It's hard to believe that only one year ago, Dave Malloy's critically acclaimed electropop opera Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812 was just a little show playing to a crowd of under 100 at Ars Nova. In the ensuing months, the production, directed by Rachel Chavkin, took up residence at a specially built tent called Kazino, first located on 10th Avenue and Washington Street in the meatpacking district, and now situated just before 8th Avenue on 45th Street in the heart of the theater district.
Phillipa Soo was a recent Juilliard graduate when she landed the part of the young, lovelorn Natasha. Brittain Ashford, a singer-songwriter who fronts the band Prairie Empire, says she hadn't auditioned for anything when she was cast as Natasha's cousin Sonya, a role that came about due to her friendship with Malloy. The ensuing year has been filled with budding friendships, award nominations, and even a handful of rude awakenings that showcase the downside of performing a production where the action is scattered throughout the entire theater.
Still, they're plugging away, BFFs and comrades-in-arms. Prior to a recent matinée, TheaterMania sat down with Soo and Ashford to discuss their marvelous year, cast recordings, and the possibility of a Broadway transfer.
Can you believe it's been a year since you started performing the show at Ars Nova?
Phillipa Soo: It's crazy, isn't it? So much has happened in a year, and yet, it doesn't feel like it's been that long.
Brittain Ashford: It doesn't. We did have a break, to be clear.
Phillipa Soo: That break was actually a fruitful time for all of us.
Brittain Ashford: I just slept.
Phillipa Soo: Fruitful in the sense that it was just a break. If we hadn't had that, I feel like we'd be pretty run down.
The night that I saw the show was the night of the now-infamous cell phone-throwing incident. All I remember was seeing a woman in cowboy boots stomp through your scene and burst the doors open. What was going on in your heads?
Brittain Ashford: I recall they were just really inappropriate heels. They sounded—
Phillipa Soo: Down in that area [the meatpacking district], she'd be wearing…fashionable clogs. They were like wood.
Brittain Ashford: I remember seeing her coming, because your trajectories were sort of crossed. I was just trying to pay attention to you and just zone everything else out.
Phillipa Soo: I think she just didn't realize that's an exit. [laughs] I guess she was like, "Well, I gotta go across the whole theater."
Brittain Ashford: I think she just wanted to make a scene.
Phillipa Soo: We had been dealing consistently [at that point] with commotion in general, in trying to wrangle the audience and figure out what we needed to do in order to maintain focus. [So] I was just going to keep going.
Brittain Ashford: I knew something was up. I think I even heard the unmistakable noise of an iPhone hitting the ground…Then, of course, she gets on the other side of the doors. I don't know if anyone else [could] hear it, but she [was] screaming. She was throwing a fit. I didn't, at that point, know what had happened. I didn't know until later, which made it funny to me. There was a certain element of "Oh God, why can't [the show] be normal?"
Has the audience changed from Ars Nova to the meatpacking district to, now, the theater district?
Brittain Ashford: The audience was definitely way different than it had been at Ars Nova, and way different than it has been up here. I feel like people are really here to see theater. Downtown, I think that the identity of the show was still a little undefined or just confusing to people. Was it a supper club? Was it burlesque? People didn't know what they were coming into. I think that made it harder for the attention span of some of the audience members…It's like any concert you've been to where there's that guy talking behind you. Maybe they've had a little too much to drink. Even though this is a pop era, I don't think it's difficult to digest. It's very fun, it's engaging. For the people who didn't realize what they're getting into? I think it's harder, especially if they're imbibing. That was one aspect that was a little difficult downtown.
Is it easier up here?
Brittain Ashford: Up here, people are so much more engaged. They know what they're coming to see: They're coming to see theater…and that changes the atmosphere here. The spectacle is theater, but they're not coming expecting burlesque or a dance party of a supper club. I feel, by and large, everyone is with us every step of the way. Which is awesome.
How weird is it to come out of the stage door now and be on 45th Street, with the lights of Once and The Glass Menagerie and Pippin dotting the block?
Phillipa Soo: There's a little bit of déjà vu. We walk out and say "Oh my god, where are we right now?" It's cool to walk out and see all those theaters across the street and have Pippin next door.
Brittain Ashford: I had a woman from Pippin stop me. She introduced herself and was like "I saw you guys the other night and I love you." She was very, very sweet.
And you have a cast album
that was recently released. Is that a dream come true?
Phillipa Soo: I never really thought it would happen. Now, it's like, "People are gonna buy this on iTunes. That's cool." [laughs] I would always listen to my Broadway recordings and think that was so far away, like everything about this area. I didn't think that I would be performing in this area; that didn't cross my mind. Of course, it was like a dream. I didn't expect it to happen so soon, just coming out of school. This is the first thing I did out of school. From the beginning, I didn't have any expectations. I just wanted to put in everything that I could. And here we are. What a nice surprise.
Brittain Ashford: I had never auditioned for anything in my entire life when I started doing this. I didn't audition for this show! [laughs] Because the space is the same, the people are the same, and the show is the same, if anything is a measure of time, I would say it's the fact that you look at the people [who] you've met over the past year and you're like, "We know each other a year now." That's kind of when the time concept sets in.
Phillipa Soo: By the same token, I feel like I've known you forever.
Brittain Ashford: Only a year? We've gone through so much. It's very touching.
A Broadway transfer has been rumored ever since the show began at Ars Nova. Does Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812 belong on Broadway?
Brittain Ashford: I don't see why not. The show is beautiful. Why shouldn't it be?
Phillipa Soo: I think it should definitely be on Broadway. I think a lot of people [who] are coming to see Broadway, who are tourists, maybe would be like, "This is NOT Annie. But it's good."
Brittain Ashford: It's funny, I remember having a conversation with Dave Malloy when Broadway was just a sparkle in everyone's eye, and I said, "Dave, really? Broadway? War and Peace?" And he said "Les Mis." And I said "touché."