When the Tony Awards are presented Sunday night, nominee Lucas Steele will have been with “Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812” five years and one month.
From workshops for a handful of people to performing eight times a week for thousands in the revamped Imperial Theatre, it has been a “gratifying and humbling” journey.
“When you’re developing a lot of new material, you learn to keep a bit of distance and not put too much hope in it,” he says. “When you start, you don’t know what will happen.”
From small theaters to tents to, now, Broadway, “The Great Comet,” based on a small subplot of “War and Peace,” has had a long gestation.
Despite that journey, Steele says, he still finds the musical as exciting as it was in its embryonic stage. “When you have people just feet away from you who have never seen it before, you can feel their energy and play off it. The audience of ‘The Great Comet’ is like a third scene partner.”
Staged in a revamped theater (with seats on the stage and enough staircases and ramps to make a fitness instructor wince), the Broadway “Comet” requires Steele to run 80 flights of stairs each performance. “There’s a cumulative effect on your body that can break you down faster, just doing the same motion over and over.” As a result, he and the other actors require physical therapy and workouts on a regular basis.
“No one prepares you for the constant state of maintenance and preparation and work you need to do the show. You have to stay very focused.”
As the show’s catalyst – he’s Anatole, the impetuous rogue who attracts the young Natasha away from her intended – Steele also has to be aware of audience reaction. Because “The Great Comet” is staged with theatergoers sometimes inches away, he has to be ready for anything. “I can sort of rip it out of their hands and bring it back to the story” if anyone tries to “add” to the show.
Toss in singing and playing the violin and it’s a role few others could attempt. “It’s emotionally as well as physically draining,” Steele says. “A major part of the job is making sure your mind and body are in the right place each night.”
A veteran of workshops, the Pennsylvania native had an inkling “The Great Comet” was destined for bigger things when its pre-Broadway run sold out in three minutes.
When Josh Groban got on board (as Pierre, the middle-aged aristocrat going through a personal crisis) for the Broadway edition, Steele knew the stakes had gotten higher. “In commercial theater, it’s very much a challenge to sell a new (concept) to large amounts of people. Josh is actually one of the few very well-known artists who could handle the requirements of the role.” In addition to singing and acting, Groban plays the piano and the accordion and conducts the orchestra. “It’s the perfect alignment” of performer and role, Steele says.
Before the show opened on Broadway, Steele took his mother (and biggest supporter) to Radio City Music Hall, where the Tony Awards are held. “I wanted her to know what the room was. I said to her, ‘I want you to experience what this is’” on the off chance that “The Great Comet” might be vying for Tony Awards.
Now, mom (who comes from a town so small “you could fit two-and-one-half of the population in one performance”) is set to attend the ceremony to see if her son wins Best Featured Actor in a Musical – a heady thought considering he’s only one of two performers who have been with the show since its inception.
"After so many years, it's a little weird. It's both gratifying and humbling," he says of the experience.
Following his run in the show, Steele says he looks forward to igniting his writing career. Before that, though, he has another plan.
“I’d like to go on vacation,” he explains. After nightly runs on “The Great Comet’s” obstacle course of a set, “I’m going to avoid as many stairs as possible and take the elevator whenever I can.”