Entertainment » Theatre

'Anatole is Hot' (And So Is Lucas Steele) in 'The Great Comet'

by Robert Nesti
EDGE National Arts & Entertainment Editor
Saturday December 19, 2015

In the musical prologue to "Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812," composer/lyricist Dave Malloy offers a kind-of "Who's Who" of the narrow sliver of Tolstoi's "War and Peace" that he adapted for his self-styled pop opera, which runs at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, MA through January 3.

"Gonna have to study up a little bit/If you wanna keep with the plot/Cuz it's a complicated Russian novel/Everyone's got nine different names/So look it up in your program," sings the company.

They then offer thumbnail sketches of its many characters: Natasha is young; Sonya is good; Marya is old-school; Hélène is a slut; and Anatole is hot. "He spends his money on women and wine," the chorus adds.

The number establish the vibrant tone of the piece - no small feat for a musical that takes a section of Tolstoi's massive tome and reworks it for today's audiences.

"When they told us that Anatole is hot, and the actor playing Anatole gave us what can only be described as a sheepishly conceited 'hot' look, the thrust of the evening became clear," wrote Playbill's Steven Suskin in describing the opening number. "This was going to be 'War and Peace,' after a fashion, but it was going to be channeled through a gleefully contemporary filter."

Anatole has become a signature role for Lucas Steele, who has played the role in the three iterations of Malloy's musical over a three-year span. And, yes, he lives up to his description with many of the critics saying that the blonde, handsome actor fit the description. "Anatole is hot. (Played by Lucas Steele, he is.)," wrote Jesse Green in reviewing the musical in New York Magazine. Thom Geier of Entertainment Weekly put it this way: "Steele is dashingly caddish as the lothario Anatole who seduces Natasha."

For his performance as Anatole Steele won the 2014 Lucille Lortel Award, Best Featured Actor in a Musical. Prior to playing Anatole, he appeared in the New Group's "The Kid" and Prospect Theater Company's "Myths and Hymns." He made his Broadway debut in the 2006 Roundabout Theatre production of "The Threepenny Opera," which he describes as a life altering experience. He has dispersed his theater credits with a career as a pop musician, writing and recording his songs. EDGE spoke to Steele recently after a rehearsal late one afternoon while he sat on the Boston Common.

Is he a cad?

EDGE: How does it feel to come back to the role of Anatole?

Lucas Steele: It's really special to have the opportunity to return to something two years later. You don't get this experience very often. We are exploring some new directions of Anatole's existence, to try to make him as least typical as we can make him. Because it is easy to surrender to this desire that he's this rake that walks into town and ruins someone's life. But I think it is less interesting when it is that typical. I think if there's a way to create that connection between he and Natasha as one that's real, it adds more layers and makes Anatole less moustache-twisty, forgive the term.

EDGE: Many of the reviewers describe him as a cad. Is he?

Lucas Steele: He's an unknowing cad. I love him dearly, but I don't think he's smart enough to know he's a cad. I am not saying he's dumb, but he's not the brightest bulb in the box and he operates from this place that is based on his desire to get what he wants. He childish in that way. He's not super-calculating. It's more like he sees this thing that he's going to grab it and play with it. It's very childish.

Not typical

EDGE: Is he in love with Natasha?

Lucas Steele: I think he believes he's really in love with her. He thinks she's the one and he's going to do everything he can to hold onto this. With that said, I think he has this feeling quite often that he surrenders to; but for the sake of what Tolstoi has written, I do think he sees something special about her. She's a notch up from what he's experienced before and she grabs his eye; he sees there is something special about her that makes him unravel in a way.

EDGE: How did you get the role?

Lucas Steele: Back in 2012 I went to an audition for a workshop of the show. Ars Nova was working on a glorified reading for lack of a better term, and I went in and did my thing and met with them. I immediately appreciated what they were doing. I don't fit so well in the world of musical theater. That's not casting any aspersions on that world. I just have learned that my artistic truth doesn't always align to what people are looking for in the world of musical theater. So when I went into that audition and they wanted me to sing, I just asked if I could sit down and play for myself, which I think surprised them but were fine with it. I just appreciated from that moment that we were on the same level of understanding that we were all artists in the room and we are going to do our best to make it work. They weren't super-formal in that 'perform for us know sort-of-way,' and I think that's very helpful in auditions because they are very tricky things.

EDGE: What do you mean that you are not a typical musical theater person?

Lucas Steele: I am a little hesitant to speak about it because I don't want it to seem that I am judging musical theater in any way. I went to school for musical theater and I had some acting teachers pull me aside and tell me that I was a really wonderful actor and I should focus on more classical literature and gaining an understanding of that side of the craft. Music was very much in me -- this gift I am not really responsible for in any way. So at school the craft of acting became more cultivated and what appealed to me artistically from my own personal taste is that the works I care about weren't being explored by musical theater. As an actor you learn these things. You go to auditions because you want the job; but realizing when you get the job that it's not meeting my artistic desires. I don't know quite how to say it because I think there's a lack of complicated stake in the way books are written for musicals that make it less appealing than reading a play. When I find a musical that's written as well as a play. That's the challenge -- if I can find a musical that's written as well as a play is, then I am artistically fulfilled.

Never settle

EDGE: You told the story in an interview that when you were in 'The Threepenny Opera' with Cyndi Lauper and Alan Cumming, the cast often went out with them after the show. Over a beer one night, you said that Lauper told you that you should never settle, and that affected you profoundly. Can that be called your mantra?

Lucas Steele: It's not like I'm friends with Cyndi Lauper, but working with her on that show in which we created something outside of the box was illuminating. It certainly was an experience of people taking keep digging deeper into the art form, and it was the moment of sitting with her over a beer in having her say to me, you don't have to settle was when things started shifting in me.

Then after that I went to Europe because I was in a record deal for a number of years where I was producing the album and writing the music. It was a solo deal, so it kicked me off into this good four year period of time when I was exploring so many different facets of who I was as an artist, be it musically or character that I wanted to display because the project -- I am getting off topic --but it was this modern day David Bowie/Ziggy Stardust kind of thing, so I was playing a whole different person. It really just opened my mind to trying things that were different. You can try things. You don't have to necessarily have to do what everyone else thinks you have to do. How this slides back around to this experience is that Dave Malloy is a composer who functions in that way. He breaks these constructs that people conform to -- who knows why, they've just been set up over the years -- he takes those and flips them on their head and starts mixing all these different styles.

And when I got involved in the project at ArsNova in 2012 and I started hearing the music, I thought, 'This is everything I am interested in.' The contradiction of organic and synthetic; of a super-heightened dramatic environment also tied into a very realistic one because we are so close to the audience and we are playing these characters who are so extreme. How do you walk that line of making both seem plausible and believable?

Evoking David Bowie

EDGE: A number of the New York reviewers said they thought you were evoking David Bowie in your performance -- was that intentional?

Lucas Steele: The casting notice back at that workshop, there was a mention of David Bowie in that. They were looking for a David Bowie-kind of energy. I had hair a certain way at ArsNova, then we changed it for Kazino (the pop-up supper club where the show played its second engagement). I think my hair will be different for this one. I am not even sure what it is going to look at this time around, but there was a little bit of an homage with David Bowie there.

EDGE: Have many changes been made to the show aside from fitting into the Loeb?

Lucas Steele: Yes. Certainly with what Dave is doing. He is adding new material, but not so much for me. A majority of my work has been with Rachel. We are exploring is there a way of making him less predictable in what is going on? We have always moved in that direction because we don't want it to be predictable. I got to hand it to the creative team this time around because they are willing to experiment and treat this in a way that's almost like a workshop, but since they function at such a high level, it is not going to function like a workshop of course. This to me what art is, especially in an evolving forum like theater. Something that happens over and over again. I am so grateful to be part of such a like-minded team that keeps digging and keep exploring, even when it doesn't always feel right.

There are some tweaks going on, which is always very vulnerable as an actor, especially if you felt it works the first time around. I stay away from reading reviews because they can mess up your head. But having the good fortune of winning the Lortel award for the role made part of me think, what we did worked in a certain way. So to go back to it and start evolving him in different directions, it feels a bit vulnerable; but I certainly trust this group of people. If you're not vulnerable on stage, no one cares. No one can pay attention.

His biggest challenge

EDGE: As a musician and composer, what do you think of Dave's music?

Lucas Steele: I immediately was gravitated towards it because I felt the way that he plays with sounds, from the organic sounds to the synthetic sounds, which is something I have also been exploring when I was spending that time writing and producing. When I heard how Dave was creating this soundscape that I learned about from working on the commercial thing, when I saw how he was putting that into the classical, I was definitely onboard. It resonated in me. He's a brilliant, brilliant man. I was just happy to be onboard. I think Dave has done an amazing job adapting. To look at a novel so extensive as 'War and Peace' is and to have gone to it and chosen this 60-page slice, I think that takes an incredible amount of discernment. And for him to adapted it the way that he has -- almost all the text is derived from the source -- this is the first time I looked at a piece of musical theater and been able to sing the material as I would speak it.

EDGE: Is that a challenge -- not having the lyrics rhyme?

Lucas Steele: Yes. In the show people speak in sentences as I am talking right now. We kind-of just live in the moment. Is that a challenge? I don't know. It could be just a freedom for us to explore something that's not been done in musical theater before. It's an untapped convention, a new experience going on. And musically Dave writes some pretty complicated stuff, so luckily I have some music theory and training under my belt, but then he'll come up with a section that is so complicated rhythmically that it takes me a couple of passages to figure it out.

Great cardio

EDGE: Given you perform the piece around and about the audience, is it difficult to stay in character?

Lucas Steele: For me the thing about 'Comet' is the amount of multi-tasking you are doing as an actor. There are times that you have about six different things you have going on in your mind. From A, being your character and existing in that space; to B, being present with your scene partner; to C, being aware of the room and what's going on around you. That's because you never really know what's going to happen and you need that awareness of what's going on in the audience.

Then D, your ability to believe in the audience and sort-of know what kind of audience you are dealing with that night. E, if you are playing an instrument in the show, as some people are, you have that to add onto these other concerns. F, you're singing while you are doing it. And G, the set is so amazingly epic. The amount of steps and the miles you are walking every show. All of these things contribute to how you can stay in character in front of an audience. The multi-tasking makes for an experience like no other I have had in the theater.

EDGE: So you must be getting great cardio. But is all this physicality daunting?

Lucas Steele: I have a great team of physical therapists I work with because this show is a challenge in every way. Physically, technically, emotionally, it really wears you down. And that's the hard thing about theater when you are doing 8 shows a week and the cumulative effect of doing it. This time it's even bigger -- the last one I was doing 200 stairs a show. It's a lot of work. I am learning on how to stay on top of myself physically in ways so as to avoid any long-term damage. It is not for the weak of spirit, that's for sure.

EDGE: Everyone in the show says you're hot, as did many of the reviewers. Does it bother you to talk about, well, being great looking?

Lucas Steele: Not at all. I think it is important to talk about. What's written about the character -- how he is described -- is what's written. And his physical appearance informs the audience about who he is as person and how he functions. I don't want it to be a broad sweep in accusing people as being labeled as attractive, but I think certainly the way they go through life, there are certain things they don't have to worry about because some things are put into place by the societal ways we have decided to anoint people. For me I see Anatole as someone who does what he wants because of how he looks. That pretty much informs to me who he is, and how I should approach him dramatically.

Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 continues through January 3 at the Loeb Drama Center, 64 Brattle Street, Cambridge, MA. For more information, visit the American Repertory Theater website.

Robert Nesti can be reached at [email protected].

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