A cast of 19 and a 10-piece band soldiered through a two-hour musical mishmash of opera, Russian folk, choral and electronic club music in Thursday’s opening night production of “Natasha, Pierre and The Great Comet of 1812.”

Malia Munley ’24 said she convinced Annette Jolles, a professor of theater and performance studies, last spring to direct the ambitious sung-through musical as Munley’s senior thesis in acting. Munley leads the production in the titular role of Natasha alongside Zach Redhead-Leconte ’24. Redhead-Leconte plays Pierre and is writing his senior thesis essay about the show’s depiction of mental health in communities affected by war. Great Comet will also serve as the senior thesis for stage manager Naomi Schwartzburt ’24.

“So much time and care has gone into it,” Munley said. “A lot of individuals have wanted to do this show, but it’s just a big lift.”

The cast members and some production officers are enrolled in “Natasha, Pierre, & the Comet of 1812–Production Seminar,” a one-credit Yale College seminar dedicated to the creation of the production. The course is taught by Jolles. The class met for almost four hours each Friday during the fall semester, and students attended additional rehearsals outside of class.

Jolles’ syllabus states that the course seeks “to combine academic research with the multi-faceted process of mounting a musical.”

The creative side of the course makes up half of the students’ final grade between pre-production, rehearsals and performances. The academic half of the course takes the form of papers, reflections and seminar participation. Enrolled students read the 70-page section of War and Peace by Russian author Leo Tolstoy that the musical is based on, as well as texts about Russian culture circa 1812.

Others involved with the production are not enrolled in the course. Almost 50 people are working on the project between the cast, crew, band and Yale faculty, according to co-producer Ava King ’24.

King said that tickets for all four performances sold out in under a minute after they were released. Some students who waited at their laptops on Nov. 27 for the official 5 p.m. ticket drop were unable to secure even a waitlist ticket to any of the performances.

Most shows that serve as senior thesis projects in the theater and performance studies major are performed in the Black Box Theater, which has 100 seats. King estimated that by the time the production had reserved two tickets for invitees of each cast member and removed some of the chairs to accommodate the stage’s set, only around 30 tickets per night were available to the public on Eventbrite.

Great Comet is Munley’s 21st show at Yale between her acting and production credits.

The production has not been an effortless process for Munley. The show’s heavy vocal demands have required the theater veteran to build up her stamina and range.

“You can’t just get up there and sing,” she said. “You have to prepare everything beforehand.”

Victoria Pekel ’25 plays Hélène Bezuhkova, a sultry society woman and Pierre’s wife.

Pekel told the News that the show is difficult yet rewarding in its musical complexity.

“It requires a lot of clashing and complex harmonies, diminished sevenths and minor scales,” she said. “That was a challenge for a lot of actors who weren’t familiar with this musical style.”

Musical director Nicole Lam ’25, legendary among singers at Yale for her talent as a vocal coach, only began music directing in the spring of her freshman year at Yale. In the two years since she has served as either musical director or associate music director for eleven shows. She was trained as a concert pianist and studied classical opera at the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts for a year.

“This has definitely been the most challenging show I’ve ever music-directed,” Lam said.

Lam said she began to memorize the show’s score last December and to work on the music last March. As the musical director, she is responsible for teaching all of the singers in the show their parts and crafting cohesive ensemble sounds. The first five weeks of the class consisted solely of music instruction both in class and in individual rehearsals outside of class. 

Since the show is sung-through, Lam explained, the director could not begin to stage the production until the cast knew their harmonies down cold.

“This was a musical show but also a logical game puzzle,” she said. She recalled asking herself, “What do I say to vocalists to get them to understand the sound that I want?”

Redhead-Leconte said he has developed his acting as much as his singing throughout the rehearsal and class process.

“The show is written like Pierre is depressed and just sitting in his sadness, but we’ve been working on reframing him as a character who is searching for a reason to keep going in life,” he said. He credited Jolles for working with him on “making the intention behind what I was saying more clear.”

Jolles has been commuting between New York and New Haven every day of the show’s tech week and run. 

The production will run through Saturday. 

The Black Box Theater is located at 53 Wall St.

Josie Reich covers Admissions, Financial Aid & Alumni for the News. Originally from Washington, DC, she is a sophomore in Davenport College majoring in American Studies.