The Great Comet: The Journey of A New Musical To Broadway. Book

Comet 3D Cover Image

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 son, 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.

Buy “The Great Comet: The Journey of a New Musical to Broadway

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Beardo Review: Russia’s Rasputin via Great Comet’s Dave Malloy

In “Beardo,” we are back in Russia with Dave Malloy, the composer of “Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812.” Instead of a Broadway theater, the Pipeline Theater Company’s new production of Malloy’s musical has opened at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. And instead of dramatizing a novel by Tolstoy, “Beardo” tells a fictional version of an actual figure in Russian history, the enigmatic Grigori Rasputin.

Some of the elements familiar from “Great Comet” are present in “Beardo,” most notably Malloy’s classically tinged, eclectic score offering everything from rock ballads to hearty drinking songs, as well as a game and talented cast. But “Beardo,” which premiered in Berkeley in 2011, a year before the premiere of “Great Comet” at Ars Nova, feels in comparison like a work in progress. The book and lyrics by Jason Craig are playful, sometimes clever, silly, ribald, deliberately anachronistic, joyfully shocking and in-your-face weird. They are too accomplished to be labeled juvenile….but “adolescent” might fit.

Click on any photo by Suzi Sadler to see it enlarged.

 

A snippet of dialogue:

BEARDO: Dude, what’s your deal?

YUSAPOOF My deal? Dude? Don’t slang this place up with your bumpkin parlance And your weird twaddle!

BEARDO Oh ya? You wanna see my twaddle waddle?

YUSAPOOF I don’t need to listen to you, ok? I am a fucking count

 

“Beardo” makes no pretense of presenting a faithful biography of Rasputin, the peasant mystic who became an influential adviser to the last Tsar of Russia — which didn’t end well for him or the Tsar. “Beardo” doesn’t even mention the name Rasputin (although the program does include an advertisement for a new biography by Douglas Smith entitled: “Rasputin: Faith, Power, and the Twilight of the Romanovs.”) Instead, the musical plays with the myth that has built up around the bearded faith healer.

We first see a dirty, ragged Beardo (Damon Daunno) outside a peasant’s shack with his hand stuck in a hole, and a voice in his head. The shack man (Rolls Andre) takes him into his home, where Beardo eventually empowers the man’s sister-in-law to speak for the first time in 15 years – and to kill her abusive sister. He also yanks out the man’s tooth, and demands that the man whip him 24 times. Beardo considers his cruelty sinful, but he starts to believe, as he tells this family, that sinning is good for you – “You get loose” which “causes you to get a bit fun” – as long as you apologize for you sins afterward.

Armed with this insight, he barges his way into the castle of the Tsar (Willy Appelman) and his wife the Tsarista (Alex Highsmith), and, in the words of the play, he grabs her ass – “because,” he explains to her, “this will help us both.”

Beardo soon beds her, calms her sickly son, and gains the confidence of the shy Tsar; he also becomes a prolific womanizer. All of this wins him the ire of all of Russia, aristocrats and peasantry alike.

Director Ellie Heyman keeps the eight-member cast in motion, climbing up and down the scaffolding inside the church (I wondered whether this was set up specifically for the show, or whether St. John’s is undergoing extensive renovations. It’s the former.) The band, with Sam Kulik as the conductor and guitarist, is a lovely string quartet that does great justice to Malloy’s music. But one of the two most memorable moments of “Beardo” occurs without the band’s accompaniment, when, right before the intermission, a huge choir in peasant attire suddenly appears in the church’s rafters, to sign Malloy’s song called “Russia’

Inside palace gates

sits a Tsarista and her mate

This strange Beardo
puts a hood over our heads bamboozling blinded state …

God Help Us

Give Us Courage…

 

It is melodic, with beautiful harmonizing, and (however one may quibble with the lyrics), deeply stirring .

The second moment begins ludicrously — two hefty men appear in tutus (Andre and Ben Langhorst). But they turn out to be two of the three assassins (the third is that count, Yusapoof, portrayed with appropriate villainy by Brian Bock.) Incredily, the three non-dancers in silly costumes turn a mock Russian ballet into both beautiful and chilling. How they accomplish this is almost as mystical as the sway that the infamous Mad Monk had on the last of the Romanovs.

 

Beardo

Pipeline Theatre Company at St. John’s Lutheran Church

 

Book & Lyrics by Jason Craig
Music by Dave Malloy
Directed by Ellie Heyman, choreographer by the Kuperman Brothers, scenic design by Carolyn Miraz, costume design by Katja Andreiev, lighting design by Mary Ellen Stebbens, sound design by Dan Moses Schreier and Joshua Reid
Cast:Damon Daunno as Beardo, Rolls Andre as Shack Man/Murderer, Shaye Troha as Shack Woman/Woman, Liz Leimkuhler as Shack Sister/Woman, Alex Highsmith as Tsarista, Willy Appelman as Tsar, Brian Bock as Yusapoof, Ben Langhorst as person of the court/murderer.

Band: Blake Allen (viola), Ezra Gale (bass), Sarah Elizabeth Haines (violin), Sam Kulik (conductor/guitar), Susan Mandel (cello), Hajnal K. Pivnick (violin), and Charlotte Munn-Wood (violin alternate).
Tickets: $25-$40.

“Beardo” is set to run through March 5, 2017

Watch BroadwayCon 2017. Visa Ban vs. Artists. Hamilton at Super Bowl, Week in NY Theater

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Scenes from BroadwayCon 2017

Previews of Anastasia, Amelia, Come From Away, Significant Other etc.; A surprise Q and A with Lin-Manuel Miranda via live video from London, followed by the introduction of the new Hamilton cast; a panel on actors and activism. These were among some 200 activities at BroadwayCon 2017, the second annual theater fan convention, held over the long weekend at the Javits Center. There’s no summing up,(except maybe the comment from an organizer who said: “It’s been a tough week. This is a safe space.”) Here are some snippets, including videos of Josh Groban (Great Comet), Jordan Fisher (Hamilton), Broadway for Black Lives Matter founder Amber Iman, and Broadwaycon fans beating up fighting directors.

I learned everything I could (about Zero Mostel in Fiddler on the roof) then threw it all out — Danny Burstein

I grew up naive in the South. Theater has helped me grow up in so many ways. My favorite role has been South Pacific; I became this blonde white girl vessel for what racism can look like  — Kelli O’Hara

“The best thing about theater is that it teaches empathy” – Laura Dreyfuss, Dear Evan Hansen panel,

“It’s your heart. You will find your way to activism, however big or small”~ Tina Landau, co-founder of The Ghostlight Project

Director Diane Paulus’s advice to other directors: Follow your passion. Ask big questions. Break the rules. Change the form.

As a performer, I'm more comfortable when a cast is diverse. But I have no power to make it happen - Bebe Neuwirth, Broadwaycon panel on diversity

As a performer, I’m more comfortable when a cast is diverse. But I have no power to make it happen – Bebe Neuwirth, Broadwaycon panel on diversity

Week in New York Theater Reviews

Kelly Hutchinson and Carson Elrod

Kelly Hutchinson and Carson Elrod

The Liar

In The Liar, the title character wonders whether, given his disposition, he should become a politician. But, if David Ives’ version of Pierre Corneille’s 1644 verse play may benefit from new relevance (what I call the Trump Effect), its main strength lies not in its timeliness or plot but the subversive whimsy of its language….

In his 21st century take on iambic pentameter, Ives rhymes “exit” with “sexted,” “idea” with “diarrhea,” and “muck” with “schmuck.” And he deliberately mangles Shakespeare: “But soft! What light on yonder sidewalk cracks!”

I can’t remember a play in which the playwright so obviously enjoyed his own cleverness, while at the same mocking his efforts

Alexander Flores as Tono and Lisa Ramirez as Mami

Alexander Flores as Tono and Lisa Ramirez as Mami

Tell Hector I Miss Him

Love puzzles, and messes up, the dozen characters in Tell Hector I Miss Him, a play wonderfully acted by a cast that includes veterans of Orange is the New Black. If the play itself sometimes puzzles, and shocks, it also marks a remarkable playwriting debut by 28-year-old Paola Lazaro.
Lazaro’s work is reminiscent of that by Stephen Adly Guirgis and August Wilson in its ability to turn street language into stage poetry, and to shine a warm center spotlight on people who are usually pushed to the edge.

Week in New York Theater News

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Trump visa ban complicates plans for Waterwell’s English/Farsi ‘Hamlet’ starring Arian Moayed

Via @PsychToday, the health benefits of the arts & the NEA’s role in wellness efforts. #NEA #artsheal #ArtsCEOLynch https://t.co/hAqKZsiWgp

— AmericansForTheArts (@Americans4Arts) January 30, 2017

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Phillipa Soo, Renée Elise Goldsberry and Jasmine Cephas Jones, the actresses who originated the roles of Eliza, Angelica and Peggy Schuyler in “Hamilton,” will reunite to perform “America the Beautiful” during the televised pre game show at the Super Bowl on February 5

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Beginning Tuesday, Hamilton will double the number of $10 daily digital lottery tickets to 46. Enter the lottery 

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Four terrific playwrights have become new Signature Theater playwrights-in-residence, two of them Pulitzer winners: Stephen Adly Guirgis (Between Riverside and Crazy), Dave Malloy, Dominique Morrisseau (Skeleton Crew) and Lynn Nottage (Sweat.). The presence of Dave Malloy (Natasha Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812) means that Signature is delving into musicals

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A musical of Meryl Streep/Ann Hathaway film “The Devil Wears Prada,” with music by Elton John and book by Paul Rudnick, is  planned for Broadway. Perfect! (no details yet.)

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abby-mueller

Abby Mueller will play Carole King in Beautiful, starting March 7, a role her sister Jessie Mueller originated on Broadway.

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I interviewed her about the budding Mueller dynasty in 2015. Both her parents are actors. Abby and her three siblings all became actors. At one point recently, Abby was in the Broadway cast of Kinky Boots while her sister Jessie Mueller starred in Beautiful, and her brother Andrew was in the Off-Broadway cast of Peter and the Starcatcher. (Abby’s twin, Matt, was back in Chicago performing in a production of The Merry Wives of Windsor.)

Our whole life, we’ve gotten, ‘Oh, it must be in your genes.’ But it’s probably a mixture of nature and nurture. There are families of doctors and of lawyers and of plumbers. We’re a family of actors.”

Speech & Debate

Speech & Debate, the film version of Stephen Karam’s first hit play will be in movie theaters (and available from iTunes) on April 7th. It features such Broadway luminaries as Lin-Manuel Miranda and Roger Bart and up-and-comers Sarah Steele (The Humans), Darren Criss (Hedwig), Austin P. McKenzie (Spring Awakening), Gideon Glick (forthcoming Significant Other) .

Blind theatergoer sues Hamilton for violating the Americans with Disabilities Act, because the musical offers no performances at all with live audio narrative available on headphones. The lawsuit calls for one performance a week.

Ellen’s Stardust Cafe fired 15 more employees (total: 31), including activist in the newly formed union. The owner is being sued for wage theft

The International Human Rights Art Festival at Dixon Place March 3-5

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RIP acclaimed British actor John Hurt (Elephant Man, A Man for All Season, Naked Civil Servant, Midnight Express, Harry Potter),77

Natasha, Pierre and The Great Comet of 1812 on Broadway: Review, Pics, Videos

An opera with an unwieldy title based on Tolstoy’s War and Peace seemed an unlikely crowd-pleaser, but I was thrilled when I saw it Off-Broadway, first at Ars Nova in 2012, and again in a circus tent in 2013. When they announced a Broadway run, however, I wondered how they could possibly pull it off.

They’ve done it! Now installed in the wondrously transformed Imperial Theater on Broadway, Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 is extraordinary, the freshest, most inviting show on Broadway this season. Great Comet is especially awesome in its stagecraft, as well as in its music, and in its performances. The large, exciting cast includes nearly two dozen who are making their Broadway debuts, including Denee Benton and Josh Groban as the titular characters….Director Rachel Chavkin and set designer Mimi Lien in particular deserve kudos for staging on Broadway something very close to the kind of immersive theater that’s lately been intriguing theatergoers all over the world – everywhere but Broadway, until now.

Full review on DC Theatre Scene

Click on any photographs by Chad Batka or Jonathan Mandell to see them enlarged.

Dust and Ashes

Charming

Sonya Alone

The Prologue