Edited and compiled by Steven Suskin
By Nancy Salz,
Chief Critic, nycmusicals.com
The Great Comet is one of the most immersive musical experiences ever mounted on a Broadway stage. The huge Imperial Theatre has been transformed into an early 19th century Russian club. Audience seats are mounted at the back of the stage. Tables scattered about the multi-level stage seat audience members as well as cast members. Runways for the performers weave among the audience in the theatre itself and many little, round nightclub tables with glass-candle lights are embedded among orchestra seats. Chandeliers are mounted on or suspended from the stage and theatre ceilings. Paintings hang all over the deep red theatre walls.
That everything comes together – actors, musicians, dancers, chorus, scenery and audio – in one cohesive vision and sound is due to many brilliant creative collaborators. How they achieved this accomplishment is the subject of a recent book, The Great Comet: The Journey of a New Musical to Broadway.” Edited and compiled by Steven Suskin and published by the Sterling Publishing Company, this behind-the-scenes story includes an annotated script, articles by author, director, scenic and costume designers, key actors, and producers. Gorgeous color photos of the production fill the pages. While the book doesn’t quite measure up in design to the Hamilton book of that show – few books do – it is nonetheless fact-filled and visually stunning.
Particularly fascinating are the story of Dave Malloy’s inspiration for the show – a special segment of War and Peace and his one-night visit to a Moscow nightclub when he was fueled by ice cold vodka as musicians performed around the tables. A few chapters cover the journey of the show from the ARS NOVA theatre (1,024 square foot playing area) to a tent near New York City’s High Line (2,574 square feet) to Boston’s American Repertory Theatre (6,383 square feet) to the Imperial Theatre (11,400 square feet.) Mimi Lien, the Scenic Designer who is also an architect, tells how she was able to not only create a space where audience members would experience the show but also redesign it three times to fit the increasingly large theatres and stages. The book includes her schematic of the stage and the entire Imperial Theatre. It’s all extremely interesting.
I also loved Nicholas Pope’s chapter on his sound design. One can imagine the challenge of bringing sounds from all over the huge Imperial theatre into one cohesive whole. “I achieved this by making the actors sound like they were people in the same space as the audience – at a heightened level, of course, but not separate from the audience in the way we experience sound coming out of the television or stereo.” He accomplished this with computers, specialized software and an interface that is operated by one person but controls a 37,000 cross-point matrix, which, he explains, is like have 37,000 little knobs that need to be turned all at once. These are the sort of details and stories that fill this 207 page, coffee-table sized book.
One disturbing fact about this book (and also the Hamilton book) is that the book-design credit is relegated to tiny type on the copyright/Library of Congress page. Timothy Shaner of Night and Day Design should have been given a full, title-page credit, where it belongs.
Books such as The Great Comet: The Journey Of A New Musical To Broadway are by definition promotional. However, that doesn’t necessarily make them less literary or important. If you loved the show The Great Comet or if you are simply interested in how today’s musical theatre is created, this book is one you will devour.
Sterling Publishing Company, Inc. 208 pages, $40