Roosevelt High School graduate Brittain Ashford is one of four performers in “Ghost Quartet,” a spooky, neo-folkie chamber musical (about “love, death and whiskey”) playing at Erickson Theatre Off Broadway Jan. 19-28.
Brittain Ashford isn’t quite sure how she wound up singing ghost songs. Or how she spent so long in Tolstoy’s Russia.
The Seattle native is one of the four performers in “Ghost Quartet,” a spooky, neo-folkie chamber musical (about “love, death and whiskey”) playing at Erickson Theatre Off Broadway Jan. 19-28.
“Ghost Quartet” was created by New York City-based composer-lyricist and musician Dave Malloy, a rising theatrical force. Malloy’s richly immersive “Natasha, Pierre and The Great Comet of 1812” won critical raves and a dozen 2017 Tony Award nominations. It also gave Ashford her unexpected break on Broadway.
By Dave Malloy, produced by Seattle Theatre Group, Jan. 19-28 at Erickson Theatre Off Broadway, 1524 Harvard Ave., Seattle; $25-$45 (800-745-3000 or stgpresents.org).
Equipped with an arrestingly plaintive alto singing voice, Ashford is a Roosevelt High School grad and a folkie singer-songwriter. (Her current band, Prairie Empire, will make a one-night stop at the Fremont Abbey on Feb. 2.) She is also almost painfully self-effacing despite her recent success.
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Meeting up with Malloy, and winning strong praise in “The Great Comet,” was all “a happy accident,” she said by phone from her New York home.
“I met Dave at a party. He knew I played autoharp and asked me to help with his broken autoharp. The rest is kind of history. I gave him a recording of mine, we became friends and he approached me about doing a workshop for a show.”
Malloy pitched her the idea of playing Sonya, the unlucky-in-love cousin of lead character Natasha, from Tolstoy’s “War and Peace.” The unique outing would meld Malloy’s pop opera score and a romantic strand of Tolstoy’s narrative with antic comedy, wild dance numbers and tasty pierogies served to the audience.
At first Ashford demurred. “I said, ‘no, I don’t think that’s for me. I’m flattered but no.’ A few beers later it was, ‘fine, I’ll do it.’ But I had no idea what I was getting into. I’d seen Dave’s shows and thought he was brilliant, so I knew whatever it was would be interesting, and different, and probably weird.”
For Malloy’s part, it was Ashford’s singing that impressed. “It’s so unique,” he commented from his Brooklyn digs. “It’s a very honest, very pure and heartbreaking voice. It sounds like Brittain’s always singing directly from her deepest soul and heart.”
Malloy’s “The Great Comet” was a hit from its debut at a tiny Off Broadway theater in 2012, through to its 2016 Broadway run initially starring Josh Groban.
Ashford’s poignant portrayal shone in every version. Critics hailed her “moving delicacy” (The New York Times) and her “gorgeous treatment” (Variety) of Malloy’s score. She was nominated for a prestigious Lucille Lortel Award.
But talk to Ashford, and it’s clear none of this went to her head. “When it all started, I wasn’t sure what the future of the show was, or my future as a stage actor. And to be honest, I’m still not sure about that.”
In a way it’s been a girlhood dream fulfilled. The daughter of the late Seattle architect Robert Trotter and artist Anita Ashford-Trotter, Ashford comes from “artsy stock … I definitely went to Roosevelt with this grand idea of studying musical theater at NYU and being on Broadway. But by senior year my focus shifted away to writing my own music. It was something I felt I could own a little more.”
After earning a B.A. in history from the University of Washington, Ashford headed to New York. “I watched so many movies set there and imagined myself living this sophisticated, impossible life. I think I’m doing pretty well now, 10 years later, but it definitely was not glamorous at first.”
While waitressing, bookkeeping and briefly working for The Onion satirical zine, Ashford gigged in small clubs and recorded several indie albums, including 2016’s “The Salt.” On visits home to Seattle, she performed at popular local music venues.
But only “The Great Comet” pulled her back into theater. And now she wants to just tackle stage projects she’s “passionate” about — like “Ghost Quartet.”
Malloy wrote the piece in 2014 specifically for himself, Ashford and fellow “The Great Comet” alums Gelsey Bell and Brent Arnold, who’ve toured in it off and on. His lush blending of folk, jazz and pop music with tales of the beyond was fueled by a love of Stephen King novels and TV’s “The Twilight Zone,” murder ballads and other dark tales.
“For me it was a chance to dive back into the genre fiction I enjoyed so much growing up,” he explained. “It’s a pretty complicated narrative — at least four stories, one based on Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘Fall of the House of Usher,’ and others on ‘Arabian Nights’ and a Grimm fairy tale.”
“There’s a little something for everyone,” Ashford suggested. “It’s Dave Malloy, and has his stamp all over it. Which is to say that much of the music is intriguing, and might be considered unusual … There are moments I think are a little scary. Like part of the show takes place in the dark — literally and figuratively.”