The Groundhog Day musical is playing at the August Wilson Theater, but half a dozen blocks south, Lucas Steele has been reliving the same hours in the life of Anatole Kuragin over and over and again. As one of only two cast members who has been with the Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 since its earliest incarnation in 2012, Lucas Steele has met the young (and engaged) Natasha, become infatuated, proposed, and been banished from 19th century Moscow society, over 500 times.
“I think there are two things helping to keep it alive,” Steele said. “One is when you have new people coming [into the cast] that you’re going to play off of—I can work wit the same actor for a good year and find something new abut them, so we certainly haven’t been in the situation long enough with the amount of wonderful people that have come into the piece for that to wear off.”
The two of us are sitting at the Stinger Bar in the Continental Hotel. “The other element that’s super pivotal to this entire show,” Steele says, “is the audience. This close—” he gestures towards the barstool-width between us—“as you are sitting to me now. They are the third person in the scene. So, the fact that they are there each night, and they are alive and fresh and new, and they don’t really know what is going to happen, it’s this amazing energy to be able to pull from.”
Although less intimate than its first staging at Ars Nova in 2012 and its subsequent production in a tent in the Meatpacking District, The Great Comet at the Imperial Theatre has pulled off a massively impressive feat of creating a Russian-dinner-club intimacy in a big Broadway room. Actors weave between seats, walking on platforms that wind through the red-velvet room, tossing pirogues, notes, and flirtatious glances to audience members as the plot requires. The last of these is a specialty of Steele’s Anatole Kuragin, the androgynous Casanova with a platinum pompadour who sweeps onto the stage with a David Bowie swagger and an introductory line in the opening song that tells the audience almost everything we need to know about him: “Anatole is hot. He spends his money on women and wine.”
Anatole, who seduces women soon-to-be-married and plucks money from his friends’ hands, is the closest thing to a villain in the plot of The Great Comet. But still, Steele says, it’s not quite right to think of him as the bad guy. “I think for me, villains are conscious of the fact that they are doing something wrong. And [Anatole] has no idea. He gets it at the end, I think; there’s a brief moment of realization that, oh, I should have handled this differently, but he’s not mustache-twisty to me. He’s just really very-child like, in that ‘I see shiny object, I want it for my own, I will run it down until I get it’ way. He looks in the mirror, and he thinks, Good to go.”
The resemblance, in temperament and attitude towards women, to our current president is not lost on either of us as he describes Anatole.
When Donald Trump looks in the mirror, it’s probably not far off to imagine that he sees someone who looks a whole lot like Lucas Steele. With his blue eyes and blonde hair (bleached every 6-weeks or so to achieve an icy platinum for the show), Steele comes across as a Disney prince who plunged into New York City in an Enchanted-like scenario (who then would have made the logical and relatively straightforward decision to pursue a career in musical theatre).
In fact, Steele’s Disney aesthetic was something the show’s production team had to be conscious of when they designed what Anatole would look like on Broadway.
“[At Ars Nova,] my hair was longer and down and sort of floppy. What I observed, and from the discussions we had, is [Anatole] seemed too Prince Charming-like with it down, and parted, and over, and blonde. I just looked like this typical Prince Charming. milquetoast guy. When we moved to Broadway, I had a conversation with [composer] Dave Malloy about it. He said, ‘I don’t insert myself into design opinions often, and I find because I don’t, people listen more when I actually do. And I brought up your hair.”
And so, up Anatole’s hair went, a well-pomaded pompadour that gives the impression less of a prince you’d want to bring home to your parents and more of the guy you meet at a club with a job in finance who you know, you just know, will be bad for you but you still can’t help yourself.
“I honestly feel like we are not the same to any degree,” Steele says about resemblance to his character. “That’s the luxury of getting to play him: I get to exorcise a lot of demons and walk out there and pretend I don’t give a shit, and like I don’t look at myself with a magnifying glass and see everything that’s ‘wrong’ with me, or what I would change or fix. So he is a relief to me at the end of the day that I can disappear into this person who is extremely confident and goes after exactly what he wants.”
Looks aside, the one other similarity between Steele and Anatole might be in their musical ability: The Great Comet features its actors in double-billing as roving troubadours, playing instruments along to their songs. Dolokhov is almost never onstage without his guitar, Josh Groban’s Pierre opens the show with an accordion and Anatole—well, Anatole is ever the refined suitor with his chin on a violin.
“My grandfather passed away and left me his violin when I was about eleven, and so I started taking lessons because I wanted to honor him,” Steele said. “There was this very specific moment with Mrs. Chase, my violin teacher in the public school system— I played through my lesson in the lesson book, and when I finished, she said, ‘Watch out, Carnegie Hall, here comes Lucas Steele.’ And I turned to her, and said, ‘What’s Carnegie Hall?’”
From an even younger age, his prodigious musical talent began impressing the adults around him.
“I started playing the piano when I was three and a half. I was in a department store with my mom and my grandmother—it was around Thanksgiving, and they kept losing me to this corner of the store where there was this tiny table top piano. They would hear it playing, go and get me, and then find me there again. My grandmother picked it up and they gave it to me for Christmas, and I put it next to our large piano. My mom was taking lessons to play the hymns in church, and she had been practicing this specific hymn, and I sat down and I played the hymn by ear.”
Seeing a production of Into The Woods on TV had Steele “bitten by the Sondheim bug.” That was his first cast album he ever purchased, soon followed by Les Mis and Miss Saigon. Steele joined a few regional theater productions and then made the move to New York City.
The setting of Steele’s origin story makes it downright archetypal: rural Pennsylvania. “My dad ran an automotive shop that my grandfather owned as well, in the family for 90 years, so I grew up around a lot of cars: working at a garage, washing a lot of cars, changing oil. I never did engine work—that was more my brother—but I know my way around tires. I have an aunt and uncle who are dairy farmers. So in the summer, because I lived in ‘downtown’”—Steele laughs and puts the word describing his tiny town in air-quotes—“In the summer, I would spend a couple weeks on the farm. I learned the value of hard work. Farmers are really unsung heroes.” Slightly porn star-ish name (real name, he swears) notwithstanding, it is phrases like that which evoke commercials for local congressmen. He is the embodiment of the Broadway cliché: small-town farm boy who falls in love with music, and musical theater, and moves to the big city to follow his dreams.
And since settling in the role of Anatole five years ago, he’s been excited to watch it change and grow—in terms of hairstyle, and the cast members he plays opposite.
“There’s a heightenedness to his Pierre that comes from having an incredible instrument,” Steele says about Josh Groban, the famous vocalist who joined as one of the show’s title roles when it came to Broadway. “His acting, too, lives in a place of this laser-lined focus. That’s a difference that I have clocked between him and, let’s say, Dave Malloy [the show’s composer who was in the role at Ars Nova and the Meatpacking District tent]. When I watch Josh’s Pierre, it’s a man who is driven by his philosophy, and philosophy is what guides him to his own emotional revelation. Dave Malloy’s Pierre is the opposite of that. It’s a man who is driven by his emotion, which leads him to his philosophy.”
Groban’s focus, Steele says, is very direct, permanently engaged in every detail a scene, which allows tiny moments every night on stage that the audience might miss.
“There are maybe five people a night that see this depending on where you’re sitting, but there’s a moment with Helene, at the end of the show, when I sort of get caught, when my head is in her lap, and Pierre says, ‘Do not speak to me, wife, there is something inside me,’ and that line is very indicative of the violence, and the rage, that exists in Pierre, and does sort of allude to the fact that he has slapped Helene around before. My head is in her lap, and I sort of look up, and we look at each other, and there is this exchange that happens that’s very real for us, like her saying, ‘What have you done, and how am I going to pay the price for this?’ But only the people sitting at the banquette by the stairs—and Josh—really get to see that.”
I have seen The Great Comet twice, from the orchestra and from the banquets, and from neither vantage point was I lucky enough to catch that psychic glance between the two Kuragin siblings, nor did I, in my infinite listenings to the cast recording—alas, the off-Broadway cast—pick up on the hint of violence between Pierre and his unfaithful wife. The show itself is as intricate and layered as the thick Russian novel of its source material, a fairy tale turned in on itself and made dissonant and existential and strange.
“It is our responsibility to constantly fill each moment where words are not being spoken with information that influences how the audience sees these people and gives them an insight into who they are, which seems basic,” Steele says, “but when you are constantly orbiting, it becomes a whole other level of multitasking.”
Those moments, as the cast members prowl among the shapeless stage, are infinite and impossible to catalogue: between cast and audience, cast and cast, and between audience member and audience member, the people who look across the tiny tables scattered among the theater to make eye contact with a friend or a stranger and give a glance that says, “Isn’t this all kind of unbelievable?”