Rachel Syme Goes Behind the Scenes of a Short-Lived Broadway Musical

Chavkin also began collaborating with artists outside the TEAM, including Dave Malloy, the writer and composer of “Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812.” That musical, based on an excerpt of “War and Peace,” was an immersive “electropop opera” about a naïve socialite (Natasha) and a lonely intellectual (Pierre, originally played by Malloy) in

Powered by NewsAPI , in Liberal Perspective on .

news image

Chavkin also began collaborating with artists outside the TEAM, including Dave Malloy, the writer and composer of “Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812.” That musical, based on an excerpt of “War and Peace,” was an immersive “electropop opera” about a naïve socialite (Natasha) and a lonely intellectual (Pierre, originally played by Malloy) in nineteenth-century Moscow on the eve of a looming astronomical event. For the show’s first staging, at the nonprofit theatre Ars Nova, in 2src12, Chavkin and her creative team transformed the tiny venue into a Russian night club, with the walls swathed in red velvet and audience members seated at café tables; as the story unfolded, the performers whirled through the crowd delivering bottles of vodka and plates of pierogi. “Comet” became a cult phenomenon and attracted a group of ambitious producers. In 2src13, to scale up the production without losing its communal atmosphere, they paid to put up a giant tent to house two runs in vacant Manhattan lots. When “Comet” finally reached Broadway, in 2src16, Chavkin and her team retained an unusual degree of rowdy interactivity, in part by seating more than a hundred audience members on the stage.

The director Brian Kulick, one of Chavkin’s mentors at Columbia, told me that there are “forest directors and tree directors”—big-picture people and detail people—and that when he first met Chavkin she was “the best tree director I had ever met. So detailed, so specific, so alive.” She tends to create her most showstopping moments through what she calls “simple gestures.” At the end of “Comet,” a forlorn Pierre (originally played on Broadway by Josh Groban) takes a slow walk on a winter’s night, singing in a single beam of light. But soon the ensemble members, who have scattered throughout the theatre in the dark, begin a chorale underneath his words, and Pierre looks heavenward as a huge, Sputnik-inspired chandelier—the titular great comet—starts to glow, brighter and brighter, until the entire theatre is illuminated. Every member of both the cast and the audience gazes up, too, creating a startling sense of communion between performer and viewer. The director Lear deBessonet told me, “When I go to see one of Rachel’s pieces, I know that I’m going to feel electricity in my body, during these moments of liftoff.” Charles Isherwood, in the Times, called “Comet” “the most innovative and the best new musical to open on Broadway since ‘Hamilton,’ ” and added, with a “heresy alert,” that of the two he preferred “Comet.” The show earned twelve Tony nominations, the most for any production that season, including one for Best Direction. Chavkin said, “We felt like these kids storming the castle.”

For better or worse, the Broadway musical is a genre that favors legibility. Both “Comet” and “Hadestown” feature opening numbers that introduce the cast of characters one by one. (“Gonna have to study up a little bit if you want to keep with the plot,” the “Comet” ensemble sings.) During the first week of “Lempicka” previews, Chavkin told me, of its opening scene, “We’ve heard from people who are kind of confused.” Tamara de Lempicka’s life spanned nearly the entire twentieth century. A half-Jewish upper-class Polish woman, she married into a wealthy Christian family, survived the Bolshevik Revolution, went on to make her name in Paris, painting sensual but hard-edged nudes of women, and then fled the Nazi occupation for Los Angeles, where she lived well into old age. The heart of “Lempicka” was a bisexual love triangle between Tamara; her husband, Tadeusz; and a fictionalized prostitute named Rafaela, based on one of Lempicka’s regular portrait subjects. The opening number churned through years of backstory in less than ten minutes: Tamara marries Tadeusz and has a baby in tsarist Russia, and Tadeusz is arrested during the 1917 Revolution. After Tamara barters her jewels (and, eventually, her body) for Tadeusz’s freedom, the pair decide to flee together to France. To aid the audience on this hectic sprint through history, the show relied on explanatory text projections: “Russia, 1916”; “Night train to Paris.”

There’d been a back-and-forth about whether to slow down the action by including a prologue in which Tamara sits on a park bench in old age and outlines her past. Chavkin had cut the scene in rehearsals, preferring to toss audiences directly into the maelstrom. Now, at the request of Kreitzer, the playwright, a soft-spoken woman with purple hair, Chavkin was considering putting the scene back in, but with a new song—actually an old one, from the La Jolla production. A few days into previews, she texted me, “Girl, we’re totally gonna put back in the old lady top of the show.”

The next Monday, with three weeks to go before the première, Chavkin was at the theatre for a “massive day” of implementing the changes. The auditorium, full of tech equipment, had the look of a NASA control room; by night, it would be cleared out to accommodate audiences. Chavkin was calmly sitting in the center of it all on a “butt board,” a long cushion that lies on top of the theatre seats (“the only way to get through tech,” she said), but she’s an energetic physical presence on set, regularly leaping up to demonstrate her staging ideas. Another day, I saw her take a running jump onto a wooden platform to act out a transition she had in mind, only to trip and fall. Without missing a beat, she laughed and told the performers, “Don’t do that.”

Among Chavkin’s challenges with the opening was a matter of audience allegiances: Tamara’s story invited the audience to root for the aristocrats over the revolutionaries. “Some friends said they weren’t quite sure whose perspective we’re watching,” Chavkin told me. “Obviously, I, for one, really feel for the Bolsheviks, but it’s not their story, and if you don’t know firmly whose story to be oriented toward then the opening is not doing its job.” The prologue wouldn’t exactly resolve the awkward class politics, and it had a whiff of the overfamiliar (the old lady from “Titanic,” the bench scene from “Forrest Gump”), but it would at least help center Tamara in the tale.

Onstage, Eden Espinosa, the forty-six-year-old actor playing Tamara, was sitting on the hotly debated park bench, clutching a cane and wearing a wide-brimmed hat. On a scrim behind her were hazy palm trees and the words “Los Angeles, 1975.” The costume designer, Paloma Young, and two associates fiddled with Espinosa’s satin swing coat. To finesse the transition from the new first scene to the old first scene, Chavkin wanted to execute a dramatic onstage costume change that involved stripping off Tamara’s old-lady outfit onstage to reveal a wedding gown beneath. Chavkin asked, via the “God mike”—a handheld microphone used to communicate with the stage—if they were ready to carry out the quick transformation. “Oh, yeah!” Young said, flashing a thumbs-up.

The new-old number was a wistful song, laced with bitterness. Tamara may look like an “old, eccentric bat,” but she was once an art-world star who “painted what a woman could be.” Chavkin grinned when Espinosa got to the lyric “History’s a bitch, but so am I!” She told me, “I’m so glad we got it back in, because I want it to be on all the merch. Can’t you just see it on a mug?” The existing merchandise featured a minimalist outline of Lempicka’s face. “It is so conservative!” Chavkin said. “They should be selling fucking garter belts that say ‘Lempicka’ on them.” A tagline that the marketing team was using to promote the show was so broad as to be opaque: “All she ever wanted was everything.”

Owing to union rules, rehearsal had to wrap at four-thirty. Chavkin sang a little ditty to herself: “There’s never enough tiiime.” Espinosa looked weary. “Lempicka,” which she’d joined early in its development, was her first Broadway role in more than a decade and was, as Chavkin put it, “fucking unforgiving.” Espinosa had to sing big and belty in nearly every scene. Now, after rehearsing some new choreography with the whole cast, she walked to the front of the stage shaking her head. “I’m sorry,” she said, softly. “But this is a lot, because everyone’s on different beats, and on different words.”

Chavkin nodded warmly, taking this in. “Ensemble, how are you feeling?” she asked over the mike. One chorus member suggested that just the dancers do the new steps for the next performance, and Chavkin seemed pleased by the temporary solution.

With five minutes left, the stage manager asked if she wanted to run the number one more time. “Yeah, baby!” Chavkin said, triumphantly kicking out one leg. As others were flagging, she seemed to be gaining steam. A few days later, she texted me that they were pulling the opening scene apart all over again.

When I first met Chavkin, in 2src19, “Hadestown” had just won eight Tonys, including Best Direction of a Musical, and Chavkin had become something of a theatre-world cause célèbre after using her acceptance speech to point out that no other Broadway musical that season had been directed by a woman. (“This is not a pipeline issue,” she said. “It is a failure of imagination.”) Like “Comet,” “Hadestown” managed to maintain the scrappy feel of downtown theatre in an uptown space. Anaïs Mitchell’s poetic score, which was previously released as a folk concept album, is far earthier than standard Broadway fare; the boisterous band plays directly onstage. The show opens with the narrator, the messenger god Hermes, initiating a call-and-response with the audience to invoke a myth-making space: “All right?” “All right!” (Chavkin said, “I generally don’t believe in the fourth wall.”) The playwright Bess Wohl, one of Chavkin’s regular collaborators, told me, “I so often see women directors’ work being compared to the theatrical equivalent of needlepoint—small and delicate.” Chavkin, she went on, favors the “brash and huge and messy.”

In one conversation, Chavkin mentioned that Guggenheim fellowships are not awarded to theatre directors, on the ground that their work is to interpret, not generate. “Interpretive art is generative,” she said, adding, “You change the meaning of something depending on how you deliver it.” Still, directors, like editors of written stories, must work with the raw material they’re given, and the raw material of “Lempicka” was in some ways an unnatural match for Chavkin. Structurally and sonically, the musical hewed to Broadway convention. Gould, the composer, told me that he wrote the score in the spirit of sprawling eighties blockbuster musicals. “I’ve been calling this show ‘Lez Miz,’ ” he joked. The set, designed by Riccardo Hernández, was sleek and mechanical, with what Chavkin calls “whizbangs,” including fly-in triangular screens and an Eiffel Toweresque jungle gym of light-up staircases. Chavkin, however, told me that she saw the production’s traditional elements as “drag,” under cover of which to “smuggle a nuanced, queer narrative onto Broadway.”

“Lempicka” places itself in dialogue with “Sunday in the Park with George”—“Woman is plane, color, light,” Tamara sings, echoing Sondheim’s famous song “Color and Light.” But the two musicals take very different approaches to the art at their center. “Sunday,” cerebral and meticulous, makes a case for Seurat’s rigorous and somewhat chilly compositions; the subject and the form of the show align, bringing, as Sondheim puts it in George’s first song, “order to the whole.” In “Lempicka,” the art and the animating ideas are at odds. The women in Tamara’s portraits look inscrutable and machinelike, as if they’ve been slicked over by a Zamboni. Her mantra in the show is “Never let them see your brushstrokes,” a principle that she applies both to her paintings and to her personal life. But the story’s goal is to expose a crosshatching of experiences beneath the varnish—aging, trauma, persecution, dislocation. Living honestly, the musical ultimately argues, means letting one’s brushstrokes show. Chavkin told me, “Mess is queerness. Mess is anti-establishment. Mess is truth.”

Perhaps accordingly, the musical favored a clash of visual styles that sometimes left the production feeling disjointed and overstuffed. The choreography, by Raja Feather Kelly, leaned on references to Madonna, who is a collector of Lempicka’s art and projects her paintings during arena concerts. Ensemble members in cone bustiers vogued across the stage. A synth-heavy number about futurism was wildly entertaining but felt ported in from a Depeche Mode music video. My favorite parts of the production traded such winking anachronisms for louche prewar glamour. In one stand-out scene, Tamara and Rafaela visit a clandestine lesbian bar and lounge among tuxedoed women. A pink velvet banquette emerges out of a clamshell-shaped trapdoor that Chavkin described as a “vagina in the floor.” As “Comet” had done with a sliver of “War and Peace,” the scene made its esoteric particulars feel wholly enveloping.

Read More