There are very few shows on Broadway at the moment where you can take one step into the theatre and feel completely immersed in the story. But that is exactly what happens at the Imperial Theatre, which has now been completely transformed into a Russian cabaret, complete with old portraits hanging from floor to ceiling, vibrant red drapes and chandeliers that resemble comets. As you grab your seat, you find yourself in front of a runway with an end table to your right or sitting on the stage itself. Everyone is buzzing with excitement in anticipation of the show beginning. They know something special is about to happen, but they don’t know exactly what.
What they are about to experience is “Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812.” Directed by Rachel Chavkin, this musical takes Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” and presents it as it has never been seen before. Starring Josh Groban as Pierre and Denée Benton as Natasha, this musical is a whirlwind of everything a great musical should have. The show is beautifully romantic, innovative and exciting, all with a score to match. It’s no surprise that this is one of the most talked-about new musicals on Broadway.
The man behind this entrancing show is Dave Malloy. He wrote the music, lyrics, book and orchestrations. He even played Pierre in the Off-Broadway production at Ars Nova. Malloy was gracious enough to take some time to speak to us about the show.
Theatre Nerds: I went to your panels at BroadwayCon, so I just wanted to rehash a little bit. How did you first get into songwriting?
Dave Malloy: I was super active in music ever since I was a kid. My parents forced me to take piano when I was seven, or something like that. They forced me to take it for a year, and then after that, I just loved it. I was also lucky to have a high school with an amazing music program, so I guess the first writing I did was in high school. And I was in the choir, the jazz choir, the jazz band and the barbershop quartet. I think some of the first things I ever wrote were for choir and barbershop quartet, so I did that stuff in high school.
TN: Did you always want to go into music as a profession?
DM: I knew that I always wanted to do music. I went to college and studied music composition there. But honestly, theatre really crept up on me. After college, I was working in a record store and playing in a bunch of bands, and this guy at the record store said he needed a keyboard player for a theatre show he was doing. I said, “Oh sure, that sounds fun.” I really had not had theatre on my mind at all. And just from that one show, the director asked me to do her next show. Then an actor asked me to do his next show. And suddenly I found myself doing all this theatre, and I found that I loved it. For me, it was the perfect venue to get some of my musical ideas out into the world. A lot of my musical ideas were theatrical, and I’ve always been obsessed with storytelling, and it was the perfect mixture of the two. It’s amazing it took me so long to figure that out.
As far as writing musical theatre, that also kind of crept up on me. I was doing a lot of experimental, sort of downtown, black-box theatre. This was when I was first really starting. First, I was doing a lot of experimental soundscapes and underscoring a weird electronic music under shows. And just little by little, I would start to write a song here or there. One show I wrote one song, the next show I wrote two songs, then I wrote four songs. Little by little, I was writing full musicals. I was like, alright, I guess I do musical theatre now. So yeah, it just crept up on me, and I’m so glad that it did.
TN: I read that you had read “War and Peace” while on a cruise ship traveling around the world. What resonated with you the most in this novel that made you feel like this should probably be a musical?
DM: For me, the thing that most resonates in the novel is the character of Pierre. So many people I know have said this about Pierre: He is such a social misfit. He feels so uncomfortable around people and even in his own body. He is just a profoundly awkward person. And yet at the same time, he’s a profoundly beautiful person. He just sees so much love and meaning in the world, but has a hard time understanding how to access it for himself. And I find that a really meaningful and beautiful struggle, something I relate to personally. Sometimes I have a hard time talking to grownups. Ever since I was a kid, I have never moved past that feeling. I feel like it’s a very Pierre sort of feeling. When he goes to these parties, he just has no idea how he acts towards other people.
He’s constantly searching, too. He’s constantly reading philosophy and religion, and he tries out all these different things to try to find some kind of meaning to his life. It’s a journey that takes him the whole novel. Even by the end of it, he isn’t really there. At the end of the novel, he and Natasha end up together, and even then, he’s only somewhat happy. He’s married, has a kid and is somewhat happy. There’s still a little bit of something gnawing at him. Ad he’ll die with that still going on, and that really moves me a lot.
TN: Given that it’s such a long novel, why did you choose to focus on this 70-page section that serves as the plot for the musical?
DM: This particular section is kind of the turning point for both Pierre and Natasha, who are the novel’s two central characters. I love how Tolstoy put these two moments of their lives in parallel with each other. The fact that they don’t intersect until the very end, and that the intersection is a profoundly moving moment for both of them, that structure just appealed to me. It felt like a musical. I feel like a lot of musicals seem to have that structure, of two stories running along in parallel that intersect at various times. And I loved the fact that one of the stories in this section wasn’t very “great romantic.” It’s almost like a trashy romance novel in some ways, like those very tumultuous love affair stories. But then this other story is a very philosophical story. I love the idea of putting those two things on top of each other.
And I find that moment at the end when they do meet, like in the book, I just find it such a beautiful and moving moment. And then Pierre seeing the comet, of course. That is one of my favorite paragraphs in all of literature.
TN: That moment when Natasha and Pierre do intersect in the show for the first time is very profound and meaningful. It works very well onstage.
DM: Josh Groban and Denée Benton are incredible in that scene, and then Rachel Chavkin’s staging is so beautiful. One of the things I really love about the show is it really rides this huge rollercoaster from incredibly intense, spectacle scenes where there are actors running around literally the entire theatre. But then the end of the show, it really boils down to these two characters. Everything becomes simplified, and they’re just standing on the stage. I think the staging of that scene is beautiful.
TN: When approaching writing the musical, what was the first songs you wrote for the show?
DM: I think the very first song I fully wrote was “Pierre,” for Pierre’s first big entrance. Because at the time, I was playing Pierre, so writing from my own voice was one of the easier things. That was the first song, and then it kind of set the tone for the rest of the show.
TN: Right, that song used to be the opening of the show. Then the “Prologue” was written later on, correct? That song definitely helps introduce the characters to the audience and helps you keep track of who’s who.
DM: Yeah, the prologue was one of the last songs to be written. I was very stubbornly holding out because I thought “Pierre” should be the first song. Then, all of my collaborators and people who were coming to the workshops were like, “I really think we would understand things better if we knew who all the characters were.” So I joke I wrote “Prologue” out of spite, but the song definitely works in the show.
TN: “Dust and Ashes” is one of my favorite songs from the show. I saw you had written this song as the production was heading to Broadway. What made you add this song to the show?
DM: After I had left the show and was no longer playing Pierre, I got to watch the show from the outside a little more. I felt like not having me in it, not having the composer play Pierre, I just became more aware of the fact that Pierre disappeared for a little too much of Act 1. Then, when we started talking to Josh Groban, it felt like such an incredible opportunity with him joining the show. I felt like, of course if Josh was joining the show, of course I need to write him this showstopping aria for him to use his instrument on. So when Josh came on board, it was such a gift for me as a composer to revisit that character and to kind of fill in some of the holes that were left in the original production. It’s at the point where I now can’t believe we ever did the show without that song.
TN: Given that there was so much to work with in the novel, were there any songs or scenes that did not make the show?
DM: Oh, totally. In the novel, Natasha’s father is in Moscow with them. But in adapting, you’re just trying to streamline things and make the storytelling as clear as possible. It just felt like for that, Marya D. was filling all the needs as an authority figure in Natasha’s life. There’s also an amazing bit in the novel about this French tutor who lives with the Bolkonskys. Her whole thing was amazing, but it got cut as well.
We just wanted to focus on Natasha and Pierre and what served their story best. Some of the characters, like particularly Bolkonsky and Helene, were kind of simplified a bit, just in the fact that what was important about those characters was how they serve the characters of Natasha and Pierre for this adaptation. In the novel, they’re richer and more fully developed characters. It would be amazing to do that, too, but there are only so many hours this show can be.
TN: I just have to talk about the set a little bit. I’ve never walked into a theatre and been immediately consumed into a whole new world. I feel like it was is an intimate experience for the audience. Was it always the plan to make this a very immersive show? I can’t imagine it otherwise.
DM: Absolutely. That was the design from the very beginning when we began at the Ars Nova, and that was an 87-seat theatre. Obviously with that small of a space, it was much simpler to make sure every audience member was having a one-on-one interaction with a cast member at some point and felt like they were in the middle of the action. It just felt like such a core and central part of our production. As we started looking at bigger spaces and started transferring from Off-Broadway to Broadway, the director, set designer and I just insisted that stay. We weren’t going to transform the show into a proscenium and non-show. It just felt against the DNA of the show we created. So, yeah, that was always a challenge.
It felt like, if we wanted to go to Broadway, how do we do that? Our scenic designer, Mimi Lien, looked at so many different theatres over the years. Mimi has set designs drawn on cocktail napkins for like 10 or 11 different Broadway theatres. We just always knew this was something we weren’t going to compromise on. We needed to move our production and keep that immersive setting, or we weren’t going to do it. It was never an option to change the show. I’m sure someday someone will make an amazing proscenium version of the show, and I totally support that. But for our production, it’s just such an integral part of it.
TN: After playing Pierre in all of the Off-Broadway productions, you are taking on the role again in the spring on Broadway. How do you feel about getting back into that role? Do you have a different mindset this time around?
DM: What’s so nice about this is the last time I played Pierre, it was also while we were opening the show Off-Broadway. I was also very much active as a writer, composer and orchestrator. I still had all those hats on while I was playing Pierre as well. It was a little hard spreading my energy amongst all those different departments. Now I get to step in and just focus on the acting and the singing, which will be so fun. I feel like I can really sink deeper into the role. And I get to learn this gigantic new song, and I’m really looking forward to working with Rachel on that. She is such an incredible director. She makes me such an incredible actor.
The other thing I’m looking so forward to is that I’m just so glad to go in now when the original cast is still there. I get to play alongside my old friends who have been with the show since Ars Nova. And I get to play alongside Denée, whom I adore. It will be such an honor to just perform with her. So yeah, I’m really looking forward to it. It’s going to be fantastic.
TN: Last, what do you want the audience to leave with after seeing this show?
DM: As a creator, I feel like that’s a dangerous question to have. If you’re trying to prescribe what the audience should feel, you’re probably going to fail. For me, it’s putting on something that’s as honest and joyful and is as pure to me and my collaborators as possible. I feel like putting that up is the goal. And audiences will take lots of different things away from it. I know some audiences walk away and are just so dazzled by the spectacle of it. Other audiences walk away just profoundly moved by the emotion and the characters and the journey they take. I feel like it can either be a very loud show or a really quiet show depending on the frame of mind when you see it.
What Malloy and the company of “Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812” have captured onstage is truly magical. This is definitely a show you don’t want to miss.
Get tickets HERE
And, if you want to see Malloy as Pierre in his Broadway performing debut, check out the dates he’ll be performing HERE.