Israeli Musician’s Star Is Rising After Broadway Hit 'Comet'

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Denee Benton, left, and Brittain Ashford during a performance of "Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812" in New York.
Denee Benton, left, and Brittain Ashford during a performance of "Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812" in New York.Credit: Chad Batka/AP

NEW YORK – Every evening, just before the actors in the musical “Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812” take to the stage, a medley of Russian songs is heard in the auditorium. One of the songs welcoming the audience to one of the season’s biggest Broadway hits – which received 12 nominations for this year’s Tony Awards, eventually winning two – is “Katyusha.”

Behind the scenes, the production’s music director, Or Matias, listens to the melody and remembers his grandfather, who lives in Israel and used to sing the song to him. The 29-year-old Israeli musician told Haaretz about the surprising success of the show, which is based partly on Tolstoy’s “War and Peace,” on the eve of the 71st Tony Awards ceremony on Sunday.

The musical started its run Off-Broadway in 2012, moved to Broadway last November and has gained a large following. The music, lyrics and book were written by musician Dave Malloy, who chose to focus on the 70-page chapter in which Natasha, a 19-year-old who comes to Moscow, is waiting for her fiancé, Andrey, to return from the war, but meets Anatole, a married man who seduces her.

Or Matias. "My favorite place in the world is the studio, and my dream is to combine work in New York with work in Israel."Credit: Joey Cardella

Matias admits he only read parts of the novel and that Malloy incorporated parts of the literary text for the musical’s lyrics. “It’s always interesting to reread the original texts and to see how Dave chose to present them musically,” he said. “There are moments that change completely with the music, and there are moments that give a feeling similar to the book in terms of emotional presentation.”

The Broadway show, performed eight times a week at the Imperial Theatre, occurs throughout the auditorium, with even the musicians appearing onstage in period costume. “A set designer built scenery that includes the entire auditorium, and the lighting and sound are also everywhere,” explained Matias. “The 37 actors surround the audience in every scene, creating a different viewing experience from every seat. We have fans who come to see the play many times from different seats.”

Matias grew up in Tel Aviv and the U.S. and studied at the School of the Arts in Tel Aviv. From an early age wrote songs and was drawn to the connection between classical and modern music. At 18 he was accepted to the Julliard School in New York, worked with classical music artists, and produced albums for pop and rock singers. At New York University he received a full scholarship for his master’s degree in the fine arts.

“While studying I started to work on small productions, and at one I met Dave Malloy,” he recalled. “Dave and I come from similar backgrounds and soon became friends. He asked me to join his play as the music director.”

In 2015, they collaborated on the musical “Preludes.” Matias was the music director, playing the piano as Sergei Rachmaninoff’s alter ego and winning praise from New York Times theater critic Ben Brantley. During “Natasha...” he is also onstage alongside musician Josh Groban, who plays Pierre (until July 2).

“I get a great deal of satisfaction from the performance element in addition to playing the music,” said Matias, adding that being onstage has opened doors to further projects.

“Natasha” has received warm praise from the critics. According to The New York Times’ Charles Isherwood, “It is both the most innovative and the best new musical to open on Broadway since ‘Hamilton,’ and an inspiring sign that the commercial theater can continue to make room for the new. (Heresy alert: I prefer this show to that one.)”

Matias believes the reactions to “Natasha” are a result mainly of the musical’s uniqueness, which creates an unusual experience for those more used to standard Broadway shows.

He hopes to continue writing music. “I have a great passion for a dramatic story and a live performance, so when the combination of the music I prefer and the stage production takes place on this level, it’s a great pleasure,” he said. “I have plans to record an album of my songs in Israel next year and to continue to produce albums. My favorite place in the world is the studio, and my dream is to combine work in New York with work in Israel.”

Star Josh Groban (in yellow) performing a song from "Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812" at the Tony Awards ceremony, June 11, 2017.Credit: Michael Zorn/AP

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