Broadway ticketbuyers expect seating charts to look a certain way: The stage is here; the audience is there. So when tickets went on sale for the $14 million Broadway production of “Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812,” it elicited some bewilderment.
Because what confronted ticketbuyers was a proscenium stage radically altered into a looping, multi-level performance space with some 200 audience seats embedded all over it. Even the orchestra and mezzanine sections are remixed, with cabaret tables and performance walkways scattered throughout.
The seating chart seemed to raise as many questions as it answered about how a traditional proscenium venue, like Broadway’s Imperial Theater, could serve as the home to a project that started life in a memorably immersive Off Broadway staging, and then had a similarly environmental outing in a Meatpacking District tent.
That initial sense of disorientation is, it turns out, part of the goal of the show’s expansive production design, extending out into the lobby in an enveloping, high-contrast labyrinth. And it’s inspired by the jarring juxtapositions of a wild night in Moscow.
In researching his electropop-opera adaptation of a section of “War and Peace,” writer-composer-lyricist Dave Malloy — who played Pierre in earlier productions, before ceding the role to headliner Josh Groban for Broadway — had a crazy, vodka-fueled night in Moscow during which he seemed to move through all the contradictory facets of modern-day Russia at once. When he got back from his visit, he regaled his co-creators, including director Rachel Chavkin and set designer Mimi Lien, with the tale. “Him telling us that story was the genesis of this design,” Lien said.
For “Great Comet,” the long lobby of the Imperial will be extensively tricked out to look like a Cold War-era bunker — a bunker that’s been turned into a nightclub, as many have been in Moscow, with punk-rock posters (think Pussy Riot) on the wall. Meanwhile, the entryways to the theater itself have been reconfigured into multiple passages and pathways, depending on seat location. If you’re sitting onstage, you’ll enter through what was formerly the coat room, move down a hall through a hidden vestibule and enter the house through big doors upstage.
The aim of this elaborately constructed journey is to create as much pan-historic contrast as possible for theatergoers moving from sidewalk to lobby to passage to auditorium, which is decked out in red-walled, Imperial-Russia opulence. There’s dramatic power in such juxtapositions, Lien noted. It also preps the audience to be ready for anything.
Like, for example, sitting at a bar in the middle of the onstage action, elbow to elbow with Groban or another actor, or maybe with a roving member of the orchestra.
The 200 onstage seats start at what would be Row F in the theater’s traditional layout. Some theatergoers will sit in armchairs at tables or at curved bars, while upstage, audience members sit on tiered banquettes. In the more traditional rows out in the house, cabaret tables take the place of some seats, and performance catwalks spiral through the orchestra and up into the mezzanine.
These physical changes to the theater reduce the 1,400-seat Imperial’s seating capacity by some 200 seats, to around 1,200 — which was, according to producer Howard Kagan, the production team’s target size for the incoming show. Premium seats are either close to the action or in the front sections of the orchestra.
Audience members will likely have vastly different views of the action, depending on whether they’re looking toward the stage or out into the audience. But wherever you sit, there’ll be passed pierogies, as there were Off Broadway. Vodka will be on hand too.
For those who saw earlier incarnations of “Great Comet,” there’s still the lingering question of how the show, which seemed so defined by its intimacy at Ars Nova and in the tent, will play in a larger space with traditional proscenium elements. But producers and creatives say that the musical’s run late last year at American Repertory Theater assuaged any concerns on that front.
“It’s Tolstoy,” Chavkin said. “It’s not shy about getting bigger.”