Great Comet Sets the Bar High

BY ALLIE LANG

I am lucky enough to have seen Wicked, Hamilton, and The Lion King on Broadway stages, but the set of the Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 is like nothing I’d ever seen before. Two circles overlap one other on one side, the center of each filled with two small sections of the orchestra, including the place where Pierre (portrayed beautifully by Josh Groban), will sit throughout the piece, playing the accordion or the piano, or observing the other characters while he awaits his next scene. Behind the circles, two staircases wrap around on either sides of small sections of seats for lucky audience members. Chandeliers that resemble small ball mosses hang from the ceiling, surrounding the largest one that hangs over the middle of the stage. Red curtains hang on the walls, decorated with framed pictures of nature or people-presumably Russians-from all walks of life, from officers in the army to peasant families. Audience members feel like they are in a cozy, candlelit club in Russia, sipping drinks and watching singers and dancers mesmerize and delight all who look at them.

That was exactly what Mimi Lien — the set designer for Comet––was intending when she drew out plans for the stage. I was fortunate enough to discuss with Ms. Lien her experience and inspiration for designing the set. She describes the original set in the small, off-Broadway theatre called Ars Nova, as “a cabaret space…[that] had a capacity of 87 people.” Unsure of the show’s future, the creative team decided to take advantage of this cabaret environment while they had it.

She describes the experience Dave Malloy-the composer-had in Russia, as he went to bars in Moscow while he was writing the show. “Musicians were all over the room, and he sat down at a table with strangers. It was eating, and drinking, and enjoying music, and having a great time.” It was because of his travels that the creative team decided to build a sort of supper club to create what Ms. Lien calls an “environmental experience.” For the majority of audience members-who are not on the stage-are sitting in seats that almost have the feeling of banquettes, some with small tables next to them.

View from the audience of the stage.

After being at Ars Nova, Comet moved to a tent structure Lien and the team constructed for themselves, after no other space was quite suitable for their needs; this time, they were working with a venue that had a capacity of 200 people. “The feeling that I wanted the audience to have was that everyone is in this room together,” Lien explains. “That’s kind of the whole point of the design-is to make everyone feel like they’re all in one room together, and be aware of each other, and the humanity in the room.” She aimed to eliminate the boundaries often created by a traditional theatre setting and make the show a shared experience.

This type of environment was also inspired by Tolstoy’s novel, itself. To Lien, the piece tells the story of people from all walks of life: from peasants to aristocrats. By eliminating the distance that is often felt between the audience and most historical stories, she explains, the audience can be connected to the story and “feel that these emotions that Natasha’s feeling-these are all relevant, and they’re still the same emotions that people feel today.” To accomplish this goal, Lien and the creative team called on the actors “to not only represent these historical characters, but also to be themselves.”

The stage seating is not the only way that Lien creates this feeling. The overlapping circles were inspired by the song “Letters,” in which Natasha (Denée Benton) reads a love letter from the dashing Anatole (Lucas Steele) over and over. Lien describes seeing the song performed during a workshop in 2012, and she decided that “it just felt like the way the piece wanted to move was in curves.” During a song shortly afterwards, called “Sonya Alone,” Sonya-Natasha’s best friend and cousin played by Brittain Ashford-promises to protect Natasha from shame and scrutiny for her affair with Anatole. While Sonya sings, Natasha walks slowly around the stage as she reads Anatole’s letter, going into the audience on the first level of the mezzanine. The audience sees her up close as she seems to be mindlessly to be rereading the letter.

Unfortunately, scenic design is often overlooked in theater. The focus is on the songs, the story, and the acting-and this attention is in many ways well deserved. However, the set design is the first thing that audiences see when they walk into the theatre. It is the very first impression. The set must have realistic details, while being ready for seamless transitions between songs or scenes.

In Great Comet, the detail that Lien employs adds immeasurably to the production. The entire theatre is transformed, not just the stage. Rather than just a footnote of a show, the set design is the sign of a remarkably talented and dedicated creative team, and it should be treated as such. The best musicals recognize this idea. Wicked has its dragon, Phantom its chandelier, Les Misérables its barricade, and Great Comet has the entire theatre.