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Tolstoy Goes to the Theater
Josh Langhoff

I just hate the experience of going to the theater and, you know, having to sit down and being very proper and being quiet and being in the dark. That wall that goes up is not so interesting to me.”

So said the theatrical composer Dave Malloy in a 2014 interview, speaking about his acclaimed musical Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812. Nominated for twelve Tony awards this year, the show sets to music Book Two, Part Five of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace—the part where young Natasha becomes smitten with the cad Anatole and breaks off her engagement to the absent soldier Andrey, while central character Pierre spends the bulk of eighty pages being drunk and sad. It’s a soap opera crossed with a philosophical crisis.

In the musical staging, Malloy and director Rachel Chavkin have tried to erase Malloy’s dreaded “wall” by pulling the cast into the
audience and the audience onstage. Broadway’s Imperial Theater is decorated like an opulent nineteenth-century ballroom, with velvet curtains and fantastic starburst chandeliers. For the price of an orchestra seat, lucky audience members can claim a handful of tables front and center, where Pierre sometimes sings over their shoulders and Anatole might plop down beside them. Even the cheap seats are in on the act. Members of the company, most doubling as instrumentalists, venture into the mezzanine for a couple raucous dance numbers, and to serve pierogis. They also help explain things with a swinging, Klezmer-style “Prologue”:

This is all in your program
You are at the opera
You’re gonna have to study up a little bit
If you wanna keep up with the plot
It’s a complicated Russian novel
Everyone’s got nine different names
So look it up in your program
We’d appreciate it, thanks a lot

Despite these valiant efforts, most audience members will enter and leave the Imperial feeling like typical theatergoers. Everyone still has to sit when the lights go down, and Playbill still prohibits electronic noise. Audience participation is limited to catching a prop or two and eating a pierogi. In Broadway theaters, fourth walls don’t fall easily.

Josh Groban sings the role of Pierre in his fluffy sweater of a baritone voice. As the show opens, Pierre has retired to Moscow to study, drink, and finish out his days trapped in a loveless marriage to unfaithful Hélène. (Groban spends much of the first act reading at a desk in the band pit, occasionally taking over the piano from musical director Or Matias.) “It’s dawned on me suddenly, and for no obvious reason, that I can’t go on living as I am,” sings a troubled Pierre, like most of the characters taking his words directly from Tolstoy’s prose. Also visiting Moscow are young cousins Natasha and Sonya, family friends of Pierre. Their job is to introduce Natasha to Andrey’s family and get into their good graces. The visit does not go well. Natasha and Andrey’s sister Mary quickly decide they hate one another, holding out the words “constrained and strained” at a difficult half-step dissonance. Natasha leaves, pines for Andrey by singing an aria, and then goes off to the opera feeling disconnected from everyone around her—everyone, that is, until she meets Anatole.

Anatole enters to the thump of electronic club music; he clearly means to seduce. As played by the hilarious Lucas Steele, Anatole purrs and smirks his villainy, and “Natasha & Anatole,” his duet with the charming Denée Benton, is a sexy highlight. Innocent Natasha falls for Anatole, who plans her elopement/abduction with the help of the feral troika driver Balaga, who merits his own galloping Slavic dance number. But Anatole’s plans are foiled by faithful Sonya and the cousins’ stern godmother, Marya D (Maria Dmitrievna Ahrosimov in the novel—remember, everyone’s got nine different names). Anatole, threatened and banished by Pierre, departs for Petersburg belting a high C-sharp. Having broken off her engagement to Andrey, lost Anatole, and embarassed her family in Moscow society, Natasha sinks into a depression that only lifts when she encounters Pierre in the next-to-last scene. Pierre pledges to her his friendship and tenderness, then walks outside to spot the titular comet, which inspires in him an epiphany, the feeling of “blossoming into a new life.”

The Great Comet originated in tiny dinner theaters before Malloy and Chavkin adapted it for Broadway. Its roots, like the author’s, are in the immersive and adventurous off-Broadway world, where the performance spaces are small and the concepts run high. To read Malloy’s previous credits is to imagine a series of vodka-fueled dares. His Three Pianos adapts Franz Schubert’s Winterreise, only its three pianists chase one another around the stage and ply the audience with drinks. Preludes incorporates the music of Sergei Rachmaninov, because—why else?—it takes place inside the composer’s hypnotized mind. According to the New York Times, Malloy’s Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage, a collaboration with lyricist Jason Craig, “demands to be described as demented,” while the two men’s Beardo, a character study of Rasputin, “wallows in cheerful degradation.”

Dementia and degradation appear briefly in The Great Comet, mostly in the character of senile old Prince Bolkonsky, who growls like Tom Waits over a pounding backbeat that slips into a terrifying atonal blur when the prince loses his glasses. (They’re on his head.) But if the musical is a touch more sedate than Malloy’s previous productions, it still betrays an idiosyncratic mind at work. Malloy’s aesthetic development recalls that of Baltimore film director John Waters, of all people. In a span of sixteen years, Waters went from the grotesque, micro-budgeted Pink Flamingos—“An exercise in poor taste,” read the X-rated movie’s tag line—to the crowd-pleasing comedy Hairspray, itself later adapted into a Tony-winning musical. Though vastly different from one another, both films were clearly the work of the same subversive spirit. Malloy has never been as extreme as Waters. But even the populist Great Comet reflects Malloy’s experimental willingness to break whichever theatrical rules don’t serve his story.

Take the famous writer’s dictum, “Show, don’t tell.” By making his characters sing their own stage directions, many of them lifted verbatim from Tolstoy’s narration, Malloy doesn’t break the rule so much as render it irrelevant. Sometimes the experiment works and sometimes it doesn’t. When Anatole sings the line, “Anatole followed with his usual jaunty step, but his face betrayed anxietyyyy,” the moment is perfect: a rogue who can’t see beyond his own ego, grappling with an emotion he can barely explain. On the other hand, when Natasha, her spirits finally buoyed by Pierre’s love for her, sings her line, “For the first time in many days, I weep tears of gratitude, tears of tenderness, tears of thanks,” the narration feels wrong for her character in that moment. You might wish Malloy had simply written her some new dialogue so she could address Pierre directly, in kind, rather than ungenerously singing about herself. A simple “Thank you, Pierre,” would have sufficed.

Writing songs based on extensive passages of Tolstoy’s prose—how’s that for a dare? Malloy’s solution is to write songs that sound like nobody else’s. The musical numbers in The Great Comet rarely rhyme, and they often mimic the jazz technique of vocalese, singing new words over existing instrumental solos. The results can sound like characters unfurling their thoughts in real time. The best use of this technique comes at the beginning of Act Two with “Letters,” in which—you guessed it—the characters write and sing letters to one another. (Along with the hit show Dear Evan Hansen, which won six Tonys this year, it’s been a good Broadway season for epistolary songs.) Pierre reels off an increasingly bizarre stream of consciousness to Andrey, his voice tugging against the steady drumbeat in unpredictable phrases, rising to a manic pitch when he reveals, “I have calculated the number of the beast—it is Napoleon! I will kill him one day.” Malloy realizes that Tolstoy could be very funny, and his peculiar songwriting methods capture the characters’ own peculiarities.

The sprawling cast of characters ranges from the stuffed shirts of Moscow society all the way down to Balaga, apparently dressed in the contents of a fascinating rag bag. Malloy uses a deep bag of musical tricks to depict them. Rock, blues, waltzes, and the very Josh Groban-y ballad “Dust and Ashes,” a new song written specifically for the star—everything is fair game. The accordion, strings, and woodwinds of Eastern European folk music provide a musical through line, but those stomping polkas morph seamlessly into the throb of electronic dance music. Unexpected genres jostle for attention. The ten-minute cast number “The Opera” moves from ballroom waltz to minimalist arpeggios, avant-garde parody to stalking electronica; yet all these abrupt transitions make clear musical and dramatic sense. Through his prose, Tolstoy imbued his characters with the illusion of lives lived beyond the page. His stories take shape naturally, following his view that history is the sum of “an infinite number of diverse and complex causes.” Or, as Pierre sings in “Letters,” “We are just caught in the wave of history. Nothing matters. Everything matters.” Malloy doesn’t achieve Tolstoy’s naturalism with The Great Comet—there are still arias and patter songs to remind audience members they’re watching a musical. Unless Anatole steals a spectator’s chair, it’s doubtful they’ll feel like a participant in the action. But because Malloy violates musical norms so frequently and deliberately, his audience leaves knowing it’s seen a show unlike any other.

 

 

Josh Langhoff is a church musician living in the Chicago area. He is also the founder of NorteñoBlog, a mostly English-language website devoted to regional Mexican music.

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