How Ingrid Michaelson Changed Course and Ran Into The Great Comet Along the Way
"Spectator" is not the word you'd think to use to describe a chart-topping singer-songwriter, but that's how Ingrid Michaelson has apparently always seen herself in the world of musical theater.
Those acquainted with her light folky voice, usually accompanied by either guitar or ukulele, may be surprised to learn that Michaelson's Broadway debut as Sonya in Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 is more of a homecoming than a maiden voyage. She studied theater at Binghamton University only to change course after graduation when she realized her voice would never fit the screlting mold of aspiring Elphabas. Then she met Sonya.
Michaelson completes her brief run as Natasha's loyal confidant in the musical slice of War and Peace on August 13 (including a short break from performances August 3-6). However, the debut has served as an unexpected inauguration for what she hopes will be a longer Broadway career. With a musical of her own in the works, she talked about the challenges in front of her while she dauntingly pauses the record-making "hamster wheel" to pursue new passions. "There's literally not room for everybody on Broadway," she admitted, acknowledging the risk ahead. "But there's always room to create."
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
How did this opportunity to make your Broadway debut in Great Comet open up to you in the first place?
We were going to see the show because my boyfriend, Will Chase, had been a fan of it since it was down in the Meatpacking District. I went to school for musical theater, but when I graduated, I auditioned a little bit and realized I don't have that kind of voice. So I started my music and I felt like I was better at that. I never really lost my love for theater, but I doubted my capabilities, I think. When I saw Brittain Ashford singing "Sonya Alone," I thought, "I can sing that." It's the only time I've seen a show and thought, "I think I could do that." It was really moving for me because I've always pushed myself into the spectator role. I'll never be able to belt out high notes, but that's not how Dave Malloy writes. It was a really lovely moment.
How did you make the move from fan to cast member?
I was so high on the show that, afterward, I was like, "If Brittain ever goes on vacation, let me know!" Part of it was in jest. There was no plan. The next day, they reached out and I said, "No, forget it! I'm too scared! I didn't mean it!" And then it became clearer to me in the timing. It all happened very quickly. Up until the day before my first show, I was just petrified. I thought, "What are you doing, Ingrid?" But everybody was really gracious and kind. It's been a trip. It's like flexing these old muscles that I forgot I had. But I definitely have them.
What is it like for you to now be the one singing "Sonya Alone" every night?
What other song is there about one woman singing to another woman, in not a romantic way, about how she's willing to lose the love of her friend to save her friend? It's so specific and so beautiful. The blocking is basically Natasha walking around the theater space and I follow her with my eyes. It makes my intention so easy because I'm just staring at her. It's heart-wrenching. And then, of course, moments later, I have to be up in the mezzanine shaking a jingle stick and handing out egg shakers. Half of the audience doesn't even know that I'm up there. I want to be like, "Hello! I was just crying onstage and here I am handing you a shaker!"
You've collaborated a lot with Sara Bareilles. Did her experience writing and eventually starring in Waitress help blaze the trail for you to jump back into theater? I know you're working on a musical of your own.
I've talked to her a bunch over the years about Waitress because I've wanted to write something for a long time now. It's really difficult because as a musician — especially as a woman of a certain age — you don't want to take too much time away from music because it's like a revolving door/hamster wheel situation. You write a record, you promote the record, you release the record, you tour on the record, and then you do the whole thing over and over again. I think I've always been afraid to take too much time away from that because I'll lose fans or momentum. Seeing Sara follow Waitress and take the time away (we're the exact same age, born a day apart), I thought, maybe it's OK. The world won't forget about me. And if it does, then, oh well. Sara told me it’s the hardest thing she's ever done but it's also the best thing she's ever done. So I've made this decision to take some time and try to find the musical to work on, and that's really what this year was about — searching for that. Comet was not planned. It kind of snuck up on me. But it goes to show, when you take a step outside of your designated path, good things come.
Can you tell me anything about the musical you're writing?
I can't really talk about it too much. It's definitely been this concept that's been floating around, and I hope that, by the end of this year, I'll be heavily working on something. I can tell you that I'm writing all of the music for an animated film — it's kind of like a mini-musical in that you have to write songs that are furthering the plotline. I think it was a really great lesson in that kind of writing.
Is the collaborative aspect of writing a musical appealing to you as a solo artist?
When you're writing your own stuff, it's very lonely. With a musical, yes, there's a lot of pressure on you, but it's also a team of people. It's such a family and that's what I really feel like with Great Comet. I hope that when my musical happens, it's filled with the sort of camaraderie that Great Comet has.