Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 is not only in headlines because of Josh Groban’s triumphant Broadway debut as Pierre, but because it’s another experimental Broadway show seeing success. This pop opera, which doesn’t have much of a stage and frequently breaks the fourth wall, is ushering in a new era of theatre.
The musical started in 2012 at Ars Nova in an 87-seat theatre. Now five years later, this musical adaptation of a small sliver of Tolstoy’s tome War and Peace entertains more than 1000 people per show in the Imperial Theater. The New York Times called it “both the most innovative and the best new musical to open on Broadway since Hamilton.”
A constant whirl of characters in half-period, half-punk costumes, The Great Comet is raucous fun while still managing to carry emotional weight. The plot is dense, but the gist of it is that Natasha (Denée Benton), who is betrothed to a prince (Nicholas Belton) fighting in Napoleon’s war, becomes enchanted by Anatole (Lucas Steele), a suave noble in Moscow. All the while, Pierre (Josh Groban) is unhappily married and trying to find meaning in his life.
The man behind this revolutionary show is Dave Malloy. He wrote the music, book and lyrics of The Great Comet as well as orchestrated it. He even originated the role of Pierre. He talks to Paste about his new show on Broadway. This Q&A was edited for clarity.
Paste: When did you decide to use this one particular part of War and Peaceas the basis for the musical?
Dave Malloy: It was really when I read the book. This part immediately jumped out at me. Tolstoy kind of hand-delivered this 70-page, very tightly plotted section right at the heart of novel. It’s a section where his two main characters interact in a profound way for the first time.
Paste: For the opening number, the “Prologue,” where you introduce the characters, when did you write that song in the process of writing your musical?
Malloy:That song was one of the very last songs written. We did two workshops without that song. In the original show, it just started with Pierre’s first big number. It was just a constant piece of feedback from people at the workshop, “Oh, it took me a long time to figure out who was who! I just got lost.” I was just irritated with getting that note all of the time that I almost wrote that song out of spite. I thought “I’m just going to lay it out as simply as possible” and then the “Prologue” went so well.
Paste: In the show, you have a mix of classic Broadway songs and electropop. Did certain songs lend themselves more to electropop? Did you always intend for the song where they go out drinking to be very electropop?
Malloy: When I was first researching the show, I took a trip to St. Petersburg and Moscow. In Moscow, I had two epic nights. One night was at this little tavern called Cafe Margarita, where they had shakers on the table and had a violin, viola and piano playing folk tunes. That’s where the egg shakers came from. Everyone was drinking vodka and eating dumplings. Then the next night I went to a giant techno club in Moscow, and it had six floors. It was incredible. Every floor had a different lighting scheme and a different kind of electronic music. In Tolstoy, when they go out drinking, this is what they’d be doing now.
So when I started writing the show, that [drinking] scene I immediately knew would be electronic. As I was writing, I started to realize that all of Anatole’s numbers were electronic. It actually became very character-driven. There’s no electronic music in the show until his entrance. He brings electricity into the room, which is dramaturgically what happens to Natasha too. She gets electrified by him. Then from that point on, whenever he’s onstage, electronica is happening. The other electronic number is “Charming,” but that’s Hélène singing, and Hélène is in Anatole’s world.
Paste:I’ve heard that you use Tolstoy’s words verbatim in the Great Comet. Why did you decide to incorporate sentences from Tolstoy’s War and Peace into the songs?
Malloy:It was about really wanting to put the novel onstage, to not just put the story onstage, but to honor Tolstoy. Tolstoy has a very specific style of writing that I fell in love with. [With] his writing style he tends to really analyze the psychology of every tiny moment that they have. The decision was to just really keep his language intact and use that as a way to describe their inner monologues as well.
Paste:Did you have a specific reason for having the orchestra spread throughout the theatre and having the actors moving throughout the audience?
Malloy:I’m super interested in breaking down the wall between the audience and the performer. I think that’s one of the joys of live theatre—you’re actually in this room with all of these people—so I like honoring that. A lot of that came about when I was making theatre in San Francisco 10 years ago; I had a show called Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage. We arrived at the space an hour before rehearsal started and realized that the stage was just big enough to put the band on. There was actually no space left for the actors, so we just by the seat of our pants decided to stage it in the entire loft. It was the most joyful theatrical moment of my life at that point and said, “Oh, I never want to do theatre the normal way again.”
For this piece specifically, Tolstoy is talking about humanity. He starts painting this broad portrait of what life in Russia at that time looked like. He talks about the Czar, Napoleon, the peasants and the lowest troika driver. That all-embracing love of humanity is perceptive in the staging too, so the audience becomes part of the story War and Peace, which is really a story about all of life. Every audience member becomes a character in our story in some way.
Paste:After downloading the off-Broadway version of the soundtrack, I noticed that the song “Dust and Ashes” wasn’t in the original version. Why did you decide add it for Broadway?
Malloy:Yeah, it was one of the songs that after we added it, I couldn’t believe the show ever existed without it. I was the original Pierre, and Pierre stayed present in the story as a meta-theatrical layer. I was there conducting the proceedings even when my character wasn’t a part of it. When I finally left the show and other actors started taking on Pierre, then for me watching as an audience member I said “Oh, Pierre needs a little more story.” And then when we started planning on Broadway, as soon as we had heard that Josh had seen the show off-Broadway and was really interested in the character of Pierre, then it became a point of, “Well, if Josh Groban is going to join the show, I need to write him an amazing song.” Something I wouldn’t be able to sing. Something that really honored his voice. I think both Rachel, the director, and I chose the moment in the show, right after he’s made his suicide attempt. In the old version at the very end of the duel, Hélène says to him “You are a fool.” He says, “Such a storm of feelings.” We just took what was that one line, “storm of feelings,” and that’s what became the song “Dust and Ashes.” Josh just kills it.
Paste: You are actually going to step in for him a few times in the next few months. How does it feel reprising the role you originated on Broadway?
Malloy:Yes, in May. I’m so excited. It’s always been my dream to step back into it at some point. I think I’ve found that I’m more of a composer than a performer, just in terms of the schedule, doing eight shows a week for a year is grueling, and it’s hard for me to be composing other things during the day. I’m so happy to do it now because all of my old friends are still in the show. All the people who were in the first show at Ars Nova—Brittain Ashford, Gelsey [Bell], Paul [Pinto]— are still a part of the family. I’m so excited to step back onstage with them.
Alicia Kort is Paste’s Theatre Editor.