‘Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812’ – At ‘War’ with Tolstoy’s Master ‘Peace’

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Cast of Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 (Loren Wohl)
Cast of Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 (Loren Wohl)

Having spent the last several weeks immersed in Russian author Leo Tolstoy’s literary and cinematic world, I decided to devote much of this next post to his other great masterwork, the epic novel War and Peace.

First published in 1869, the story takes place a few years before, during and after Emperor Napoleon’s disastrous invasion of Imperial Russia. Tolstoy’s two great works, War and Peace and the later Anna Karenina, indeed have much in common with each other: both stories include incidents and characters from the author’s personal experiences; both featured much semi-autobiographical data about Russian life in general, and peasant and aristocratic lives in particular; and both have been adapted for the screen in successful (and not-so-successful) versions, along with TV miniseries, opera, theater and such.

Although no major operatic version of Anna Karenina has enjoyed popularity or currency (will some enterprising composer please snatch up the Met Opera’s reigning diva, Anna Netrebko, and persuade her to participate in such an enticing endeavor?), there does exist a successfully produced War and Peace by Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev (he of the perennial Peter and the Wolf orchestral suite).

Mel Ferrer & Audrey Hepburn (flickr.com)
Mel Ferrer & Audrey Hepburn (flickr.com)

Of the extant film and television versions available, by far the most widely appreciated among movie buffs is director King Vidor’s 208 minute potboiler from 1956, starring the gamine-like Audrey Hepburn as Natasha Rostova, perfectly realized and a delicate flower in full bloom; the dashing Mel Ferrer as Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, handsome enough to have won Audrey’s hand even before production began; a totally miscast and uncomfortably bedecked Henry Fonda as Pierre Bezukhov, his famous line, “Damn you, Napoleon! Damn you ta Hell!” having been quoted far too often for its own good; and Herbert Lom as a suitably impressive Napoleon, who is rather mellow in the role, certainly better than the bizarrely interpreted Marlon Brando from 1954’s Desiree – although Brando definitely looked the part.

The former Soviet Union produced a mammoth four-part blockbuster between the years 1961 and 1967. It was released in this country in two parts, running approximately six hours in length (the original running time lasted closer to seven, which would have challenged the backsides of most American audiences, ergo the pain was spread out — tongue planted firmly in cheek — over two nights). Directed by Sergei Bondarchuk (Runaway Train), who also co-wrote the screenplay and starred as Pierre (no miscasting there), it was authentic in many details – right down to the uniforms and locations mentioned in Tolstoy’s story – but never attained either the epic status or lasting star power that the earlier production had in spades.

Next up is the 20-episode BBC television miniseries, which aired in 1972. The total running time for this production lasted a good 15 hours, but it was worth every minute of airtime. The cast included a young and vigorous — and totally dominant — Anthony Hopkins as Pierre, a slightly older Natasha by Scottish actress Morag Hood, and a dour, melancholy Prince Andrei performed by Alan Dobie. Produced by David Conroy, written by Jack Pullman, and directed by John Davies, the predominantly British cast convinced viewers of the earnestness of their efforts in this superior and virtually complete dramatization of the novel.

Lastly, a staged adaptation of a portion of War and Peace recently hit the New York stage – or to be more accurate, a musical version has appeared in a makeshift tent over in Manhattan’s meatpacking district near the West Village. For details about this unusual and – dare I say it – revolutionary cabaret-style production, here is a reprint of a review from The New Statesman:

A musical adaptation of War and Peace could easily have become sprawlingly shallow. But director Rachel Chavkin and writer-composer David Malloy are unafraid to let Tolstoyan complexity play out onstage.

By Tara Isabella Burton (Published August 6, 2013)

Brittain Ashford & Phillipa Soo
Brittain Ashford & Phillipa Soo

At first glance, the deliriously decadent, gleefully implausible concept of Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 looks like something out of an unlikely-pitch handbook: a single strand of Tolstoy’s Napoleonic doorstopper, re-imagined as an interactive, dinner-theatre rock opera cabaret. Certainly Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 could be forgiven for resting on its conceptual laurels: the Siberian-bazaar décor (plenty of red velvet, intermittent icons) and itinerant, fur-clad musicians almost merit the ticket price. But, beneath (and at times in spite of) the production’s everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach, Comet is one of the most gorgeously nuanced portrayals of passion running on either side of the Atlantic [Editor’s note: Which is more than one can say for Joe Wright’s passionless movie version of Anna Karenina from 2012].

A musical adaptation of War and Peace could easily have become sprawlingly shallow. But director Rachel Chavkin and writer-composer David Malloy are unafraid to let Tolstoyan complexity play out onstage, allowing us a richly textured glimpse into the love lives of a few of War and Peace‘s main characters that still manages to suggest their story’s cosmic significance. Focusing as it does on the love triangle between the vivacious Natasha (Phillipa Soo, heart-wrenchingly luminous, refusing to fall back on the emotional shorthand of the ingénue soprano), her absent fiancé Prince Andrei (Blake DeLong), and the rakish, honey-voiced Anatole (Lucas Steele, treading the fine line between heartthrob and comic fop), Comet‘s story line sidesteps the War half of Tolstoy’s novel. Yet it is a testament to the strength of the performances, as well as to the darkly haunting quality of Dave Malloy’s musical score, that Natasha’s doomed passion for Anatole feels no less vital, no less profound, than the fate of the world being destroyed around them.

The lyrics – often taken wholesale from Tolstoy’s novel – produce a curiously Brechtian, if at times dissonant, effect: in describing their own actions in such a seemingly detached manner – “Natasha crossed the room”, “Pierre looked up”, and so forth – our Moscow denizens become victims of emotional forces they cannot control, powerless witnesses to the downfall that no amount of “soothing irony,” as Natasha puts it, can prevent.

While a Tolstoy purist might complain about the number of side plots cut in the service of Natasha’s story (Mary and Sonia, in particular, suffer from adaptation decay), Comet‘s supporting characters are compelling enough to demand our attention even when given relatively little to do. As Helene, Pierre’s wife (as the helpful, patronymic-skirting lyrics frequently remind us), Anatole’s sister, and self-proclaimed “slut,” Amber Gray melds cabaret-style showmanship and searing sensuality; her standout number, “Charming,” with which she pushes the already-vulnerable Natasha into her brother’s arms is a masterpiece of feline manipulation. Grace Mclean, as Natasha’s “old school” godmother Marya, exudes brassy exuberance; her throaty outrage at Natasha’s betrayal is the closest we get to Weill-style cabaret. Blake Delong, too often offstage as Andrei, reappears as the marvelously vile Prince Bolkonsky, squaring off powerfully against his defiantly dutiful daughter Mary (Shaina Taub, a powerhouse of quiet emotion).

Yet the night’s best performance belongs to by Brittain Ashford, as Natasha’s stalwart cousin Sonya. Plainly dressed, simply coiffed, and given all the most painfully exposition-laden lines, Sonya has little to do for most of the play but watch from the sidelines as her cousin waltzes her way towards dishonor and disgrace. But Ashworth – her voice an uncanny, even unearthly, blend of folk melancholy and raw passion – makes her into Comet’s unsung heroine: the dull wallflower whose stoic love for her cousin proves far more powerful, and far more lasting, than Anatole’s hastily-flung affections.

Against the sheer power of the play itself, some of Comet‘s trendier trappings – the occasional interactive moment, the dinner served with the show, the post-performance musical acts – feel somewhat superfluous. Comet’s brilliance lies not in its flair for spectacle, but in its honest, haunting look at the vagaries of passion, and the dazzling capacities of the human heart.

And finally, here is the New Yorker review, from June 13, 2013:

Rocking Out to “War and Peace”

Posted by Michael Schulman


Natasha (Phillipa Soo) & Pierre (Dave Malloy) theeasy.com
Natasha (Phillipa Soo) & Pierre (Dave Malloy) theeasy.com

The prize for this summer’s most brazen literary adaptation goes not to Baz Luhrmann, for his Auto-Tuned Great Gatsby, but to Dave Malloy, a 37-year-old musician living in Park Slope. Malloy is the composer and star of Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812, an immersive electro-pop musical based on a 70-page sliver of War and Peace. (Volume II, Part Five: “After the engagement of Prince Andrei and Natasha, Pierre, without any obvious reason, suddenly felt the impossibility of going on with his former life…”) After a sold-out run in midtown last year, the show has moved to a white tent in the Meatpacking District, tricked out inside like a louche Russian supper club. Patrons dine on vodka and caviar, while the cast, as youthful and carousing as the surrounding club-goers, belts out the story around them. Malloy, perched at an upright piano, plays Pierre.

“Tolstoy did a lot of the heavy lifting for me, because this section is so tightly plotted,” he said recently, before a Tuesday-night show. In the novel, Pierre is described as “fat, unusually tall, broad, with enormous red hands.” Malloy is handsomely stocky and normal-handed, with rumpled blond hair and a bushy, barista-like beard. He sat at a table near the stage, as house music blared overhead. An unsmiling woman in a black miniskirt, who introduced herself as Anna Medvedeva (“Is Russian President”), of Yekaterinburg (“where Nikolai II was killed”), served pickled vegetables and borscht. (The waitresses were selected on the basis of their Slavic-ness.)

Malloy first read War and Peace six or seven years ago, while working as a pianist on a Celebrity Cruise to Bermuda. “My girlfriend at the time was living in San Francisco,” he recalled. “We thought, Wouldn’t it be fun to read a book at the same time?” As they read, they traded e-mails, using subject lines like “I’m on page 371” to avoid spoilers. Stuck at sea, Malloy found solace in Pierre’s spiritual questing. “He tries sleeping around, he tries drinking, he tries freemasonry. He tries killing Napoleon,” Malloy said. “He goes through such a tumultuous time. And I was in my twenties, sailing the world, trying to find myself. So it was very apropos.”

Back on land, the girlfriend didn’t last, but Malloy’s Russophilia persisted. In 2010, contemplating a theatre piece on Rasputin, he traveled to Russia for two weeks. In Moscow, he went to “this amazing seven-floor Russian techno club,” which inspired a head-banging rave scene in Natasha, Pierre, and Cafe Margarita, near Patriarch Ponds, which became the model for Kazino, the show’s ersatz cabaret venue. But it was Malloy’s life in Brooklyn that resonated with the novel. The plaintiveness of Natasha’s cousin Sonya, for example, reminded him of his friend Brittain Ashford, who fronts a chamber-folk collective called Prairie Empire. (“We actually met at a Sufjan-Stevens-secret-Christmas-song listening session.”) He wrote the part for her.

Medvedeva brought pierogis and shrimp, which Malloy washed down with a shot of vodka. “This food feels very much like my childhood,” he said. Malloy is half Latvian; his grandmother escaped Soviet-occupied Latvia on the back of a hay truck, pregnant with his mother. Malloy grew up in Cleveland and studied composition at Ohio University, where he played in a band called Harrison Fjord. After dropping out of grad school, he moved to San Francisco and worked at a used-record store. Being the only employee who knew how many symphonies Mozart had written, he was assigned to the Jazz and Classical division, but his co-workers schooled him in everything else. “I had never heard Radiohead somehow,” he continued. “Someone gave me ‘OK Computer,’ and I was like, what—the—fuck.” In New York, he put his musical education to use, welding contemporary sounds to classic texts. In 2009, his klezmer-rock adaptation of Beowulf was staged on the Lower East Side, with Malloy playing Hrothgar.

At Kazino, patrons were filling up the winding red banquettes. Over chicken and couscous, Malloy contemplated the finale, when Pierre gazes at the comet of 1812. Tolstoy describes the comet as “having flown with inexpressible speed through immeasurable space on its parabolic course, suddenly, like an arrow piercing the earth.” “It’s actually quite an ambiguous symbol,” Malloy said. “The comet is very much the foreshadowing of that guy”—he pointed to a portrait of Napoleon above the piano—“because he’s about to come and burn down Moscow. But, for Pierre, it’s this moment of realizing that he’s capable of change, he’s capable of not being this sad, desperate old man he’s becoming. That he can still love someone else and restart his life.” Then Malloy went backstage and emerged, an hour later, as Pierre Bezukhov.

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