Actress Solea Pfeiffer on why A.R.T.’s new ‘Gatsby’ is so great




Arts

Florence & the Machine’s Florence Welch wrote the show’s music, alongside pianist and singer Thomas Bartlett.

Actress Solea Pfeiffer on why A.R.T.’s new ‘Gatsby’ is so great
Cory Jeacoma as Tom and Solea Pfeiffer as Myrtle, here with members of the company, are featured actors in the A.R.T. world premiere of “Gatsby.” Courtesy Photo / Julieta Cervantes

On June 5, the new musical “Gatsby,” based on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel “The Great Gatsby,” premiered at the American Repertory Theatre in Harvard Square after a week of previews. Originally set to run for under two months, the show extended through Aug. 3 before it even opened, due to popular demand.

The buzzed-about show inspired anticipation for months before its premiere, owing to its star-studded cast and creative team — Florence Welch (Florence & the Machine), the show’s biggest name, collaborated on the music with pianist and singer Thomas Bartlett (Doveman), while Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Martyna Majok (“Cost of Living”) wrote the book and Tony Award winner Rachel Chavkin (“Hadestown”) directs. 

The cast is nothing to scoff at, either, full of Broadway veterans. Isaac Powell (“West Side Story”) plays Jay Gatsby, Ben Levi Ross (“Dear Evan Hansen”) plays Nick Carraway, and Solea Pfeiffer plays Myrtle Wilson. That Zimbabwe-born actress’s Broadway credentials include the role of Eurydice in “Hadestown,” and she originated the role of Eliza on the first national tour of “Hamilton,” and played Ophelia in last summer’s production of “Hamlet” at Shakespeare in the Park in New York City. 

A tragic character trapped in her marriage to her working-class husband, Myrtle doesn’t have a ton of screen time, so to speak, in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s original book. But the musical’s writers reimagined and deepened the role, said Pfeiffer. “In our version she’s real, she’s vital, and she has a glorious inner life.”

Almost 100 years old, Fitzgerald’s novel’s themes might seem as relevant as ever to a modern audience, and A.R.T.’s adaptation emphasizes that. Class tensions are at the forefront, as millionaire Jay Gatsby throws elaborate parties weekend after weekend and disparities between the working class and the upper class are on plain view. But the show also examines race dynamics, sexism, and the myth of the American dream.

“[The creative team’s] goal is to tell this story in a way that is in conversation with the world we’re living in right now, in the way that this book has for almost a century now, and in a way that matters,” said Pfeiffer.

Read on for more insights Pfeiffer gave Boston.com about the show, including what it’s like to work with Florence Welch, how Pfeiffer’s spending her summer in Boston, and why the story of Jay Gatsby remains gripping 100 years after its first publication.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Boston.com: What most excites you about A.R.T.’s new “Gatsby”?

Solea Pfeiffer: What excites me most is the fact that this team is made up of artists who, in my opinion, are some of the most vital creators of culture that we have right now. To be a part of bringing their vision to life is such an artistic gift … I’ve always hoped to make art that elevates the collective consciousness and I think that’s what we’re doing with this show. 

What do you think this show brings to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s story that other adaptations — like the movies, and the recent Broadway musical — have not? 

First and foremost is the musical landscape that Florence [Welch] and Thomas Bartlett have created, which is a whole world and journey to go on just by itself. And then we have the point of view now synthesized through the genius mind of Martyna Majok, and so much care was taken in the creating of my character, Myrtle, a character not given much time in the book.

You’ve played tons of powerful roles in recent years — Eliza in “Hamilton,” Eurydice in “Hadestown,” Ophelia in “Hamlet,” Maria in “West Side Story.” What do you like most about portraying Myrtle?

Myrtle has been one of the most freeing roles I’ve ever played — in that her journey is such a celebration of sexuality and the power it holds. I’ve never played a character so committed to her own life. I’ve never felt more grounded in my womanhood, honestly. Her journey is all about deeply knowing your inherent worth, and making the absolute most of what’s put in front of you. And I’ve loved the roles I’ve gotten to play where often there’s a pursuit of love, which is beautiful, but with Myrtle it’s a true pursuit of life itself. I think it’s deep, complicated, and real, and I’ve just been having such an amazing time. 

What do you love about the “Gatsby” score by Florence Welch and Thomas Bartlett?

It’s been a dream! They are both such masters of their craft and it’s so magical to witness their process. Florence will be struck with inspiration that seems like it’s straight from the heavens sometimes, which has been one of the coolest things to see. They’ve taken so many years and so much time on that project, and they are incredibly detailed and have such a crystal clear vision for the piece. At the same time, however, they are so collaborative and have been open to all of our thoughts as we got to know our characters more and more, which is not always the case! I can’t wait to tell my grandkids one day I got to make music with some of the greatest of all time. 

What do you think makes Fitzgerald’s novel so enduring?

I think first and foremost it’s just some of the most beautiful writing … we forget since we were all so young when we read it for the first time. But it’s just the kind of writing where there’s always something new to mine from it. I think it also came into the culture at the real start of the modern world, and every theme he wrote into this novel continues to be at the forefront of our minds and society now. In a time when the class divide is as wide as ever, we are picking up the pieces after a pandemic, and so many identities are under attack from our own government, I think “The Great Gatsby” reminds us of how history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme. We’ve been here before — will we learn this time? 

Cast of
Isaac Powell (Gatsby), Charlotte MacInnes (Daisy), and members of the ensemble in “Gatsby.” – Courtesy Photo / Julieta Cervantes

What most excites you about spending the summer in Boston?

I’m dying to go to a Red Sox game! I would LOVE to sing the anthem one of these Mondays! I love hearing the Boston accents and am definitely wearing Harvard merch like I’m an actual student. 

What’s one thing you’d like a viewer to know before coming to the show?

I’m not sure there’s much I need them to know aside from the fact that I, and the cast and crew, are so thrilled that they chose to spend their time with us to take in this show that we love so much. It means the world, and I hope they have an amazing time.

“Gatsby” plays at A.R.T.’s Loeb Drama Center, 64 Brattle St, Cambridge, through Aug. 3. Tickets are on sale here.





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