Joyful Chats with Brittain Ashford

Brittain Ashford recently made her Broadway debut as Sonya in Natasha, Pierre, & the Great Comet of 1812. A talented musician in her own right, we discussed how this role was tailor made for her and the challenges of performing in such a unique venue.

Joy: When did you start acting and singing?
Oh, well, gosh. I always sang. When I was a little kid I used to make up songs. I really liked to sing when I was a kid. I did choirs throughout school and I briefly took piano lessons, and I really started playing music and singing a lot in high school. And I did a little bit of theater in high school, but it never was really on my to‑do list. I knew I wasn’t going to go to college for –

J: Theater?
I mean, I loved doing it but even in high school, I was like, “oh, this seems like a really difficult professional life choice.” I was 17 and I was like, “I think this is too hard.” And then Dave [Malloy] asked me about this show. You know, a little more than five years ago was our first workshop with this show, and he actually approached me with the idea because we were friends and when he first asked me, I said no. I had never done actual theater before. I was like, “you probably want a professional,”–

Photo by James Bocchiaro

Serena: When Dave first approached you, did he already have the music or was he still in the process of writing it?
He had already written “Sonya Alone” for me to sing. He was like, “I have written this thing, I love your voice, I really want you to do it,” and I was like, “oh, I am incredibly flattered,” and I loved his work. I had seen both Three Pianos and Beowulf at that point and I thought they were both amazing. So he twisted my arm a little bit, and I was like, “okay, fine, I will do your workshop.” But if he had asked me five years ago, or even if he had asked me four years ago, I think I would have been “Broadway” – I mean, the show has changed a lot.

J: You have been with it the whole time?
The whole time.

J: That’s so cool and probably a lot of fun to see it grow and change.
Absolutely. It’s actually one of my favorite aspects of doing the show for so long.

J: What’s your favorite change from the beginning or something that you are really annoyed that was taken away?
Well, there are lots of things that were cut for the sake of clarity and brevity which I support that decision. Sometimes you need to trim it down, but there are so many wonderful lines that probably – I mean, if you saw it in this house, you wouldn’t necessarily enjoy them. But you know, I miss a lot of those little silly things and just overall it’s been really magical to watch it grow. It’s kind of like a child.

J: Your staging for this show is very unique – you are all over the place. What’s that like when you are not actually on the stage and moving around?
It is exhausting. It’s exhausting and also keeps things really interesting.

Photo by Chad Batka

J: Where do you stand most of the time?
I end up doing a lot on the actual stage. In fact, I would say most of my things as Sonya happen on the stage stage because that’s the only place that you can be seen everywhere. So if you are a principal, there is a good chance that – like in the beginning there is one part where Balaga is up in the front of the mezz, which is kind of sad for the people who are there [in the orchestra]. But when he is up there, there is also all this stuff going on here, so it’s not like you are totally alone. You are like” oh, God, what am I looking at, what am I hearing?” But yes, so I end up spending a fair amount of time on the stage, I am up by the double doors. I sing my solo down here [in the orchestra], but then there are parts in the show (like in “Balaga”) where I am up in the mezzanine.

S: Have you ever had any missed queues or not made it to the right spot on time?
Knock on wood – this is wood under the table – I have never, definitely not in this incarnation. I never completely – again really knock on wood – totally messed something up or missed a queue or a line for that matter. When we were in the tent version, the casino version, I fell down a lot. And even though this is way more stairs, I think I was still very much getting used to my costume. Not necessarily being a performer, but I fell down several times in the same exact part of the show and same exact part of the theater. I think I fell three times and one time I actually got a knot on my leg the size of a golf ball. It was so gross, but here for me nothing too disastrous.

J: I can imagine, just running up all those stairs, there are people all over the place in the theater.
Especially if you get this – we call them the cliffs, but it’s the last set of stairs. I don’t know if you can tell from where you are sitting right now, but they are way steeper than those stairs.

J: I think it’s actually better to sit in the mezzanine, just because you can see it all.
I tell people – and this sounds cheesy, but it’s like there is not a bad seat in the house.

J: What was it like to make your Broadway debut?
It was super emotional. It was really emotional for me because it’s –

J: It was exciting?
It was really exciting and I guess when I was 16, I would have been like, “yes, Broadway.” You know, I loved The Secret Garden and Ragtime but I didn’t consider myself a theater kid. But there were certain shows that I really loved and admired and I thought, “man, to be in that kind of show” – So to me it was exciting thinking about that. It was exciting thinking about 16‑year‑old me going, “I can’t believe I am doing this. I have fooled everyone.” And then it was also emotional thinking about the journey from this workshop at Ars Nova to Broadway.

At this point in the interview, the crew started doing a pre-show soundcheck in the theater…

Photo by Chad Batka

J: I never noticed how many speakers there are around the theater till just now.
Yes. Well, do you guys know that the sound actually moves with all of the actors and they have this crazy software designed just for the show. It tracks where all the actors are at any one time so–

J: Certain speakers go off?
Yes, because the idea is that it’s a full house and they walk around and test to make sure none of the speakers are distorting. Like these three (pointing at the speakers) and then these are your main. Then there is all that stuff up there and there are subwoofers under the stage. So big electronic moments literally rattle the theater. When a character moves around the space, the sound follows them so that it feels like it’s true so you never are like, “oh, that’s coming in through the speakers.”

J: What’s your favorite number that you get to perform?
I don’t know. Sounds cheesy, but I really just enjoy everything. Each song has its own challenges. I always would be kind of nervous before coming on for “The Opera” because I feel like the stuff that I sing in The Opera is not necessarily in my comfort zone. So when I am doing it, I am like, “okay I need this proper air, I need to make sure I need to breath, and I need to hit this pitch.” A little bit higher than I like to sing. And I could never really do it. It’s just like I have to work for it.

J: You have to vocally prepare?
Yes. “Sonya Alone” I feel like again, Dave wrote it. Since he wrote it for me, I don’t have to –

J: It’s so cool that you have a friend that wrote you a part.

Photo by Chad Batka

S: “Sonya Alone” kind of has a different style than a lot of the other music in the show. I was listening to some of your original music last night (Prairie Empire) and there is similar sound.
Yes. So in that sense I think he really knew where to milk it so that makes it feel more comfortable to me. I mean, I enjoy doing it because I feel like it really moves people, and in that sense I enjoy that but I really enjoy doing almost everything. It’s fun even doing “Balaga” even though I am just up with the tumble, shaking a jingle stick and running around.

J: Any funny mishaps on stage?
Oh, not with me personally. Or at least not that I can think of. The other night, Or [Matias], who is our conductor, in “Balaga” there is that big cut off whoa. So Or is cutting that off too in the pit for the band and Josh is cutting it off on stage, so Or goes to cut it off and you have probably watched him during the show. He is amazing – but he went to cut it off with an emphatic gesture and his stool had come unwound all the way to the top, so when he moved it, he just fell. The top of the stool popped off and he sort of fell over with it – he was okay, but it was right in the moment where Pierre cuts everyone off and so it was very funny.

J: It’s funny, but at the same time he is probably really embarrassed.
I think he had a really good sense of humor about it. He tweeted about it and he is like, “I took my first spill on Broadway.”

S: Have you had any interesting interactions with the audience? Anything funny that happened, or crazy reactions?
There is always funny stuff. I wish I got to see more of the actual stuff. Like when Natasha and the Bolkonskys sidle up to the people on stage.

J: And they tell them to hand the letter to someone else?
Yes. It’s always funny to see how people respond to that. I see that really well from where I am sitting and sometimes the person will get up on stage and take a bow. An older gentleman takes a big bow after he hands her the letter and people go wild and they clap. I mean, sometimes nothing happens. It’s kind of crazy. It’s different from show to show.

J: Because it depends on the person you pick?
Yes – or sometimes it gets passed across the stairwell and then it gets to her that way.

Photo by Chad Batka

J: It’s so funny that it’s different every night. I like that.
Yes. I had an audience member say – in the beginning of the abduction where Dolokhov says the plan for Natalya Rostova’s abduction has all been arranged and the preparations made on the day that Sonya decided to save her, and I turn around and I give him an, “oh, I am going to get you” look and then I run off the stage. Supposedly to go tell Marya that Natasha is going to elope, but I turn around and these people were sitting at one of these tables up there and they were like, “go get him.”

J: That’s really funny. So who and what inspired you to perform when you were young?
I loved music and I loved all kinds of music. I think my dad was a big inspiration to me. I grew up in a very musical family and I think about it now, my dad used to sing show tunes around the house. I never really knew they were show tunes until I was in high school and I was like “oh,” because I did shows in high school and I was like “Another op’nin, another show.” You know, stuff like that.

S: When did you start your band?
The band I have now, we probably started maybe five years ago. But because I have been doing this, it’s sort of been off and on, in and out of town – but I feel like I have always played music with other people. I mean, Prairie Empire is – for all intents and purposes, it’s my band because I write the music and I sing the songs, but I played bass in another band at one point in time, and I have definitely sung back up with a couple of people and I really enjoy that. That’s why I enjoy doing this show. I really enjoy that collaborative process.

J: So is that what you would do if you weren’t on Broadway? Music? Singing?
Yes. I mean, I don’t know that I could ever do just a straight play. If someone asked me to do it and I thought the play was really great, maybe, but I love singing and I love doing music. That’s what brings me here. I mean, if it was a show that either didn’t challenge me or I didn’t think the music was good, I don’t think I could do it. But I think Dave is just a brilliant, brilliant man.

Photo by Chad Batka

J: What’s it like to work with Josh Groban?
It’s great. He is super nice. I am always surprised at how willing he is to dive into the stuff with the rest of the cast and there never was a moment where he is like, “oh, I am not going to be at rehearsal” or, “I am not going to do that.”

S: Does he play the role of Pierre very differently than Dave Malloy (who originated the role)?
Yes, I think he definitely plays the role different and Dave plays the role different than Scott or even David Abeles – every Pierre has been pretty different. But they all make it very much their own.

J: That’s good. I like it. School of Rock, just switched their Dewey and everyone is saying it’s so different and I am like “that’s the point of it.” You are supposed to take the part on as yourself, not copy the person that originally did it.
I think on Broadway there is a tendency to sort of be like, “this is the role and this is what happened when that person leaves.” Like we don’t want anyone to show that the show is different.

Photo by Chad Batka

J: That’s not the point of acting. That’s not what you are being paid to do, right?
You know, we want to inspire and like you, we use theater as an escape and as long as you know the actors in front of you are doing something that draws you in, who cares if the inflection is up or the inflection is down, you want them to be accurate.

But outside of that, like Lucas Steele who is Anatole – he was out last night and Joshua Canfield went on for him and Josh Canfield was excellent. And he is definitely not Lucas. I mean, they are both handsome, blond men. The timbre of their voices were ultimately very different, but they are both singing the music.

S: This show is very different, because at some points you are singing about yourself (or someone else) in third person and describing emotions. Does that change the way you are acting?
I think it depends on what part of the show it is. I know I definitely think some narrative stuff – I feel like a lot of narrative stuff ends up being with Pierre. I mean, “Sonya Alone” is entirely first person. “I will stand in the dark for you, I will protect you,” versus when I am describing things in “The Opera.” I think those narrative chunks are taken directly from the text. So the idea is we are not here. This is meant to point out that we are in Tolstoy’s 19th century Russia.

Favorite musical?
Oh, God. I think Ragtime might be my favorite musical.

Go‑to karaoke song?
“Unchained Melody” in the style of the Righteous Brothers.

Favorite musician or band?
That’s not an easy question. I still really love the Mountain Goats.

Unusual or quirky talent?
I used to make felt cats.

Favorite movie?
I have no idea.

Favorite book?
The Unbearable Lightness of Being.

Favorite thing about NYC in general?
That you can do almost anything any time of day here. Like you can be so just absorbed into the streets and it’s like you are living your life. Everyone is here – I feel like people don’t give you a lot of sideways looks. Like if I don’t want to take off my stage makeup when I go home, yes, whatever.

Transcribed by Yaffi / Interview by Joy & Serena

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