Broadway's Tony-nominated The Great Comet is set to end its run September 3, finally closing the book on a journey that began in 2012 with a tiny engagement at off-off-Broadway's Ars Nova. Since then, the cast has grown from a group of 10 actors to an ensemble of close to 40. But amazingly, seven of those original 10 performers (including creator Dave Malloy) will close out the musical as it plays its final show at the Imperial Theatre.
We spoke to four of those longtime Comet cast members about the special experience of moving Great Comet to the Great White Way, the challenges of staging one production in four different venues (and five different locations), and the ways they've grown into their larger-than-life War and Peace characters.
What is your favorite line that you get to say and why?
Lucas Steele: "Anatole smiled. The reflection of that base and cringing smile, which Pierre knew so well in his wife, revolted him."
I love this line because I feel like it is the only time that Anatole acknowledges who he truly is, at his core. He spends the majority of the play functioning from his surface, both physically and dramatically. In this line, sung directly before he leaves for Petersburg, he shows how ugly he actually is. He has spent the entire piece hiding it — and finally, at long last, it is revealed.
How has your performance changed through the different stagings of the show from Ars Nova to Broadway?
Brittain Ashford: When we started this at Ars Nova I wasn't really thinking about the shape of the show — I was focused on learning the music, which at times still felt tricky to me. When we moved to Kazino there were some new and interesting challenges, namely additional playing space and wily patrons, which I think brought out larger versions of almost everyone's character. While I felt more confident, there were still various obstacles that occasionally informed my choices. I can't say for certain how my performance read from one venue to another, but something changed for me in Boston. Perhaps the bigger space or the comfort of knowing the show inside and out, but I think I was able to find new and bigger moments. And multiply that for Broadway. I think I've cried a little more with each new incarnation.
Who is the coolest person that came to see your show? (You can't say your family!)
Nick Choksi: There were a bunch of cool kids, including Neil deGrasse Tyson, Ben Vereen, and a recent visit from Sir Paul McCartney (I am still getting over shaking his "Penny Lane"-writing hand), but I think more than any one person is the fact that a bunch of cool people kept coming back. Repeat Cometeers like John Mulaney, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Rosie O'Donnell, Philip Glass, Mandy Patinkin, Ben Stiller, and Christine Taylor came back to the show because they loved it, and even took the time to get to know us, as fans and fellow artists.
What is the best moment of audience participation the cast has experienced?
Gelsey Bell: There are actually not that many moments of audience participation in the show, though because there are a lot of moments without a fourth wall, there are a number of times where we put attention on individual audience members without asking them to do anything. Of the few moments where we do ask the audience to do something, I have so many memories: The time when I as Princess Mary asked someone to stand up to be my suitor and he gave me a big hug and didn't want to let go, or the time when a young woman snatched Anatole's letter for Natasha out of her father's hand and climbed onstage over him in order to be the one to deliver it.
However, I think the most special moment of communing happens during "Goodbye My Gypsy Lovers" when the audience sings with us. As more folks come knowing the show, more audience members join in and you can feel the boundaries coming down between audience and performer. This Sunday will be the fifth closing night I've experienced of Comet. For two of them (Kazino and the uptown tent) I was an audience member because I was no longer performing in the show, and for all four the entire room joined in collective song. I look forward to singing it with so many folks that have worked on and supported the show this Sunday. I know it will be hard to keep my eyes dry.