Griffin Godsick discusses one of Broadway’s most promising luminaries
My muse is… Rachel Chavkin, artistic visionary and theatrical titan.
She is… a trailblazing musical stage director who has risen to prominence with her work on shows such as Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 and Hadestown, and as the founding Artistic Director of the Brooklyn-based performing ensemble The TEAM. She specializes in developing pieces in their infancy in collaboration with the writers, which truly gives her works a unique synergy with the music/lyrics, and the actions occurring on stage. As there is a dearth of prominent female directors working in theatre today, with Diane Paulus and Julie Taymor perhaps the only other household names, Chavkin’s meteoric rise has been all the more significant. In the span of three years, she has garnered two Best Director Tony nominations, one of which she won, directed a feature film, and used her platform to make an impassioned plea to the industry for more female and POC representation. Not too shabby for someone who only just turned 40.
I first learned about her when… I attended a performance of Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 on Broadway in 2016. This electro-pop opera, based on an 80-page slice of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, was mesmerizing to me, with a seamless fusion of a myriad of different musical styles, from Russian folk to traditional musical theatre, from dubstep to jazz. The Imperial Theatre, where I had attended multiple shows previously, was completely overhauled, with over one hundred seats being strategically placed on the stage itself. I was lucky enough to be situated in the front row of the stage, which allowed many of the cast members to interact with me as they sang and danced. This immersive experience wasn’t limited to the audience members on the stage however, with the chaotically beautiful choreography reaching even the heights of the mezzanine. The staging had a raw dynamism, with every actor in the 20-something person cast in a constant state of motion or action, always giving the audience something engaging to follow. Every character had distinct ways of moving, further visually enthralling the audience. While the production marked Chavkin’s debut on the Great White Way, the meticulous planning of every aspect of the blocking indicated the eye and mind of a creative auteur.
I am obsessed because… Chavkin approaches the staging and bringing to life of musicals in a completely fresh and original manner. Theatre has been an essential aspect of artistic culture for hundreds of years, and rarely has it been reinvented in such striking fashion. Chavkin’s style of directing somehow combines the intimate exclusivity of immersive theatre with grand spectacle rarely seen on-stage. The works that she chooses to develop tend to be bold re-imaginings of existing pieces of literature, further appealing to the English student in me. For my money, she is the only current Broadway director who is as much of an attraction as the lead actors or composer, and I can’t wait to see what kind of genius she unveils next.
My favorite work by her is… Hadestown, the recent Tony-winning Best Musical retelling of the Greek myth of Orpheus and Euridyce. This is ancient mythology by way of industrial New Orleans blues, which although might sound like a strange pairing, actually serves to bring out the best of each individual aspect. A central turntable platform is utilized to great effect in enhancing the mobility of the actors and giving levels to the staging. In Orpheus’ plea to Euridyce, ‘Wait For Me’, four swinging lanterns are manipulated by chorus members to intensify an already incredibly energetic number. Chavkin’s decision to place the orchestra visibly on-stage as a Muse-like band omnipresent in the proceedings is a clever device in order to complement the meta-theatrical framing of the show. When Broadway inevitably re-opens, hopefully sooner rather than later, I urge everyone to go and witness this spellbinding artistic achievement.
The work by her you absolutely have to check out is… the recent A.R.T. production of Moby Dick in Cambridge, Massachusetts. This musical adaptation of Herman Melville’s famously long magnum opus reunited Chavkin with Great Comet composer, lyricist, librettist, and orchestrator Dave Malloy, another one of New York’s most exciting creative minds. While it had a relatively short run, and there isn’t currently a cast album to listen to obsessively, the show received fantastic reviews, and was primed for a Broadway transfer before the pandemic hit. Here’s hoping that Ishmael and Co aren’t dead in the water, as I will be the first person in line if it opens in New York.