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A Broadway composer on finding great pop song hooks in 19th-century literature

We talked to Dave Malloy about how he adapted Tolstoy’s War and Peace into a critically acclaimed musical.

Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812
Josh Groban and Denée Benton star in Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812.
Chad Batka
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

Even if you’re a musical theater nerd, it’s likely you don’t know the origin of the new musical Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812, currently enjoying a critically acclaimed run on the Great White Way. Then again, it’s a safe bet that most people haven’t read even part of the famously voluminous novel the musical is adapting, Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace. And if they have, it’s probably not the 70-page sliver of the story — technically volume 2, part 5that’s currently playing on Broadway.

Luckily, composer Dave Malloy didn’t let that stop him. Malloy sat down with Vox critic at large Todd VanDerWerff for the latest installment of VanDerWerff’s podcast I Think You’re Interesting to discuss how the musical — sometimes dubbed an electropop opera — evolved from his love of epic literature.

“For me, making a play about something is the way I study it,” Malloy told VanDerWerff. “If I read War and Peace and love War and Peace and want to get inside War and Peace, then making a show about it is the way I’m going to do that.”

Malloy is no stranger to adaptations of epic stories; he previously adapted Beowulf and the life of Russian philosopher Rasputin for the stage. He calls The Great Comet part of his “impossible novels trilogy,” which currently includes his next prospective musical, based on Moby Dick.

Malloy told VanDerWerff that “I had such an epiphany” upon first reading the climax of the tiny arc within the novel that concerns the musical’s two title characters. “Pierre was crying and I was crying.”

At that time I wasn’t even really a musical theater writer, I had done, like, a little bit of theater but mostly doing really weird experimental music in the background of some very strange shows. I kind of had always had this love of musical theater but had never taken the plunge and [written] it myself, so I kind of filed the idea away in the back of my mind.

When he finally began to adapt the novel, he found the words doing much of the work for him.

That was actually one of the very early concepts for the show that I always wanted to hold on to, was not to just put the story on the stage but to really put Tolstoy’s voice on the stage, because he has such a unique writing style, and so much of his characterization comes from his microprocessing of all these tiny moments in people’s lives and how they’re thinking about those moments. So to me it was such a gift to have all this text there waiting for me; even in translation his language is so incredible. …

I guess what I really delight in is reading his text and finding, like, the four-word phrase that, like, “Oh, that’s the hook of a pop song!” Sonya’s song is the best example of that: That literally is just a paragraph of the novel, but that line, “I will stand in the dark for you,” … is right there in the Tolstoy, and I was like, “Oh my god, that’s a perfect hook for a beautiful indie pop song.”

Malloy spoke of feeling “so indebted” to the many groundbreaking Broadway composers who have come before him, from Rodgers and Hammerstein to Schönberg and Boublil.

Still, it’s clear that his utmost inspiration for The Great Comet is Tolstoy himself. Malloy discussed the importance of following and maintaining the structural integrity of War and Peace. Tolstoy’s words often provided both surprising and intuitive guides for how to structure and write the musical itself.

MALLOY: [Director] Rachel Chavkin and I have always said that in making the show bigger and bigger we’re getting closer to the source material … as we’ve gotten bigger and bigger … we’re actually able to tell the opulence of Tolstoy’s world. …

The last 20 minutes of the show are the heart of the show. In some ways it is a little bit of a trick show, because there is a lot of spectacle and amazement in the first half, but really at the end of it all of that gets stripped away, because all of that spectacle leads to nothing but heartache. … No one actually has a good time at the end of all that! So for us, obviously, it’s always been important to maintain that core and that heart … and the audience has seemed to be going on that journey with us.

VANDERWERFF: That’s really true to the original novel, because the novel in a lot of ways is about, here’s this opulent, decadent society, and here is what it’s ignoring — here’s the soul it’s trying to set aside. How did you translate that into the show itself?

MALLOY: I think the novel and the show both really do it structurally, too. The novel will have a chapter that is just a war chapter, and it’s like these incredible descriptions of a war happening on the battlefield or there will be a chapter that is just a description of the most opulent opera in Moscow society.

But then the very next chapter will be just a small conversation between Natasha and Sonya — they’re up late thinking about philosophy and looking at the moon. So there’s that sense of scale in the novel which we’ve tried to replicate in the Broadway show, too. So we have these big gigantic production numbers that have the entire ensemble running around, but then we have these moments that are stripped down — Sonya’s song is just her singing under a single lightbulb. The comet at the end is another example of trying to strip things down to their simplest [element].

“Point A is always the source material,” Malloy said, describing the editing process. “It’s really a matter of whittling away [to get to] the core story.”

Malloy also explained that the experience of adapting Tolstoy had paved the way for adapting another meticulous author: Herman Melville. Speaking of his upcoming adaptation of Moby Dick, he stressed that his goal is to preserve the voice and transfer as much “word-for-word Melville” onto the stage — as well as the minutiae of his details.

“There’s a lot of notecards!” he joked.

But it’s all part of the journey — and to Malloy, the best journeys of adaptation are the most faithful.

“Some tales are just really great tales,” he told VanDerWerff, “but other novels, it’s not just about the tale — it is about the telling.”

You can listen to Malloy and VanDerWerff’s full conversation on I Think You’re Interesting here.

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