Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

Artistic directors Chris Abraham and Mitchell Marcus. Crow’s Theatre and Musical Stage Company will combine forces to mount the Tony-nominated musical Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 at the Winter Garden next year.Dahlia Katz/Handout

Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 – one of the greatest musicals of the new millennium – will be getting its Canadian premiere next season in a large-scale production at the historic Winter Garden theatre in Toronto thanks to two of the city’s hottest not-for-profit theatre companies.

The Musical Stage Company and Crow’s Theatre are partnering to produce U.S. composer-lyricist Dave Malloy’s electro-pop masterpiece, which is based on one particularly sexy and philosophical 70-page sliver of Leo Tolstoy’s novel, War and Peace.

Chris Abraham, the artistic director of Crow’s who is also one of the most reliable and creative directors of the classics at the Stratford Festival, will direct the musical and the Shaw Festival’s Kimberley Rampersad is slated to choreograph.

Abraham and Mitchell Marcus, artistic and managing director of Musical Stage, are set to announce their plans for The Great Comet on Wednesday.

“Mitchell’s got a very clear vision for how to grow audiences for musical theatre as a not-for-profit,” says Abraham, whose own company has also been growing and recently brought close to 6,000 spectators to its own venue in Toronto’s east end for its co-production of Julius Caesar with the Groundling Theatre Company.

“We’ve seen a big jump in our audience numbers year over year and have more confidence in us being able to bring in an audience – and our audiences are ready to come with us to another venue.”

The Great Comet, set to run from Jan. 26 to Feb. 14, 2021, in Toronto, was first an off-Broadway hit, staged in an immersive fashion by original director Rachel Chavkin, with actors mingling with the audience and sharing dumplings and vodka.

The musical then played on Broadway in a similarly inventive production during the 2016-17 season, which, in retrospect, was one of the best for new musicals for New York’s commercial theatre sector this century.

That year, The Great Comet competed against Come From Away and Dear Evan Hansen for the title of best new musical at the Tony Awards – and while the Tony voters sided with Dear Evan Hansen in the end, theatregoers continue to hotly debate which show most deserved to win.

To my mind, Malloy’s exciting score – which isn’t just electro-pop, but folk and rock and even a pinch of experimental metal – was absolutely the outstanding one that year. With apologies to Come From Away’s Irene Sankoff and David Hein and their excellent Newfoundland-inspired rock score, it’s the one of the three original cast albums that I still listen to on a regular basis.

Though he’s just beginning to think of how he will stage The Great Comet and casting has not begun, Abraham hopes his production will also include some immersive elements. “I really want to share the experience that I had in New York,” says the director, a long-time admirer of Chavkin’s experimental work who has previously invited the director to Canada to teach. “We want it to be special – and we certainly want to give the process some time to produce our own special surprises for the audience.”

A Toronto production of The Great Comet full of Canada’s musical theatre talent would be exciting news if it were produced anywhere.

But that the Musical Stage Company and Crow’s are producing it at the Winter Garden – one of those beautiful big theatres in downtown Toronto that too few local companies can fill or afford to use – makes it particularly exciting.

After years of producing in the city’s mid-sized theatres, Musical Stage now has an enviable track record of producing musicals on a scale that rivals that of commercial companies such as Mirvish Productions, even as it has continued in a not-for-profit model.

First, Marcus’s company co-produced Fun Home and Next to Normal in the CAA Theatre as part of the off-Mirvish season.

Then, this winter, Musical Stage partnered with Obsidian Theatre Company to produce Caroline, or Change at the Winter Garden without the Mirvish umbrella to help bring in the crowds – a big gamble for a company with no subscription audience to take on a show that they had already produced eight years earlier.

It cost $750,000 to mount that musical there in the theatre’s 872-seat configuration – about twice what it costs to stage a musical at the 244-seat Berkeley Street Theatre (where Musical Stage’s next show, Kelly v Kelly, will open in May).

But Caroline, or Change – which starred Jully Black and closed over the weekend – has turned out to be a game-changer. More than 10,000 people went to see it at the Winter Garden, compared to 4,000 who saw it when Musical Stage and Obsidian first produced the show at the Berkeley in 2012. They even ended up adding a performance because of demand.

“Sometimes in the city we have resigned ourselves to small impacts and small outcomes,” says Mitchell, whose company plans to produce for at least four years at the Winter Garden. “I think sometimes you get these really amazing artistic properties, and I think even though it’s double the risk, it’s worth it.”

Find out what’s new on Canadian stages from Globe theatre critic J. Kelly Nestruck in the weekly Nestruck on Theatre newsletter. Sign up today.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe