Nowdays, the commercial and insular shell that is Broadway is feeling a little less untouchable. Of course, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton is a major catalyst behind this shake-up, but the latest to breathe new life into the Great White Way has been Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812, an “electro-pop opera” based on a drama-laden portion of Tolstoy’s War and Peace.
The immersive show began at Ars Nova in 2012 and has gone through many iterations, including a funky stint in a pop-up tent in the Meatpacking District. Now, it’s landed at Broadway’s Imperial Theater, which has been totally restructured to accommodate the show’s 360-degree, immersive staging. Directed by Rachel Chavkin, it remains one of the most authentic transfers of a smaller, more experimental production to a Broadway stage I have observed.
I have seen every NYC production of this show now, and always maintained it was too odd and unique to ascend to the oh-so commercial realm of Broadway. Turns out I was absolutely wrong, and audiences and critics alike are gobbling it up with a voracious enthusiasm. (Singer Josh Groban is now in a starring role.) There is even fanart of the characters, so you know it’s real. The 12 Tony nominations don’t hurt, either.
Great Comet‘s original Broadway cast recording will be released tomorrow and is now available for first listen over at Vulture. We caught up with the show’s writer and composer Dave Malloy, fresh off his Broadway debut temporarily stepping back into the role of Pierre, to talk how the Broadway transfer has affected the show’s music and even got him a little closer to Bowie.
First of all, how was performing in the show?
It was a pretty emotional evening. Having the emotional arc of Pierre, which is pretty epic in and of itself but having layered on top of that the kind of meta-layer of being onstage with all my dear, dear friends from so long ago, it was pretty profound.
Has the Broadway production allowed for more freedom, sonically?
The biggest thing has been the sheer size. The ensemble and the orchestra has increased and allowed the music to get a lot more full and lush. Literally, when we did it at Ars Nova we didn’t have an ensemble, it was just the 10 principles, and I think our band back then was only 6 people. I was playing piano, all the actors were [chiming in] on drums and guitar. Since then, we’ve been able to increase that. The sheer volume of choral music is way more lush than we ever could have achieved in the early production.
The other huge thing was: we added these roving musicians. They run all through the space; two accordions, two violins, two violas, and clarinets. In addition to a bunch of guitar players as well. It adds motion in the music; they’re literally running down the aisles as they’re playing, so you get a 360 effect.
Last time I saw it, an oboe was behind me, so I heard more and different harmonies I hadn’t heard before.
Definitely. One of the big philosophies of the show is every seat should feel like a different experience, both visually and sonically.
Is there anything you miss from past productions?
I miss the free vodka. Turns out it’s just not commercially viable to have free vodka for 1,200 people. At Ars Nova, we literally had free bottles of vodka on every table, and so there was something beautiful about the community that that creates. Not just in terms of intoxication, but there were people pouring vodka for each other, sitting at these tables together. So I miss that, but I completely understand why we can’t do it.
So I noticed rewrites, musical additions and such for the Broadway production. Did you approach those from a place of plot or more from having this big orchestra to work with?
It was more about plot, clarifying the book. When I was originally in the show playing Pierre, I think that metatheatrical component to having the composer and music director playing Pierre kind of kept the character a little more clearly in your mind. When I left the show and other people started playing Pierre, as an audience member I was more acutely aware of oh, Pierre is perhaps a little underwritten.
And then when we transferred to Broadway and when Josh Groban called us up, it was actually such a perfect opportunity to kind of fix the problem in the book and expand Pierre’s role a bit. We added [his] big new song—most of the rewrites, honestly, kind of domino effected from the addition of Dust and Ashes. But now that song is in there, none of us can believe we ever did the show without it. It’s such a vital part of Pierre’s arc.
Do you think the fact that this show is doing so well on Broadway is indicative at all of a shift in the tastes of commercial theater audiences?
I hope so. For me, what’s so exciting to have this show so well-received is purely musically, to have a show that is really doing things that most traditional Broadway musicals aren’t doing, in terms of its relationship to contemporary music. And certainly Hamilton is doing that as well, some of it sounds like a Beyoncé record, it’s amazing.
But even Hamilton is drawing from a lot more popular commercial music, whereas I feel like this show is a little weirder.
Totally. A lot of that honestly comes from Tolstoy. War and Peace is a profoundly weird book. He didn’t even call it a novel, because parts of it are a novel and then there’s enormous sections that are just military history, that have no narrative or characters at all. And it’s also such an expansive book, it’s this book that’s kind of encompassing all of life. So for me musically, that meant that I wanted to make a score that encompasses all of music, that really pulls from every genre that’s available to me to tell the story of these characters.
And I do think that’s something that Broadway used to do more, in terms of drawing on current musical trends. That seemed to happen more in the thirties, forties, and fifties, and somewhere around Hair that just kind of stopped happening.
Yeah, and musical songs would chart in traditional charts.
Yeah, I’m glad to be around at the same time Hamilton is happening, because I think that is definitely a step in the right direction. Getting that relationship between musical theater and music back.
So, about the cast recording. I know there’s already one that exists, how was the process for making this one different?
It was amazing. We got to work with Kevin Killen as the engineer on it, and he just won two Grammys, one for David Bowie’s Blackstar. It was just phenomenal to have that kind of talent. Like, he worked on Peter Gabriel’s So.
So obviously with Josh Groban attached and having all the force of Warner Brothers behind this cast album in terms of budget, that was such an amazing gift.
And you’ve been making these Spotify playlists tracking your influences for each song.
Yes, it’s been fun. It’s also my upbringing; I was a jazz piano player, then I studied classical music, and then I worked at an independent record store and got obsessed with electronic music and indie music… All those musical strains are just inherently in my writing. And it’s been so cool to, a lot of the fans of the show are young teenagers, to expose them to stuff they’ve never heard before. Kids who have never heard Joni Mitchell before, never heard Bartok before, it’s really really cool to expose people to all the stuff that I love so much.
Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 is now playing at Broadway’s Imperial Theater. The cast recording will be available May 19. Dave Malloy will be talking songwriting with Meredith Monk as part of Joe’s Pub’s A Festival of Songwriting tonight at 7 pm.