Boys and Dinettes, Weston Playhouse; La MaMa Cantata, Spoleto, Italy; Zagreb, Croatia; Belgrade, Serbia; From The Fire (Edinburgh Fringe Festival 2011, MTM Best New Musical); The Last Goodbye, Williamstown Theater Festival.
Grace McLean & Them Apples performed in both the 2015 and 2016 Lincoln Center American Songbook seasons and in April 2015 traveled to Pakistan on a US State Department sponsored tour. Original music is available on iTunes.