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Natasha, Pierre, and the Comet of 1812: A Truly Unique Show

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Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812. Just the name shows the massiveness of

this production. Set in Moscow, adapted from a 60 page sliver of Leo Toysroy’s massive War and

Peace, this truly unique musical concerns young Natasha Ilyinichna Rostova, as she waits for the

return of her fiance, and Pierre Kirillovich Bezukhov, an lost, unhappy man, who is bemoaning

his state in life, hoping for death. The whole plot of the musical covers only a few days, as

Natasha meets the dashing and amoral Anatole Kuragin, and questions her engagement. But this

musical is so much more than just that. It covers a vast array of characters, from Helene, the slut,

the good Sonya, plain Mary, and a character just for “fun,” the troika driver, Balaga. It covers

Pierre near fatal duel with fierce Dolokhov (before Hamilton its duels were even

conceptualized), Helene’s affair with Dolokhov and her incestuous affair with Anatole, crazy

Prince Bolkonsky’s abuse of Mary, and Mary’s quiet acceptance, as well as the abandonment of

Sonya and her loneliness. As well as the story, this show is both technically stunning and

expertly produced.

The Great Comet was written by Dave Malloy after reading this specific section of War

and Peace, because he said that it reminded him of the traditional musical theater two story arc,

such as is prevalent in musicals such as Next to Normal (the story of Diana Goodman and the

story of Natalie and Henry), Hello Dolly (the story of Dolly and Horace intertwining with

Cornelius and Irene), or West Side Story (Maria and Tony with the Jets and the Sharks).

However, this story is not the normal Broadway story. What Malloy managed to do is take the

typical theater paradigm and twist it in a way to make it original. He did this through the music

(almost the entire show is written flat, which is rare for musicals), book, sets, and especially the

characters. Although these characters do come from Tolstoy, Dave Malloy took his own license

with them and expanded on their personalities and plot lines, until they became like his own.

First, Natasha. In this musical, a cursory glance would judge her the typical “precious

little ingenue,” to quote Carlotte Guidicelli about the standard for the young soprano, Christine

Daae. One might compare her to Hope Harcourt from Anything Goes, or Peggy Sawyer from

42nd Street. However it would be incorrect, because Natasha isn’t a protagonist, at least not a

positive one. The closest musical character that she could be compared to is Cosette. The average

theater goer would be adverse to admit it, but Cosette is not a “good” character. She is the direct

cause of the death of three most popular Les Miserables characters, Fantine, Eponine, and Javert,

all while singing how her privileged life isn’t exciting enough. This would be Natasha, who, if

not an antagonist, is a consequential protagonist. She pushes the story and plot and characters in

a negative way. It is not a spoiler to say that at the end of the show all the characters but Pierre

are worse off than they were at the beginning, all because of Natasha falling in “love” with

Anatole. A mere two songs after she’s just sung to Andrey “I love you I love you I love you I love

you I love you / I’ll never be this happy again / You and I / And no one else.” There’s also a sort

of idiotic naivety to the character. She sings in “Letters” that “Yes I love him (Anatole)! How

else could I have his letter in my hand?” coming to the conclusion that she must love him since

she has a love letter from him. If it wasn’t for the amazing performance of Deneé Benton – which

is both technically superb and emotionally moving – it would be difficult to like Natasha.

The rest of the characters are written in the same sense, appealing to theater archetypes,

but changing it. It took me four times listening to the album to realize that Anatole was the

villain of the story. This is because Anatole is not the typical villain. One might first you get a

sense of him being just a young Prince who’s enamored by Natasha and not considering the

consequences of his actions, like Natasha. But in his actions and small lines as when he acts like

he’s not aware of Natasha’s engagement even though he is and we learn at the end that he never

intended to marry Natasha, just “make love to her,” we get the sense of a womanizer, such as you

might find in Gaston or the Prince from Into the Woods. Here though there’s something different.

You get the sense when Pierre sings to Anatole “You must understand / That besides your

pleasure / There is such a thing as other people, and their happiness and people” and afterwards

when Anatole makes Pierre apologize to him for his chastising words so he will do what Pierre,

you get the sense that Anatole doesn’t consider what he’s done to be at all bad, which twists what

you normally expect of a villain. As well, vocally, the archetype is changed. In almost every

musical ever to grace the Great White Way, male villains has been written as bass or baritone.

Think of it. Javert, Phantom, Caiaphas, Judge Turpin, and even pop villains such as Zoser and

Orin Schrivello. Anatole is different in that he is written a tenor, and not only a tenor but an

extremely high, almost countertenor, with many notes in the falsetto. As he hits his C5, a soprano

note, the sense of his uniqueness in musical theater is conveyed. Lucas Steele plays Anatole in an

unmatched performance for this season, mastering both the incredibly difficult and diverse

vocals and complicated acting.

The other characters are written in the same way, by twisting archetypes. Marya is the

typical matronly mother figure who looks out for her ward (Madame Giry, Mrs. Potts, etc.)

however unlike the mold, it twists at the ending by having her heart broken by her ward and

never fully reconciles with her. Grace McLean plays Marya, and one could not ask for someone

more fitting for this part. Next we see Sonya, played by the breath taking Brittain Ashford, who

sings of her spurned love, not unfamiliar to the stage. However, this love is one of friendship, not

romance, and finding that version of the character would hard to find in theater. Dolokhov’s

character at first appeals to the amoral sidekick who helps his friend commit his destructive

actions and tries to kill our protagonist, in this show Pierre, but if one looks deeper you see a

character intensely guided by rules. He only commits adultery with Pierre’s wife Helene,

because, as he sings to Pierre, “You can’t love her,” honestly believing he is what Helene needs.

When Anatole is planning his Abduction, Dolokhov begs Anatole to reconsider, and when

Anatole refuses, he at least gets Anatole to care for Natasha, and not to abuse her after their

marriage. Mary is next, played by the insanely talented Gelsey Bell. She’s the daughter of Prince

Bolkonsky and sister of Andrey, who at first can be seen as only comic relief with her father, but

is seen to be a more saddest facet, when, after her father has just verbally abused and threatened

to physically abuse her, she helps him find his glasses, singing, “The pride of sacrifice / Gathers

in my soul / He is old and feeble / And I dare to judge him / I disgust myself.” These lines are

probably some of the saddest in musical theater, played so beautifully by Bell, one of the most

underrated actresses of this season. The closest musical theater character to her would be Lady

Thiang from The King and I, but unlike her, Mary never finds redemption in the person she

loves, and ends up still loving someone who treats her so cruelly. Her brother is unique too

where, at the ending, the kind, honorable man that Andrey was supposed to be and was sung to

be throughout the musical, ends up abandoning Natasha and refusing to forgive her, which is

understandable, but takes pleasure in her almost dying, which is not understandable. Andrey is

played by Nicholas Belton, who’s talent isn’t in just in his singing, but his ability to play two

completely different characters, the soft spoken, young Andrey and the old, shrill old man, Prince

Bolkonsky, to the point where it is hard to imagine that the character is played by the same actor,

and it appears as if Benton was born to play this part. The only character who is true to her

archetype is the villainous whore, Helene, who is all evil; but Helene is played so well by Amber

Gray that there are really no complaints against the character.

We can’t discuss the characters without mentioning Josh Groban. Being completely

honest, I was bias against him when I walked into the theater. I figured he was only brought into

this production to sell tickets, and although that might not be completely false (if you search for

the people posting about Great Comet on social media, it’s more than likely that they will have

“Grobanite” in their bio, and Groban is perhaps the most recognizable aspect of this show), he

did perform way better than I had ever expected. His vocals were, obviously, impeccable, but his

acting was surprisingly good. Most Broadway actors choose to focus on making their singing

technically superb, and either forget the acting (Lea Sologna) or wait for dialogue to show it.

When Josh Groban sung, you could hear his emotion. Those of you who aren’t familiar with the

character, Pierre is a stout, awkward, anti-socialite, who, although is good natured, doesn’t

understand nor likes the world he lives in. This should not be easy for Groban, a celebrity who

has been in the limelight since he was a teen, but the way he acts Pierre should be a standard

setting for non-theater actors moving to the stage. When he sings the solo that was written

specifically for him “Dust and Ashes,” his confused expressions and compressed movements are

more telling of his character than the lines he’s singing.

Ignoring the story and actors though, visually, this show is stunning. It should not news

for anyone who has been even remotely involved in the theater world lately, that this show is the

first of its kind for Broadway where it’s immersive with the audience. Besides the 300 or so seats

located on stage, throughout this almost completely ensemble show, the chorus sings and dances

all around the audience, interacting them by making conversation, giving then letters, and even

sniffing lines from the seats side tables. I myself received a love letter from ensemble member

Laura Zakirin asking “to make love with me.” This experience is mesmerizing. After the first act,

I was so blown away I couldn’t speak. At times though, it can be a bit much. During “Balaga,” so

much was going on that I missed what was happening on the main stage and the plot and would

have been confused throughout the rest of the show had I not already known.

The choreography, by Sam Pinkleton is a weaker spot. He’s done quite well in other

shows, but it seems to be lacking here. There’s very little actual dancing dancing, just general

movement. In a show this magnitude, it’s a bit of a disappointment. And, although it’s

understandable that with as how complicated as this show is that they would keep at least one

facet of the show simpler, it still takes away from the show completing the full arc that

traditional musicals tend to complete.

The set design is just as convoluted as the rest of the show, but, as with the rest, in an

beautiful way. The Imperial Theater was completely transformed from the traditional theater to

look like a Russain supper club. In the atrium of the theater the walls are covered with Russian

newspapers and graffiti, on a dark gray colored walls. The theater is covered in red silk cloth,

and has portraits of famous historical figures. Throughout the seats there are walkways that the

actors use to run and sing and dance on. The main stage is a donut shaped structure, with the

middle being “Pierre’s salon” where Pierre views the actions and comes up to sing everyone

once in a while. On two sides of the back of the stage there are banquettes, rows of seats for the

audience. The ceiling is full of complex light fixtures which represent the Comet of 1812 at the

end of the show.

There’s another unique aspect of this show in the book. With song such as “And I’m

Telling You That I’m Not Going,” “Fantine’s Death,” “Bring on the Men,” “I Hope I Get It,”

whose subject material never goes outside the obvious implications of the title, theater has never

been subtle. Neil Patrick Harris, recognizing this, when he hosted the Tony’s, in his opening

number, joked that theater was the only place “where people say exactly what they’re thinking.”

However, while most songs tend to narrate the emotions and thoughts of the characters, Natasha,

Piere, and the Great Comet of 1812 takes it to a new level by narrating many of the characters

actions. Starting with Sonya’s line, “She said/Gazing at Marya with kind, glittering eyes,” to

Pierre’s “And I get into my sleigh,” Mr. Malloy filled his show with lines describing the actions

of his characters. At times this can feel like one like one is not being appreciated as an intelligent

audience member, like you have to be told you’re seeing, and there’s probably some truth that it

made Malloy’s job easier to adapt it War and Peace, when he could not just take dialogue to fill

his two hour show, but also could take Tolstoy’s description. Much of the lines are transcribed

directly from War and Peace. For instance, from Volume II, Part 5, Chapter 6, Tolstoy wrote

“‘I’ll take them where they must go, scold them a bit, and pet them a bit,’ said Marya

Dmitrievna, touching her goddaughter and favorite, Natasha, on the cheek with her large hand,”

and in the song “Moscow,” Malloy wrote “Pet you a bit/And I’ll scold you a bit/My goddaughter/

My favorite, Natasha/I will touch you on the cheek,” or from Chapter 17 of this section, “Well,

comrades and friends of my youth, we’ve had our fling and lived and reveled. Eh? And now,

when shall we meet again? I am going abroad,” which Malloy wrote as, ”Well, comrades/We’ve

had our fun/Lived, laughed, and loved/Friends of my youth/When shall we meet again?/I’m

going abroad.” Regardless though, usijh these quotes stays true to original source material and

describing action helps deal with the complexity of the show and allows for this minimalistic set

to be used for all the scenes.

This show is not perfect though. At times it can messy. Such as when Pierre shot

Dolokhov, Dololhov responded by being “hit” with the bullet before the gun shot sounded. Other

times the lighting is And it must be stated that the show isn’t true to source material. It’s not the

words, but the cutting that changes the story and characters. It would be like if someone staged

Phantom of the Opera, but cut it after the first act. In the first act, the Phantom is simply a

controlling, murderer who uses Christine. It’s not until the second act until you hear his back

story and see the tortured man he is. Malloy cut the Great Comet from War and Peace so that the

story ends not where Tolstoy had intended it. The tragic ending for Natasha and Mary and Sonya

is not the ending that Tolstoy gave them, and Anatole and Helene never get what they deserved

in the Great Comet which Tolstoy made sure they got. Andrey and Natasha never made up at the

ending, and instead you get a sense of Andrey that is not accurate. There’s a lot missing with

Dolokhov as well. Malloy tried to fit this in, such as after he got shot he sung “My adored angel

mother,” which is probably confusing for anyone not familiar with War and Peace, but is

because, inspite of his harsh exterior, Dolokhov adores and dotes on his mother. I’m not

recommending though that Malloy have included more in the story; the sad reality is that there is

so much going on this show that it’s impossible to becomes really connected to characters in a

way that traditional shows do where you can focus on one thing happening at once in one place,

unless you were very familiar with the plot and songs before hand, which I was.

In conclusion, the experience of this show is truly what makes one need to see in. For

some, they might come see this show to see Josh Groban. Other, because they like Tolstoy. Still

others (me), because they loved the album. Regardless, everyone should see this show, if only to

witness something that is completely unique to Broadway. Like Hamilton, this show should go

down in dramatic history as a truly standard breaking show. More shows will follow Great

Comet that make the theater experience more immersive and less detached, and could be just

what Broadway needs, having faced dwindling support in recent years. Already there’s been the

revival of Sweeney Todd which removed the stage and placed the action in a diner, and the

upcoming production of Hadestown as well has the cast throughout the audience. But the Great

Comet will be the first one who ever did this.

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Natasha, Pierre, and the Comet of 1812: A Truly Unique Show