When Sunnyside resident Grace McLean saw the final performance of “Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812” at Ars Nova in 2012, she had no idea the show was going to change her life.
She didn’t have a ticket because it was sold out, so she decided to get there an hour early and see if she could get in. The standby line was already long, but she happened to know the first two people in line (who didn’t know each other), and they offered for her to be their plus one. The three of them got in, and no one else did.
“I had an amazing time at this show,” McLean said. “I thought it was so beautiful and so fun. I remember watching it and thinking, ‘Oh, if I were in this show, I’d probably be that part right there.’”
She saw the show in October or November, and by December, she had decided that in a year’s time she was going to be out of New York City.
“I just wasn’t happy, and I felt like I was struggling in a way that I didn’t feel like I deserved to be,” she said. “I wanted to do something else. And I felt really good about that decision. I’d just been dumped, and I was like, I don’t need this. I feel free. I’m gonna get out of here.”
Then in January of 2013, Ars Nova asked her to audition for “Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812” because it was transferring to an off-Broadway space. Ars Nova had asked the whole cast back, but one actress wanted to take another job in Chicago—the one who played the character that McLean had felt she was right for.
“I thought, that’s so funny, because I don’t do this anymore, but I’ll just go in and sing a song that I wrote, and tell them how much I liked it,” McLean said. “And somehow I kept getting called in.”
She’s been with the show ever since.
On Oct. 18, “Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812” will begin previews on Broadway, starring Denée Benton as Natasha and Josh Groban as Pierre. McLean plays Marya, Natasha’s strict yet kind godmother.
The musical is based on a 79-page section of “War and Peace.”
The story is so simple and identifiable,” she said. “‘War and Peace’ seems like such a big meal, but this is really just one amuse-bouche; it’s not the whole thing. It’s a love story, basically. Who doesn’t love a love story? And who doesn’t love a love story that makes you cry and think about your own mortality? That’s the best kind,” she said, laughing. “That’s the Tolstoyan kind.”
McLean said that “The Great Comet” is for fans of musicals like “Fun Home,” “Hamilton” and “Futurity”—shows that are challenging the notion of musical theater.
“Rachel Chavkin, our director, refers to it as ‘theater 360’ in that it happens all around you,” McLean said. There’s no fourth wall separating the stage and the audience. “It’s at once more blown apart than that and more intimate, because there’ll be people sitting on the stage. They’re building performance spaces for us in the traditional audience; they’re building staircases from the balcony down to the orchestra. It’s all just levels, so that everything in the space is connected. Audience is everywhere; actors are everywhere. So at once you get great distance from people, and then sometimes we’ll be right up next to you and we’ll talk right to you.
“It’s adapted from a book, and there’s no hiding that,” she said. “Often characters will talk about themselves in the third person, describing themselves and what they’re doing.”
The music is very eclectic, McLean said. “There are some classical elements, but also folk, but also Russian folk, but also rock, but also electronica. A lot of things are going on at once. And I like the way that [composer] Dave [Malloy] talks about that, because there have been these critiques about the show like, ‘There’s all these different styles going on in here!” but that’s exactly what happens in ‘War and Peace.’ It’s a mishmash of styles. There’s a narrative, but there’s also philosophy, but there’s also history, and it’s all things at once jumbled together, and that’s what makes it so beautiful.”
McLean has also performed in “Sleep No More,” “Brooklynite,” “The World is Round,” “Bedbugs!!!” and more.
As a singer, McLean writes and performs original music with her band, Grace McLean & Them Apples. She said that her boyfriend describes her music as “blue-eyed funk soul,” whereas she calls it “loopy soul pop—loopy both in that it’s, ‘She’s weird!’ but also that I use a looping station.”
She got a looping station a few years ago so that she could accompany herself with her voice. Her last EP was “all looping stuff,” she said, and the full-length album that her band will release next year is a mix of songs with and without the looper (visit gracemclean.bandcamp.com for free singles being released in the year leading up to the album release). The band consists of her, a percussionist and a bassist who also plays keys at the same time.
Grace McLean & Them Apples has performed at venues like Rockwood Music Hall, Joe’s Pub, Ars Nova and The Flea Theater. They performed at Lincoln Center’s American Songbook two years in a row. In April 2015, the band traveled to Pakistan on an artistic ambassadorship program through the U.S. State Department.
McLean is also writing a musical, “In the Green,” about 12th-century nun, mystic, musician and artist Hildegard von Bingen. McLean studied medieval art in college, and von Bingen’s work stood out to her because “her work wasn’t like anything else that was happening at the time” and because she’s one of the first composers students learn about.
On top of all that, McLean teaches voice lessons, focusing on “the voice as it connects to body and emotions and psychology.”
“I’m interested in the human voice and all of its potentials and all of its ugly, raw, broken sounds, because those are a part of it, and I don’t want to scrub anything clean for anybody, but I want people to embrace all aspects of it, because when you can acknowledge that all of this stuff is in there—all of the weird screamy stuff and the broken things—it makes the stronger stuff stronger and more honest.”
Visit greatcometbroadway.com and gracemclean.com for more information on the show and McLean’s other projects.