As Lin-Manuel Miranda did with “Hamilton,” so Dave Malloy came up with the idea for his innovative hit Broadway musical, “Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812,” while reading a book under the tropical sun. But Malloy wasn’t on vacation; he was working as a piano player on a cruise ship, which gave him enough spare time to plow through Tolstoy’s War and Peace.
Both musicals, then, began with a book. Each is now also the subject of a similar elaborate coffee table book, oversized and authorized. (Hamilton’s was “Hamilton the Revolution.”)
“The Great Comet: The Journey of a New Musical to Broadway“(Sterling Publishing, 2016) traces the improbable evolution of a musical that began with an unknown cast in tiny, experimental Ars Nova, an 87-seat Off-Off Broadway house, and wound up at Broadway’s 1,200-seat Imperial Theater, starring Josh Groban (He leaves July, 2017)
The book’s 212 pages includes the full libretto of the musical, annotated by Malloy; some full-page, full-color photographic spreads; and 18 chapters, each written by a different key player in the show – author, director, producers, designers, stars. As an extra treat and inducement, a CD with five of the songs is placed snugly in a pocket in the inside back cover.
Such an elaborate book can be said to function – much the way the show itself does – as a counterargument to our society’s growing digital dominance. This is a book that is only available in hardcover. (at least for the moment.)
In his chapter, Malloy details his inspiration for the musical. He chose to dramatize 70 pages from Tolstoy’s novel (Volume 2, chapter 5 – or, if your edition isn’t divided up that way, Book 8.) In order not to retain Tolstoy’s “voice” – “I’ve often joked that in Tolstoy I had the best collaborator” – he put the entire novel in a Word document, “and just started whittling away…..the experiment was to put a novel onstage” – which is why there are few rhymes in the lyrics.
He was also greatly inspired by a recent visit he had made through a tangle of desolate back alleys to a raucous bar in Moscow. He wanted to recreate that feel. Set designer Mimi Lien got to work. For the interior (as she explains in her chapter), “I wanted everyone to feel like they were walking into a velvet-lined Faberge egg.” But she wanted to contrast this “lush, czarist Russia” with the feel of the back alleys through which Malloy had navigated to get to the Moscow bar. Lien saw this as stark “post-Cold War era,” which is why she transformed the hallway of the Imperial into ugly grey concrete decorated with ugly Russian posters. She saw this contrast as literally the contrast between war and peace – Tolstoy’s theme.
Lien adjusted her set design for its many venues, which included two different runs in a custom-built circus tent, one downtown in the Meat Market district, the other in the theater district. Commercial producer Howard Kagan explains how they came up with the tent — they couldn’t find a theater or any other already-built real estate in New York that could accommodate them — including a location where the local community board would approve both the performance and a fully-operating restaurant.
Not all the chapters are as intriguing. The book could have benefited from more aggressive editing to cut down on the repetition and gushing prose. (the book obviously went to press before the dispute between Arg Nova and the commercial producer over billing in the Playbill, although I somehow doubt this would have made it into the text.)
Malloy’s annotations of his script are erudite and sometimes technical. He reprints passages from Tolstoy’s novel that he adapted, or lifted outright, in the lyrics. He occasionally explains his musical influences, which range from Bjork to Les Miserables – and that’s just in one song (“Natasha Lost.”)
The annotations are occasionally more entertaining. Next to the text of the duel between Pierre and Dolokhov, he gives a nod to Lin-Manuel Miranda, and the duel in Hamilton, adding: “Who knew that Broadway would become such a duelfest.”
I enjoyed Malloy‘s comment on my favorite melody in the show, “Charming,” when Helene’s chorus is a rocking, tuneful “Charmante, Charmante.” It turns out she is mispronouncing the French word. “This very sly and subtle character touch was originally a result of my not having done very well in high school French,” Malloy writes, “and then later liking the supercool rhythm in the melody too much to change it. And Helene is a bit of a dilettante, and it’s actually pretty hilarious to me that she is so confidently butchering the French in the chorus of her big song, so….in the end, this works for me!”
In the end, The Great Comet: The Journey of a New Musical to Broadway” will likely work for the bulk of its readers, those already fans of the musical.