"A woman walked in the theatre one day,” says director Rachel Chavkin, “and she was like, ‘Where’s the stage?’ There isn’t one. Or it’s everywhere, which is the joy of it.”
That theatre is Broadway’s Imperial. The piece is Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812. And the stage is, as Chavkin says, all around you: red velvet curtains drape the house in its entirety and portraits line the walls; a hardwood winding road cuts through the middle of the orchestra; star-burst chandeliers hang from the ceiling; staircases connect the bottom level to the mezzanine; tables and chairs replace rows of theatre seats; and an oval rises from the center—where Josh Groban’s Pierre raises a glass to life, to lust, to Moscow.
Ten days before the November 14 opening night of The Great Comet, Chavkin and set designer Mimi Lien take a seat at a table in the center of their new home. The house lights are on, the creative team trickles in, and stagehands prepare for the party that will begin around 8 PM.
They’ve come a long way from the birth of The Great Comet at Off-Broadway’s Ars Nova in 2012. The musical—an adaptation by Dave Malloy of a portion of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace—originally featured an ensemble of ten, which is now a cast of 33; Ars Nova could accommodate an audience of 99, while the Imperial seats more than 1,000. In 2013, the musical moved first to a custom-built tent in the Meatpacking District and then to midtown Manhattan, but it was always designed to immerse the audience in 19th-century Russia. The goal is to have “the audience and the performers be connected,” Lien explains, “so essentially the whole set design is figuring out how to deliver the performers to the audience.”
But what were they going to do when it came time for a bigger stage? “The question has never been, ‘What are we going to do?’” says Lien, “but, ‘How are we going to do it?’”
For the woman who got her start in architecture (she earned a B.A. from Yale), the process began on paper, followed by a test run at Boston’s American Repertory Theater. “I have so many different cocktail napkins of her drawings,” Chavkin says in an aside, before Lien begins to explain. “I start basically with a ground plan of the space,” Lien says, “and I just draw these curvy shapes. Once I get to something that I find pleasing, I start to turn those into pathways and give them three-and-a-half-foot wide platforms, making it real.”
Five rows of chairs have been removed at the Imperial, but other than that, nothing has been knocked down. They’ve simply built on top. Hudson Scenic Studio and Hudson Theatrical Associates, a company specializing in theatrical sets, brought Lien’s designs to life. “What Hudson Scenic did in building this space is astonishing,” says Chavkin, “and in Sam Ellis’ words, who is our technical supervisor from Hudson: ‘It’s four sets.’ That’s what they loaded in here—the equivalent of four sets. None of it is automated other than the door, so in some ways that means that it’s simple, but in so many other ways, not at all.”
One of those ways was complying with building code while keeping the magic intact.
“There’s a lot of things about building code…” Lien begins before Chavkin finishes, “You never knew you wanted to know.”
“[Some] artistic desires were practically prohibited by building code,” Lien continues. “For example, sightlines. There’s this rule that seems crazy when you first hear about it, but it’s a rule in building code: You can’t have a single step. You either have none, or you have two. So in this crazy matrix of figuring out sightlines for every level, I ideally would have liked to have one step [leading up to the center oval], but I couldn’t, so these things had to get worked out and considered. And then exit signs. I don’t love having these exit signs in the middle of my wall of paintings, but there’s just no way around that.”
Exit signs aside, audiences have been glued to their seats witnessing the world of Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 brought to life.
“I had morning coffee with [artistic director of Lincoln Center] André Bishop, and he was like, ‘I had ten friends who called me who’ve seen it in the last week, and all of them say you’ve kept it. You’ve kept the magic. It’s a miracle,’” Chavkin says. “That was our number one challenge. That was our job.”