by Brenda W. Clough
There seem to be two ways that shows get onto Broadway. One is when persons of proven talent decide it’s time to start a new project. “Hey Oscar, you want to write a show?” “Sure, Rogers, I got bills to pay.” They scrape around for an idea, fish up Tales of the South Pacific or Maria von Trapp’s memoirs, and a year or two later we’re sitting in the seats applauding another dynamite musical.
The other way is when there is a single person of crazy talent to drive the entire project. Cagney was a show of this type, written by the star essentially to showcase his awesome gifts. Another, which I took on on the same January trip to New York City is Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812. Conceived and written — book, lyrics and music — by Dave Malloy, he even starred as Pierre for a while, until a bigger star came along. Such works are clearly a labor of love. People do not get up in the morning and set up a cry for War & Peace to be set on the musical stage.
The Great Comet comprises perhaps a fortieth of Tolstoy’s novel, and just as well. A musical can be only about one thing, and if anything can be said about War & Peace, it’s about a whole bagful of different things, to the point of unreadability. The creators of The Great Comet had a different notion. The idea was to make it very, very Russian — to keep it Tolstoyian while losing most of Tolstoy. Quite doable since the author is dead and can’t argue, and it works out great!
If you pry out only the most interesting story arc in War & Peace, you get the story of Pierre, a noble sprig having existential angst, and Countess Natasha, betrothed to a nobleman who’s off fighting Napoleon. Left alone in party-capital Moscow, Natasha falls prey to a rakish louse. Ruined, ditched by the noble fiance, Natasha is in deep doodoo, but Pierre discovers his Purpose is to love and save her. If ever you saw Avenue Q you know how many musicals are driven by the Search for one’s Purpose; in this musical the Purpose is symbolized by the Great Comet. Remember how musicals can only be about one thing? The Great Comet is not really about Natasha. It’s really about Pierre and his search for the Purpose.
Kind of thin, plotwise, you say. True! But pure theatricality means you hardly notice. This is an amazing production; surely another one of those shows that can never go on the road and never be transferred to community theater. There is dancing. There is an opera. Anatole, the rakish louse, is so stunningly hunky in his hussar uniform, you would be happy to be ruined by him too. There are accordions, violins and electric organs. There’s dumplings and noisemakers passed out to audience members. The Great Comet is played by some stupendous lighting effects, arriving above Pierre’s head just as the penny drops and his Purpose is clear. The stage design is a cinch for the Tony Award, with habitrails from the balcony and up from the orchestra, sofas and cafe tables on stage for the audience. Go to this show and you know you have been to Broadway.