Howard Sherman: How fans played a part in the recording of a hit Broadway musical

Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 cast members Katrina Yaukey, Alex Gibson and Josh Groban with orchestrator/composer Dave Molloy (second from left). Photo: Howard Sherman
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I recorded tracks for my second Broadway cast album earlier this week. That’s quite remarkable when you consider I’ve never appeared in a Broadway show.

Mind you, my contributions will not be readily apparent, as I was one of perhaps 500 people who turned up (some waiting in a queue that ran around the corner and down the street) to enhance a few brief moments on the recording of the current Broadway musical Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812. By the time it’s mixed down, no one participant will be discernible. But I’ll know I’m in there. Somewhere.

I previously participated in a comparable recording for a track on the revival album of Pippin. The two shows share a common denominator: producer Howard Kagan. Considering that it’s rare to have access to a recording session at all, these open calls for fan voices are remarkably egalitarian – so much so that there’s no audition process. Just first-come, first-recorded.

Certainly part of the impetus is to generate awareness of the forthcoming recording, and the hall that was used had the hashtag #CometAlbumSingers posted all over for easy social media sharing. The recording session was led by the show’s creator Dave Malloy, who seemed to be having a remarkably good time marshalling the voices of a gang of strangers who had volunteered to participate.

Three cast members joined the session: Alex Gibson, Katrina Yaukey and – surprisingly – Josh Groban, who appeared to simply be along for the ride. That certainly raised the level of buzz.

Unlike the Pippin session, where the audience was divided and seated by vocal range, and taught three-part harmonies, the Great Comet chorus was intermingled and given only two-part lines, with tenors doubling sopranos and basses doubling altos. There was also an attempt to capture a 500-strong percussion effort using show-branded egg shakers, though I find it hard to believe that anything resembling usable precision was actually achieved.

The amiably loose nature of the event was reflected when Groban and Malloy debated a brief lyric. This led them to refer to the show’s script in the published hardbound book of the musical, which was eagerly offered up by a front-row fan. In the meantime, the real recording session was proceeding in a studio elsewhere in the city, with fewer but more practised voices laying down their vocals and many fewer eyes watching the process.

I don’t know that the Great Comet session I attended necessarily generated more ticket sales, especially as the audience seemed quite familiar with the show already. Indeed, it’s not hard to imagine that the crowd would have rushed to purchase the recording upon its release, even if they weren’t on it somewhere.

But it was an example of the kind of fan service that bonds audiences to shows, and it made Great Comet – a rather difficult show to describe either in plot or presentation – just a bit more accessible, above and beyond its vigorous theatricality.

With just a few more sessions like this, I can start assembling my greatest hits album. You’ve been warned.

This week in US theatre

With a random drawing before every performance to determine who plays the central role, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ Everybody transforms the 15th-century Everyman into a modern tale. Lila Neugebauer directs the premiere, which opens on February 21 at Signature Theatre Off-Broadway.

At age 89, composer John Kander continues to create new work, in collaboration with a new writing partner, Greg Pierce. Their latest musical, Kid Victory, about a teen returning home after a one-year absence, opens on February 22 at the Vineyard Theatre, directed by Liesl Tommy.

Steven Levenson, bookwriter for the current Broadway musical Dear Evan Hansen, is having a busy few months. His newest play, If I Forget, opens on February 22 at Roundabout Theatre’s Off-Broadway theatre. The story of siblings exploring and debating their own family’s history, it features Maria Dizzia, Jeremy Shamos and Kate Walsh under Daniel Sullivan’s direction.

I have to confess to having never seen Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth and further admit to finding the script, every time I’ve attempted to read it, somewhat impenetrable. So I’m hoping that Arin Arbus’ production at Brooklyn’s Theater for a New Audience, which opens on February 22, will at last help me to understand the saga of the Antrobus clan, the family at the heart of Wilder’s novel.

I wrote last week about the exceedingly brief run (for a musical) of the revival of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Sunday in the Park With George, which reopens Broadway’s Hudson Theatre after a half-century of other uses. The production, starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Annaleigh Ashford, opens officially on February 23.