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The Death Of Dave Malloy’s “Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812”

The claim is that  Dave Molloy’s “Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812” closed because the role of Pierre was first offered to  Okieriete Onaodowan and  Mandy Patinkin was set to replace Onaodowan in the lead.  “Oak,” who was James Madison in “Hamilton,” is a person of color, and the black Broadway community were furious at a white person taking the place of a black man. Patinkin withdrew, Oak couldn’t sell tickets, and the production at the Imperial on Broadway closed on Sunday, September 3rd.

That isn’t why it closed.

“Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812” and “Hamilton” are joined at the hip, and not just because they are historical musicals but also because they are just a block apart, because Charles Isherwood of the New York Times claimed to prefer the former to “Hamilton,” because Phillipa Soo originated the role of Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton and Natasha, but mostly because they are both not star driven… or at least shouldn’t be. Josh Groban originated the role of Pierre, and the lyric baritone is a pop star and sold tickets, but the star here isn’t the actor, and it isn’t really the score  (faux-operas are always more faux than opera) but the immersive production, that places you right in the middle of the stage and has it swirl around you like a wild gypsy dance in the midst of Moscow high society in the early 1800s. The musical ends in December 1812 just before Napoleon’s army invaded Moscow. The action takes place in ballrooms and opera houses, with Pierre’s home a small orchestra pit. If it had been sold as “Sleep No More” without the options, or as party animals from 200 years earlier, instead of the dry Tolstoy’s “War And Peace” becomes an opera, it could have survived and prospered whoever played the leads. It doesn’t need a star. There are ten leads, of which four are as big as Pierre. Sell it as immersive theatre and a sister production to “Hamilton” and it might have been huge. I went to the matinee at the Imperial, the first of the final three performances, my nephew and his family was visiting from Orlando, and my great niece Lindsey Diab had a terrific “on stage ticket” and they allowed me to take the second seat. Lindsey was in awe of the production, but she isn’t yet sixteen years old, she doesn’t have much to compare it to. I’m on Broadway all the time, and am entirely jaded, and I was blown away.

In great theatrical (not great plays or musicals) I would place it as follows.

1 – Harry Potter And The Cursed Child at the Palace

2 – Arcadia at Lincoln Center

3 – Angels In America At the Walter Kerr

4 – Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 at the Imperial.

“Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812” is extracted from various portions of Count Tolstoy’s “War And Peace”. “War And Peace” was written 45 years after The French invasion of Russia, (known in Russia as the Patriotic War of 1812). To put that in contemporary terms, 45 years ago Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars was released. It is a long novel, an historically researched novel with 160 characters, a monumental achievement and one of the great pieces of literature. I read it about 25 years ago, in my mid-thirties I decided to polish off my education, and while I’ve forgotten a lot, the ending is a precise evocation of my theological belief (except I’d change God to fate). To paraphrase:  everything that did happen had to happen, everything that hasn’t happened may happen, and God is the diviner between the two. I didn’t go to see “Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812” because I didn’t want to see some of the greatest thoughts ever recorded, dumbed down.

That isn’t what happens. The story takes an important incident, hugely part of the “peace,”  and conflates it into an epic soap opera but it only does that and no more (the ending is filled with foresight but if you hadn’t read the book it wouldn’t matter). It uses words from the book itself as lyric, again you wouldn’t know it. It works as a small portion of a greater good.  Despite Dave Molly’s brilliant “Prologue,” added after audience members at the Off-Broadway production couldn’t follow what was going on, the story isn’t difficult.  Here is the “Prologue” character explanation:

Balaga is fun
Bolkonsky is crazy
Mary is plain
Dolokhov is fierce
Hélène is a slut
Anatole is hot
Marya is old-school
Sonya is good
Natasha is young
And Andrey isn’t here

But it is simpler than that. It is 1812, Napoleon had invaded Russia (Hitler would make the exact same mistake)  and Prince Andrey is off fighting the French, his fiancee Natasha is visiting her Godmother in Moscow and falls in love with Anatole who is secretly already married unbeknownst to Natasha and when she finds out, Natasha tries to kill herself. Just for clarity’s sake, Pierre is Anatole’s brother-in-law married to Hélène. Pierre is performed by Dave Molly, the writer and composer of the musical, he is fine. Better, Denee Benton’s Natasha is a beautifully modulated and fragile show stealer, to look at her is to want to protect her, there is no doubt her effect on people. She deserved the Tony that went to Bette Midler’s histrionic Dolly Levi. If Denee had won it, this might not be an obituary.

Except for the prolog, I am far from crazy over the score. I appreciate the rowdy gypsy inflected knees ups but none of the big ballads click. It has the same problem as all of these guys, same problem as Andrew Lloyd Webber, it is so much damn exposition and the songs have to do so much heavy lifting, the actual tunes get lost. On record, I don’t enjoy it much, on stage I appreciate it more. I still love “Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812” and for none of the obvious reasons but for the immensely high spirits, of the thrill of being in and apart from the action. Not suspending disbelief, but a very real sense of being with the production. Seldom will you see such a sublime ensemble, they carry you forward on high spirits all the way through. Here is the seating plan:

The stage is everywhere, I sat at a table near Pierre’s study, and nearly found myself married to Andre’s sister Princess Mary but her father did not agree! Musicians sat next to us and played, shakers were handed out, so were letters, so were Pierogi’s (Russian dumplings). I hate stuff like “Blue Man Group,” the chance of me punching you if you throw water on me is excellent, still I thoroughly enjoyed the level on which I was asked to participate. Holding one member of the ensemble’s guitar, sitting next to a woman playing the accordion, and so close to the lead actors I can appreciate the power and the concentration. Everything is so beautiful, somewhere between the Czar of Russia (Alexander 1st -a hundred years before Czar Nicholas bit it) royalty at play and a Gypsy hootenanny. There is a ribald sexuality as well as a spirit of the world of privilege and being right there at the center, amplifies everything. I’ve sat on stage for everybody from “Xanadu” to “Hole Unplugged” and never much cared, yet there was something about the tandem of not war and peace but joy and sorrow, that becomes nearer when you are literally enjoining the joy.

How didn’t I know this?  I was discussing it with Kristin Diab, who visits from Orlando with her mother Sandy Bloom all the time, and they didn’t know it either. Start with name of the show, “Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812”. What is that? Did nobody say, “this makes it look like a history class, a complete bore”. They could have called it, as Lindsey suggested, “The Great Comet” -they could have wiz boom banged it. Nobody knew what it was, I read reviews and didn’t quite get that this was a hugely fun show. Josh Groban? A hausfrau’s delight maybe, I am a modern guy, I don’t need that. He didn’t matter, the show didn’t need stars, it is the star itself.  There is no reason for the loss of Groban to be anything more than a glitch, like when Linn Manual left “Hamilton”. This is a huge loss for Broadway, I would definitely have taken Helen Bach, definitely have told everybody I knew. Don’t blame Mandy, don’t blame Oak Onaodowan. Blame a crappy PR campaign and a terrible show name, for the death of the brilliant Dave Malloy’s achievement. It is like selling Julie Taymor’s “The Lion King” as though it is a visit to Disneyworld. What a shame.

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