Theater

How Dave Malloy Adapted ‘War and Peace’ Into an Electrifying Musical

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How do you adapt one of the greatest — and longest — works of nineteenth-century Russian literature into a two-and-a-half-hour sung-through musical? If you’re composer-lyricist Dave Malloy, you don’t. Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 is not a straight adaptation of Tolstoy’s War and Peace but rather a rock-opera, meta-theatrical retelling of a seventy-page portion in the novel’s midsection.

Comet first opened in 2012 at Ars Nova, followed by a 2013 run at Kazino, a purpose-built tent in the Meatpacking District. In anticipation of its Broadway arrival, the Voice caught up with Malloy to learn how he refashioned a famous (and infamously long) novel for his biggest stage yet.

How did you decide which part of the source text to adapt?

It was never, “Oh, I wanna make a musical of War and Peace, what section should I do?” It was actually quite the opposite. When I first read the book, this section immediately screamed out to me. There’s something so beautiful about watching both Natasha and Pierre have these parallel [but] very different crises. She’s a young woman having a romantic crisis and he’s a middle-aged man having an existential crisis. [The parallel] spoke to me as a [structurally] perfect musical. I almost couldn’t believe that no one had done it yet. Tolstoy had kind of done [it] for me.

Because the idea of two lovers in a romantic story is more familiar to a contemporary audience, was telling Pierre’s philosophical tale a challenge?

The music does do a lot of that work for you. You can get away with doing more internal soul-searching and soliloquy that I think would be harder in a straight play. It was very juicy and exciting for me — like, why shouldn’t we be addressing these existential and spiritual issues in a Broadway show? Alongside the, you know, trashy romantic parts of War and Peace [laughs]. That’s part of what I love about War and Peace. Simultaneously, there is a trashy romance, a philosophical treatise, a military history essay — there’s all these elements.

Some of the lyrics include verbatim chunks of Tolstoy’s text. How did that model for the libretto come about?

I come from an experimental theater background, so for me the great experiment of putting War and Peace onstage wasn’t just telling the story but [putting] Tolstoy’s voice onstage, because what makes Tolstoy such an incredible writer isn’t just the action or the dialogue but the psychology, the way he micro-analyzes the smallest gestures. It [puts] a level of distance between the performer and the character that I think is really juicy, allowing us to inhabit both nineteenth-century Russia and twenty-first-century New York at the same time.

Comet started as a small-scale dinner-theater production. What changes did you make to the structure of the show because of the scale of a Broadway transfer?

There’s way less change than you’d think. We’ve been diligent in keeping the immersive and intimate feel intact. That was our main priority: everything we can do to make sure audience members are having this intimate, communal experience. Tolstoy is telling a story that includes all of humanity. He talks about the czar and the lowliest troika driver. So we always wanted the audience [to be] part of the story, too. We’re not just telling the story through the actors. We really wanted the audience to be a part of life.

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