In Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812—the Tony Award-winning musical based on Leo Tolstoy's magnum opus War and Peace—creator Dave Malloy distills over a thousand pages of action into a love affair between a playboy (Prince Anatole) and a young countess (Natasha) who's engaged to someone else (Prince Andrey). The titular Pierre is a wealthy aristocrat and friend of Andrey in the midst of an existential crisis of his own.
And then there's Sonya, Natasha's unwaveringly loyal cousin who will do anything to defend her relative. A strong feminist in her own right, it's only fitting that the part be played by indie-pop darling Ingrid Michaelson, who makes her long-desired Broadway debut in the hit production. "There's a moment at the end of the show where everyone watches Pierre and Natasha and I get to reflect on what's happening around me," Michaelson recently said by phone. "It's been a wild ride."
Here, Michaelson talks about Broadway, Sonya's style, and what it means to play a feminist in 19th-century Russia.
Have you always wanted to be on Broadway?
I've always wanted to act and be in musicals. Growing up in Staten Island, I did a children's theater group called Kids on Stage from age nine to 15, and I graduated with a degree in musical theater from Binghamton. Then I went back to teach at Kids on Stage after that. The first two theater auditions I went on were very eye-opening because I became aware that I didn't have the typical Broadway voice. So I started to write music instead. Around 2006, that started taking off, and I took a leap of faith and decided to go on tour. That's the end of that story.
Sort of! How did you get involved in The Great Comet?
I'm admittedly not a big Tolstoy fan, but I went to see The Great Comet in April and just fell in love with it. Everyone's voices were different. The music was all over the map, with really cool textures and sounds. When I heard Brittain Ashford sing "Sonya Alone," it sounded like something that I would have written. I was just like, "I want to sing that song! I want to be part of this!" So I blurted that out to the producer [Howard Kagan] and he said he'd find a way to fit me in. I thought it would be sometime next year, but then they asked me to come in two months later. In my past experiences, the things that scare me the most are usually the most rewarding. So I said yes. I remember getting my wig fitted and thinking, "Well, this is it. I can't go back now!"
What's the biggest difference between performing at a concert and performing in a musical?
Musicals are more physically demanding. Before concerts, I do some vocal warm-ups and put on heels and a dress. For this show, I warm up my voice and body. There are a lot of stairs, there's a lot of moving around, there's a lot of energy expelled. I go to physical therapy once a week. We all have to be very careful and exercise and stretch. I'm also not alone onstage—I'm part of a machine that's bigger than me—so it's an exercise in letting go. You can't control anything but yourself. It's been therapeutic, it's been cathartic, it's been a dream that I wanted for so long when I was younger that I gave up on.
How would you describe Sonya's style?
Very modest. I have tattoos, and I had to cover all of them up. She's all about looking after Natasha and taking care of Natasha. In the initial prologue, where Dave [Malloy] distills everyone's character down to one word, Sonya is good. She's good, she's truthful, she's honest, and she dresses accordingly. She does have some sparkly tights underneath, though, so there's a little sass there.
Has her wardrobe influenced the way you dress at all?
Quite the opposite, actually. I'm into anything Bohemian and loose-fitting. Recently, I've been wearing a lot of Free People dresses. I like comfort. I don't like to be restrained.
When Natasha's love affair with Anatole is exposed, Sonya is one of the only people in her corner. She seems like a 19th-century feminist.
I love the unwavering friendship and loyalty that Sonya has for Natasha. Her whole vibe is very selfless, almost to a fault. In the book, she's engaged to Nikolai, Natasha's brother, and he ends up marrying [another character] Princess Mary. When they have children, Sonya takes care of them. She's very much a martyr—she puts other people's happiness before her own. Part of me feels bad for her character because I want her to have happiness ultimately, but I do share that unwavering love and support for my close friends. But I also feel like slapping her around a little bit. Like, wake up, girl!
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This interview has been edited and condensed.