WELL PLAYED

‘Natasha, Pierre’ & The Great Comet of 12 Tony Award Nominations

It’s the most Tony-nominated show of the year, so how did an immersive musical inspired by Tolstoy’s ‘War and Peace’ become the toast of Broadway?

Chad Batka

The numerical frontrunner in the Tony Awards, to be awarded on June 11, is Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812.

The musical, with book and score by Dave Malloy, and directed by Rachel Chavkin, has scored 12 Tony nominations, including for Best Musical and Best Actor for Josh Groban, and nominations for Malloy and Chavkin themselves.

The musical takes a 70-page slice of Tolstoy’s War and Peace to tell an epic tale of love, ambition, and disillusion with a mixture of folk, rock, and classic musical styles. The ingenious set, by Mimi Lien, puts some audience members at the heart of the action. The actors sing and drape themselves around those sitting on the tiered stage.

The production began life, with a similar though much smaller design inspiration at the downtown theater venue Ars Nova in 2012.

The Obie-winning Chavkin is artistic director of Brooklyn-based THE TEAM, while Malloy—who first composed music for Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage—worked with Chavkin for the first time on the Schubert-inspired Three Pianos. In its path to Broadway since 2012, The Great Comet has been garlanded with Obie and Lucille Lortel awards, and multiple other nominations.

The Daily Beast met with Malloy and Chavkin one recent afternoon at a coffee shop opposite the Imperial Theatre where the Broadway production of The Great Comet is playing. A reporter began by asking how Malloy was feeling about his musical being the Tony Awards frontrunner.

Dave Malloy: It was a little crazy and unexpected. I thought we might get a few nominations, but none of us calculated we’d get the most nominations. It’s just so cool for all my colleagues working on the show to receive the recognition they deserve. It’s surreal, definitely brilliant. I’m not a competitive person, so I don’t feel any pressure to win. I won’t sink into a depression if we don’t win. I saw Come From Away last weekend. It was great, and I loved meeting its writers afterwards.

The Tonys feels like a celebration, more than competition. Tim Minchin (of Groundhog Day) reached out and suggested all the composers got together and drink a bunch of wine. Theater is such a small community that every brilliant piece of theater raises us all up.

Rachel Chavkin: Hamilton was so helpful in generating a broad appetite for musicals and musicals, and pushing and expanding the boundaries of what a musical sounds like. As a result, the American musical is part of pop culture in a way that it hasn't always felt like. The musical is a vibrant place where American social life and social fabric is being worked and stretched.

Were you expecting to get nominations?

RC (laughs): I was a crazy person about it. The Great Comet is risky. The score introduces electronic elements into musical theatre in a way that is clearly unprecedented. The scenic transformation of the space is really pushing at the formal boundaries of what is possible. I think I was a ‘crazy person’ in part not knowing if we would be honored or dismissed; my craziness was about how others were going to perceive the show. Also, awards are very important to a show of this kind. It is not the only factor, but this kind of recognition helps determine the future of the show. I want as many people to see it as possible.

Dave, you started writing this five years ago, before it was performed at Ars Nova in the fall of 2012. Were you a longtime Tolstoy fan?

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DM: I always loved Russian literature. In college, I was Dostoevsky-obsessed and found my way to Tolstoy shortly after college. I read War and Peace eight or nine years ago. The section the musical is based on is right in the center of the book, and creates a turning point for Natasha and Pierre. The way Tolstoy cracked this part of the story was in telling parallel stories of the characters, culminating in an interaction where Pierre says something to Natasha which changes both their destinies. To this day I cannot read that part without bawling. I identified with Pierre so strongly. I also felt I was in a constant existential life crisis.

What about?

DM: About everything. Like him, it was about fitting into society. Friends, society, love and art-making and philosophy and God. What is my purpose with it? What is the meaning of life? All these ridiculous questions you have in your early thirties. [laughs] I had not found my calling at that point. I had not identified as a musical theater composer. At that time I was searching what to do with my life.

RC: Pierre feels out of place, and you think about an element of clowning [Malloy’s first musical was named Clown Bible]—the seeing things through innocent eyes, that slight feeling of ‘lostness’ and wandering. There’s that last number where Pierre asks, “Where do I go now?”

Dave, what were you like as a boy, growing up?

DM: I’ve always been a huge reader. I grew up in Ohio, and got yelled at in math classes for reading Stephen King behind my textbooks.  

RC: I loved Stephen King too. My first tattoo, on the small of my back, was of a turtle which was inspired by a moment in It. I was very, very bookish, and also kind of a jock. I always played soccer. Seminal books for me included Catch 22, which I read probably ten times. It was one of the first truly funny books I read.

I hadn’t realized that humor and tone could be so inventive. I read War and Peace in high school. When we first started talking about this, the first thing that struck me re-reading it was how I had missed all Tolstoy’s humor the first time around. The first line of Anna Karenina is deeply funny in a very dark way. Tolstoy writes such great, tragic, flawed characters.

I went to New York University and studied directing. I’ve always been really bossy. I was editor of the school newspaper and yearbook. I’ve always been able to organize stuff. I wanted to have ownership and control over the material I was working on.

DM: I always identified as a musician. I was in every high school ensemble, all the choirs. I played piano in jazz band, the timpani in the wood ensemble, the xylophone in the marching band. I sang in a barbershop quartet.

How did you start writing musicals, Dave?

DM: I was working in a record store in San Francisco, and another guy there was doing a play and needed a keyboard player, and I acted in it too. I realized this was the way I wanted to write music. I grew up watching musicals: The Music Man, West Side Story, My Fair Lady, The Sound of Music. To this day, I can sing every line of that one with my sister. My first musical, Clown Bible, told bible stories through a clown. What I really wanted to do—and what we do in Comet—is set long scenes to music.

In Clown Bible, I first did that with the story of how Samson loses his hair, shifting keys, meter, and styles. With The Great Comet, I thought every character in Russia is present in the book, so I needed every musical style to tell their stories. So you have Russian folk music, rock, folk rock, and also something from the golden age of Rodgers and Hammerstein in Natasha who has a very strong soprano voice. Bjork, Radiohead, Prince, and Tom Waits shaped a lot of the composition. Waits is another artist who uses everything valuable to turn into a delicious mass. I’m really into artists who defy genres.

Did the section of War and Peace immediately seem like a musical when you first read it?

DM: It definitely leapt out to me creatively. This is a perfect musical, I remember having that thought. The section is so tightly plotted: there are two stories running in parallel and it has a subversive structure. Often you have a main couple and comedy couple, but in The Great Comet you have Natasha and Anatole as the main couple, and the B-story is Pierre and his relationship to himself, society, and God. I like that subversion.

How did Natasha, Pierre take off as an idea?

RC: We had worked together on a show called Three Pianos, but in 2009 we were at Vassar College one night, wandering around talking about dream projects. Dave mentioned this section of War and Peace. I took it very seriously. I said, ‘Let’s do it, let’s make it.’

Did you always conceive it in this immersive way?

RC: It wasn't like Dave and I had a long-held interest in immersive theater. Everything comes from the material thinking about Tolstoy writing about all levels of society, so not include the audience in creating a similar picture of low to high? We wanted the audience to be in it. We knew there shouldn’t be a conventional stage set. We wanted the actors jumping on tables and running all around.

DM: I did my musical, Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage, as a one-off performance. The stage in the loft we did it in was only big enough for the band, so the actors had to do everything wandering among the audience. That’s got be one of the most joyous and fulfilling nights of theater of my professional career. It was what the best theater is: you stand in a room of 20 or 2000 people and share an emotional event.

RC: The exhilarating thing about The Great Comet is taking a collective leap of imagination: the agreement is we’re all going to believe together this lie. When Pierre tells us he is driving on a sleigh through the streets of Moscow, there is no sleigh, and the stars above are lightbulbs. But you make that agreement to believe. The audience can elect to be amidst the action on stage, or not. The performers don’t touch the audience really. One might ask quietly if he can sit on your lap, and it’s fine if you say not.

Was the show easy to write?

DM: Tolstoy handed me the most perfectly structured story. I started with a 75-page document of his to text edit, I streamlined certain bits. It’s written perfectly for each character to have their big moment. Some songs came quickly, although the songs that move the plot forward took a bit longer.

Did you imagine a life for the show on Broadway early on?

DM: I had been making so much downtown experimental theater when I started writing this show, I wanted to see if I could write a show in the structure of a Broadway show. I was very much thinking of Les Misérables, with self-contained songs and larger narrative sequences. I didn't, in any realistic way, think that this would happen.

When we were making the show at Ars Nova we were making it for Ars Nova. Then Howard Kagan (one of the show’s lead producers) expressed an interest and belief in it early on, which gave everyone involved in the show an excitement and enthusiasm. We knew the show would potentially have another life, but that would take another billion more miracles. And there were another million more miracles to take it off-Broadway to the American Repertory Theatre. And then here.

RC: I never thought of it as a Broadway show. I don't think of my job is to conceive of anything beyond creating excellent work for whatever space I am creating for. There were a series of decisions we took—like adding to the ensemble—for Broadway. At every stage, the producers kept pushing us to see our vision realized, whether sets or costumes. They never stopped believing.

DM: We are so indebted to the creative genius of (designer) Mimi Lien.

RC: She created everything, from the staging to that bunker the audience walk through. There’s such a lot of construction. At some point [laughs]—maybe 100 years from now—it can go back to what it was.

Mimi says she doesn't think of herself as a set designer: she’s creating audience experiences. We both asked what kind of comprehensive environment allows the story to unfold, so there is no fourth wall; that you had the same one-on-one feeling in the theater as you have when you read the book. You have Tolstoy speaking to you straight from the page, and Natasha singing three feet from your face.

Did you know you needed a big star when you got to Broadway?

RC: This was still a risky prospect which the producers took a leap of faith on. We needed someone known against the unknown quantity of an electro-pop opera version of War and Peace.

Josh had fallen in love with the show when he saw it in 2013. When we started talking about a star for the Broadway show in 2015 his name was on top of the list. He reached out to us himself, so there was this synthesis and kismet. He has sold 30 million albums worldwide but when he had that first drink with us he said that if we didn’t think he was the right fit for Pierre then that was OK.

And he kind of looks like you, Dave.

DM (laughs): I look like Josh Groban. I’ll take that.

RC: Josh has bought so much to the character. He roughens up the edges in Pierre’s drunk and despairing moments, and also has his purity too.

Is it easy to work on other things while immersed in this?

DM: For the last four years I’ve been working on a production of Moby Dick, a co-production with the Public Theater and Berkeley Repertory Theatre. It will be a 5-hour show, and so it’s quite something going from this 70-page sliver of War and Peace to an expansive, durational piece.

At the same time, I wrote Ghost Quartet, a chamber piece for four people. That was not, and would never be, a Broadway show. Moby Dick is so American, so the focus will be on the breadth of American music, from 1851 to now: jazz, ragtime, soul, modern rock and roll.

RC: We are also working on an adaptation of Henriad, taking Henry IV, parts 1 and 2, and Henry V, and making one evening following Prince Hal from really fucked-up teenager to warmonger king. Dave is writing the music, and I am adapting the words. There’s a very interesting rub between the contemporary and archness of Shakespeare, so we’ll be illustrating the classical world and how we view kings, and how we view masculinity, and a young man lost within that.

Will both be influenced by the present political era?

RC: Oh yeah [they both laugh].

DM: I started working on Moby Dick long before Trump was anything, or whatever he was, and so when that started happening I thought, ‘God, I have to change the piece to make more topical.’ But then I thought you don’t have to do anything. The story does it for you. There’s this crazy man taking this American ship to its doom, destroying American democracy. It doesn’t feel like you have to put Captain Ahab in an orange wig or something.

RC: The shows will likely be produced in the next couple of years. The crazy thing is who knows where will be in the next two years.

Whether that monster is in power or not, a conversation about whiteness and heterogeneity of what American democracy looks like will remain relevant for a long time; similarly how much softness or fluidity, morally speaking, that we want from our leaders; and how much our leaders get to be soft or get to have their flaws made public.

My immediate next show is directing British performer Chris Thorpe’s show at the Edinburgh Fringe. Nothing about that speaks to Broadway in any shape or form. I want my career to be as varied as possible.

DM: My general approach to making art making hasn’t changed much since I was 20, poor, and writing songs in my bedroom wanting to get my art out of my body into the world in some way.

Do you feel nervous about the Tonys?

RC: I personally felt way more nervous heading into the nominations than I do now [laughs]. It’s not to say I’m not nervous or thinking about it on a daily basis. My great hope is that we will win some, and my expectation is that we will not win some.

The advice I keep getting from directing colleagues is just to enjoy it and have fun; that this is a long life and career. I hope June 11th (Tony Awards night) will be an awesome night in a long career of work, some of which will have a place in the Tonys and some in the Obies or Independent Spirit awards.

DM: I want the show to get awards from a financial view, and for its future. I’m so honored to be nominated. Even being there and putting on a tux will be really, really fun.

Could there be a screen version of The Great Comet?

DM: I can see everything, totally.

Have there been conversations already?

DM: Not really. Tiny slivers.

Malloy is doing 10 performances as Pierre on Broadway.

DM (laughs): It feels like one of most emotionally profound experiences of my life. I was simultaneously living the emotional arc of Pierre being put through the wringer in that show at the same time as going through the emotional arc of Dave Malloy. I haven't sung the songs in 4 years, and then suddenly I’m on stage in front of 1200 people alongside my dearest friends. My wife was there, seated beside where I finish the show just as the comet comes down. I totally grabbed her hand as the lights went down.

Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812 is at the Imperial Theatre, 249 West 45th Street. Book tickets here, through January 7, 2018.