Minutes into the acclaimed Josh Groban-led musical Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812, cast members flood the aisles of Broadway’s Imperial Theatre — handing out mysterious small brown boxes to select members of the 1,138-person audience.
There’s so much action going on throughout the house, it might take a bit to understand exactly what’s going on. After all, audience handouts don’t often happen at the theater, let alone before the opening number has even begun.
But inside the boxes await a delicious snack: a warm, bite-size, potato and onion pierogi. It’s a surprise advertised nowhere in the show’s marketing materials or Playbill. But it immediately takes audiences to 1812 Russia, where the show — an innovative sung-through musical based on an excerpt of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace — is set.
Provided by the famed Russian Samovar restaurant nearby, the doughy delicacies have a stuffing made from a “perfectly proportioned” mixture of potato, onions, salt, pepper and olive oil. It’s then wrapped around a Russian Samovar family recipe Puffy Dough (butter, egg yolk, and flour) and topped with sesame seeds.
Baked to perfection and shaped especially for the show’s takeout boxes, “The Great Comet’s Famous Pierogies” (as they’re known) are delivered to the theater roughly 15-30 minutes before showtime, in heat-keeping delivery bags.
In may seem like a small element to the 2 hour and 30 minute musical, but for director Rachel Chavkin, the pierogies are essential to Great Comet‘s success.
“The whole initial production concept was inspired by this night that [composer and bookwriter Dave Malloy] had in Moscow when he was traveling there some years ago,” she told PEOPLE. “He ended up in a cafe called Cafe Margarita, and there were musicians spread all throughout the room and everyone was at tables with Vodka and dumplings and these little handmade shakers that they shook along to the music. And it was very boisterous. And he thought, ‘This is the environment that this story should happen in.’ “
With that idea in mind, Chavkin and her creative collaborators went to town. For the show’s 2012 Off-Broadway premiere at Ars Nova, they started with Costco pierogies — which Chavkin admits “were delicious, but definitely lower class than what we have now.”
Slices of black bread and carafes of Tito’s vodka were placed on every table too — though those were eventually cut back during out-of-town productions before Broadway, as were the number of pierogies distributed to guests.
“At one point, every audience member got a dumpling,” Chavkin said. “And there it felt very clear that not everyone wants a dumpling. It felt like this, ‘I have to take a dumpling’ pressure.”
“I believe there’s enough for every fourth [audience member] now,” she continued. “We make sure that every corner of the room is getting tossed dumplings — including the very rear of the top mezzanine. So that democracy was very important to us. And now that we’ve introduced a sense of competition and scarcity, more people are hungrily reaching for dumplings than they ever used to.”
The pierogi’s recipe was crafted by Russian Samovar specifically for The Great Comet. “We went through this long tasting process — what kind of dumplings they should be, how greasy…” Chavkin said. “They were so enthusiastic about this show and about the role that the dumplings would play.”
FROM COINAGE: Try This Healthy, Cheap Late-Night Snack
At one point, the vegetarian pierogi nearly had a different recipe. “We almost went with spinach and cheese ones that are really good — but we went against them because [producer Howard Kagan] didn’t want anyone to feel like they had spinach in their teeth,” Chavkin said. (Those are still available at Russian Samovar, for those interested in a taste).
What didn’t change was when the pierogies found their way into people’s hands.
“The idea of the energy of the cast coming out and saying ‘Who wants a dumpling?’ — it just felt like a much more fun way to kick off the show,” Chavkin said. “Dave and I both take hosting very seriously. It’s very important to us that people feel immediately welcomed into a space, so it seems really clear that the dumplings should be the very first gesture of welcome.”
RELATED VIDEO: Josh Groban Tackles Musical Theatre Classics on His Album, Stages
Sadly, the only people who don’t get to enjoy the dumplings are the cast of Great Comet themselves — though Chavkin urges to not feel too bad for them.
“The cast got their fill of pierogies during the rehearsal process, because it was really important to us to be able to practice this a few times and for Russian Samavor to practice the cooking and the delivery,” Chavkin said. “So there were multiple rehearsals where 300 dumplings arrived to our rehearsal space and then everyone had to eat them. The cast have certainly gotten their fill on pierogies for awhile!”
Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812 is now playing on Broadway.