27 July 2013

Great Comet

Originally posted on Broadway.com

I started working on Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812 in the summer of 2011; the idea had been in my head since reading War and Peace while playing piano on a cruise ship four years earlier. One particular sliver of the book seemed to me a perfect musical; it had the classic two-couples structure, only in this story the second couple (after Natasha and Anatole) was Pierre and…God? Himself? Humanity? Natasha? So there was that existential throughline, and the fact that these two disparate stories only intersect at the end, flipping the story around in the last moments. I made a rough outline in my head and then moved on to other things.

I never really believed it would happen…then I met Ars Nova. They had seen my show Beowulf - A Thousand Years of Baggage, and after meeting with them a few times and doing a concert there, I was commissioned to write a piece. I proposed the Tolstoy idea, expecting/half-hoping they’d ask for something more manageable. But to my surprise and terror, they were thrilled by the idea, and off we went.

From the start, the intention was to really embrace Tolstoy’s language, keeping his peculiar way of writing (made all the more peculiar through translation) intact, in which every blush, sigh, laugh and tear is lovingly detailed. Starting from this text, I wrote lyrics combining word-for-word Tolstoy, free adaptation, and some modern flourishes (“In nineteenth century Russia we write letters”). I’ve often joked that in Tolstoy I had the best collaborator, because he’s both brilliant and dead.

This novelistic text also resulted in music that freely combines song forms with a sort of accompanied recitative style that I probably learned from singing in a jazz choir in high school. We sang a lot of “vocalese,” in which lyrics are written for famous jazz solos (Lambert, Hendricks & Ross are my favorite purveyors of the style). This style fit both the classical, operatic sections and the more contemporary, electronica ostinatos (introduced by the entrance of Anatole) of the score. Another main intention in writing the score was to feature the band, both by writing them very exposed and soloistic parts, and staging them throughout the space. One of my favorite parts of previews was moving around to sit in front of the oboe seat, the strings seat, and so on, and really live with each of our musicians for a while.

The opening song, “Prologue,” was actually one of the last to be written. Originally the show started right in the thick of Pierre’s self-loathing. After a couple workshops, a constant piece of feedback was that it took people a while to know who was who and where we were, so we decided to add a proper prologue, a la Romeo & Juliet, laying things out as clearly as possible, employing the time honored preschool music tradition of the cumulative song. To my surprise, it worked. It’s probably the most “musical theater” song in the show, both in style and tone. So the show starts with this fun but kind of false, trick beginning; as it goes on, the musical and emotional trajectory gets further and further away from where we started.

A few songs were written for specific performers…Brittain Ashford is a singer/songwriter I’ve known for years; some of her songs about heart-breakingly fierce loyalty and love reminded me of Sonya. It took a few beers to convince her to be in a show, but once she signed on, I wrote “Sonya Alone” specifically for her. Natasha’s Act One aria, “No One Else,” wasn’t in the Ars Nova version of the show; only after working with Phillipa Soo and really getting to know her voice did I get inspired to write a true Natasha song, tailored to Pippa’s talents.

Anatole’s last note (a high C# “Petersburg!”) was written in a spastic moment of composer frustration at not knowing how to end the song. I forgot it was there until we came to it in rehearsal, and Lucas Steele sang it without a second thought. We were picking our jaws off the ground. The opera-within-the-opera too was written with the original performers, Gelsey Bell and Paul Pinto; both are experimental music vocalists, who regularly employ extended technique in their work. The challenge there was to produce something that pokes fun of avant-garde opera (which I sometimes love), but is nevertheless grotesque and amazing in its own right.

That delicate balance of tone is one of the most important things in the work for me, and something director Rachel Chavkin and I talked about a lot. Often when I read a piece of classical literature, I’m simultaneously enraptured and amused; so often a moment of “man, people were ridiculous back then” is closely followed by a moment of “oh my God, I said that yesterday.” There’s a real beauty in reading these works ironically and sincerely at the same time, both commenting on and communing with another time and place. And ultimately, for me it’s the communion, the humanity in these timeless stories, that sticks with me.

After the Ars Nova run, we were fortunate enough to have Howard and Janet Kagan transfer the show to Kazino, a space custom-built for it. It’s been incredible to see the show grow into this more expansive and elegant space, and see each designer’s vision fully realized. Also the addition of an amazing ensemble and a fantastic music director, Or Matias, have made the score richer and fuller; and watching Rachel fill the space and create moments of such simple beauty and whirling spectacle has been an honor. And of course, the occasional cellphone hurling has kept us all on our toes…I’m sure Tolstoy would have loved that tale.

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