Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812
May 17, 2017 11:02 PM   Subscribe

Vulture is hosting a first listen of the Broadway Cast Recording of Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812, the "electropop opera" adaptation of a 70 page slice of War and Peace nominated for 12 Tony awards. The album features Josh Groban as Pierre, Denée Benton as Natasha, and an eclectic range of musical styles.

The show is known for its unique scenic design by Mimi Lien (here's another angle), with the theater transformed into a cabaret, with audience members seated on stage, and a cast and musicians that run nearly non-stop to use the entire theater space, interacting with audience members as they go. It has transformed over the years from its off-Broadway version in 2012, to a tent in the Meatpacking District, to Boston’s American Repertory Theater, to Broadway.

One clever theatrical gimmick can be heard in the Act I finale: "The Ball." The high-pitched swirling sounds are made by the company sliding their fingers around the edges of partially-filled wineglasses, the sound gradually fading away as glasses are removed from the ensemble.

The obsessive among us can compare this recording to the earlier Original Cast Recording (Spotify), featuring Dave Malloy and Phillipa Soo (pre-Hamilton). Malloy has also constructed a playlist for every single song (Spotify) to highlight the musical influences and references, which make for eclectic listening in their own right.
posted by zachlipton (22 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
And for people who need it, the show's website has provided a study guide.
posted by still_wears_a_hat at 4:54 AM on May 18, 2017 [1 favorite]

I've started in on this and might be back with some commentary later, but let me just pop in to thank you for the great post! This is really interesting!
posted by Harald74 at 5:37 AM on May 18, 2017

Thanks for posting this. I saw this show a few months ago and have been obsessed with it ever since.
posted by interplanetjanet at 5:55 AM on May 18, 2017

I love the original cast recording and think every decision on it was made correctly -- the arch jokes, the moments of hypersincerity, the peculiar stripped-down maximalism where all the leads are part of the chorus and it deepens the characters (you can hear Anatole's voice bleeding through on "Pierre") etc. It's an astonishing showcase for Phillipa Soo, and Dave Malloy's Pierre is definitive to me. At first I didn't even like him in the role, but now I barely understand the show (which he also wrote) without him.

So I'm having some trouble connecting with the Broadway cast. So much has changed, and even the actors who were on both recordings have radically reinterpreted their characters -- Lucas Steele's Anatole is much more subdued and intimate, for example. At first impression, I think I love Benton (who is more like the novel's Natasha than the intense and self-possessed Soo) but I'm not sure about Groban, though he sings beautifully and I know he was passionate about this project. However, who knows how I'll feel in a few listens? (Though I know one thing, I'll always miss "should've been me/I am a most ridiculous maaan!")
posted by thesmallmachine at 7:04 AM on May 18, 2017 [1 favorite]

I've come back to this post a couple of times because I hardly know where to begin with this show.

I saw it a few weeks ago, somewhat "blind" - I knew it was about Russia (which I like); I knew Pippa (who I like) had originated the Natasha role off-Broadway; I knew Josh Groban (who I really only know from the great line in Glee, "Who is Josh Groban? Kill yourself!") was starring and it had gotten great review.

As an experience, it's overwhelming - there is always something going on in front of you, next to you, behind you. It moves so fast and the musical styles change and it's just a lot to take in. When we left the theater, I couldn't get my thoughts straight around it. But it stayed with me and I would find myself singing little melodies I wasn't aware I'd remembered. And as more time passes, I find myself more moved by the story as well. I can't wait to see it again.
posted by Sweetie Darling at 8:00 AM on May 18, 2017

I saw this in April and I have to say that it's the most entertaining experience of my life, even though the second half drags a bit. It's both profound and extremely frantic and immersive.

It's one of those things that you wish you could have your memory wiped so that you can experience for the first time again.
posted by Fister Roboto at 8:53 AM on May 18, 2017

I have been listening to this so hard. Reading War & Peace felt like a literary trip on the Appalachian Trail sometimes, where I would wonder why I was trying to do this or indeed why anyone would do this. But this musical brings out the melancholy and magic that kept me going.
posted by Countess Elena at 9:02 AM on May 18, 2017 [1 favorite]

Honestly, I have really mixed feelings about this show after I saw it last month. Like Sweetie Darling, I don't quite know where to begin. It took me a really long time to get into it. All the audience interaction and dancing in the aisles felt overly gimmicky (honestly, it always makes me think of the Itchy and Scratchy/Lion King musical parody where Marge gets all worried "they're coming down the aisles; what if they want to interact with me?"). The show's sound design is a technical tour de force, and I'm sure they did everything they could, but the practical reality of the staging is that I had a fair bit of difficulty making out the words where I was sitting, I'm not the greatest Tolstoy expert to begin with, and I spent too much energy trying to follow every word and detail of the plot and keep up with what was happening around me, which could simultaneously involve anything from the musician standing next to my seat, staring into Josh Groban's eyes, or some bit of business on the other side of the stage.

Eventually, conveniently enough around the point where characters attend the opera, I came around to seeing the show as an opera and stopped trying to focus on every word and plot detail. That helped a lot. Ultimately, I found it a unique experience; I'm glad it exists and I'm glad to see theatre taking on something so ambitious, but I, personally, wasn't particularly moved. Despite the incredible range of musical styles, it somehow felt like every song had a certain sameness, especially if you omit a couple of the more rocking numbers. (Interestingly, I feel like this version of the album suffers from that slightly less so; there's a certain crispness that helps differentiate things a bit more.) It felt a little too circus-like, where I was struck by the spectacle and the quality of the performances, but not the stories or the characters.

There are elements I really love. The memory of that Act I finale, with the wineglasses ringing and the cast harmonizing all around you, is going to stick with me and ranks high in the pantheon of such moments. When it really gets grooving, with performers moving frantically all around you until they collapse from sheer exhaustion (and when a Broadway actor's head is resting on your leg at one point and you can feel them breathing heavily, the amount of energy they put into each performance is awfully apparent), the energy and the closeness is really something special. But ultimately, I came away impressed, but not necessarily moved, and given the scale and immersiveness of this thing, I suppose I was expecting a little more emotional attachment.

Listening to it again has helped. If I had a gazillion dollars, it would be a really fun show to see repeatedly, sitting in different places and focusing on different things. I don't think it's inherently a bad thing to be taken by spectacle and not by the story, but I went in expecting more of a musical and wound up seeing an opera, and adjusting my expectations was a little unsettling.
posted by zachlipton at 9:07 AM on May 18, 2017 [2 favorites]

zachlipton I agree. I was fortunate enough to see it in two forms. I think the 1000-plus-seat Broadway version lacks the intimacy that made the 90-seat dinner club version a really moving experience. The lyrics can feel a little impersonal and lost in the spectacle; being in a small space with the actors helped carry their emotions across. I was moved to tears in the original when Pierre speaks plainly to Natasha - it didn't carry the same weight in the Broadway version. Interestingly though the original grew on me over time, so maybe this will be the same.

I do like the crispness of this recording, it is much easier to understand. Malloy was a fantasticly grumpy Pierre but I appreciated having more of a vocalist in the role, to match Natasha's solos, though you can tell the part was not written for it. Groban clearly loves the part, he's great in the play. I have to say my biggest takeaway from the original Great Comet was that I was witnessing the birth of a star with Phillipa Soo, and I didn't get that same sense from this work. Probably would if Groban weren't already famous, I hope he does a lot more Broadway. And wow, would I kill to hear a Soo/Groban duet. But Denton is excellent and really makes Natasha her own.

That all sounds critical but I really adore this musical, and think everyone should see it. Just for the set and creativity of it alone. It's also extremely fun to watch, which is an undervalued quality in a play. My only real beef with it is that it uses irresponsible strobe lighting. Otherwise I'll see anything that Rachel Chavkin directs.
posted by Emily's Fist at 10:47 AM on May 18, 2017 [1 favorite]

I saw this a few weeks ago, with Malloy (who still fills the role of Pierre when Groban is unavailable) and was blown away. My seat was in the very first row of the balcony, so I was right up face-to-face with the performers at times.

(I also saw Sunset Boulevard and Come from Away the same weekend. All three were amazing experiences, each in its own way.)
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 11:26 AM on May 18, 2017

DevlisAdvocate, just curious, how did Malloy do with "Dust and Ashes"? It must be pretty intense to try and sing a song written for Grob's vocals. I'm glad he's still going the part, though. Love him.
posted by Emily's Fist at 11:32 AM on May 18, 2017

And for people who need it, the show's website has provided a study guide.

Nobody needs it. The show paces itself as incredibly dense and complicated but is in fact maybe the simplest and easy-to-follow story imaginable, mostly only set apart by having no proper beginning or end.

(Saw it a couple weeks ago. The production is phenomenal. The music okay but mostly forgettable. The concept didn't work for me.)
posted by Navelgazer at 11:56 AM on May 18, 2017

DevlisAdvocate, just curious, how did Malloy do with "Dust and Ashes"? It must be pretty intense to try and sing a song written for Grob's vocals.

I thought he did well, but I haven't listened to Groban's version yet so I can't really compare. From what I've seen of Groban in the role in still pictures and brief video clips, I think Malloy's Pierre comes off as somewhat older than Groban's, which maybe gives some different nuances to the character and the story.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 1:51 PM on May 18, 2017 [1 favorite]

Put me down as another person who went in blind, and no particular fan of Groban, and came out in love with every little thing. I found it incredibly beautiful and moving.

One problem we had: the 14 y.o. boy and 16 y.o. girl in our party were really, really confused at the intermission. They thought it was all building to a beautiful, romantic ending for Natasha and Anatole, and weren't feeling it, so were sort of baffled. I had to reassure them -- even though I had no idea what the plot was, having never read any of War & Peace -- that this was from a Russian novel, and there was no possible way we were going to be building to a happy, romantic ending. Not for those two, at least.

Also: Denée Benton singing "No One Else" slayed me.
posted by BlahLaLa at 5:38 PM on May 18, 2017 [2 favorites]

He doesn't get top billing, but Lucas Steele really impressed me. He's been with the show since 2012 and sure seems to still be giving it his all. He also made a really passionate Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS pitch, talking about how the Al Hirschfeld Clinic personally helped him when he was young and the audience pretty much melted and we all handed over our money.
posted by zachlipton at 5:55 PM on May 18, 2017 [3 favorites]

He doesn't get top billing, but Lucas Steele really impressed me. He's been with the show since 2012 and sure seems to still be giving it his all. He also made a really passionate Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS pitch, talking about how the Al Hirschfeld Clinic personally helped him when he was young and the audience pretty much melted and we all handed over our money.

Lucas Steele was the foremost among giants of performers when we saw it, for sure. (We were there on a Malloy night, and thought his performance was gorgeous as well.) Philippa Soo did the Broadway Cares speech when we saw Amelie (a show GF and I both enjoyed more than The Great Comet, honestly, even though conventional wisdom didn't.)
posted by Navelgazer at 6:18 PM on May 18, 2017

We were there for Broadway Cares week too, zachlipton, and were really moved by Lucas's pitch.

It's funny, during the first act I kept thinking of Andy Samberg every time Lucas sang - there's something about the voice and maybe an actual resemblance between them that made Anatole into a character in a very weird Lonely Island short in my mind.
posted by Sweetie Darling at 7:01 PM on May 18, 2017

Lucas deserves a Tony just for his delivery of the line, "Next day Anatole left for Petersburg."
posted by Emily's Fist at 8:42 PM on May 18, 2017 [4 favorites]

Wow, the singing and sound on this was amazing.
posted by jenfullmoon at 9:31 PM on May 18, 2017

I saw the Broadway version with Josh Groban, and I left thinking it was the most brilliant and grotesque thing I've seen in a long time. It's no surprise to me that it earned 12 Tony nominations, and I expect it to do well.
posted by fremen at 8:31 AM on May 19, 2017

Having spent more time with the new recording, I know I'll always prefer the older one because it's "my" Comet, but there's a lot to love on this too. It's much closer to the book, especially in that Pierre and Natasha are a plausible romantic match. Groban's version of Pierre does come off as younger and more forceful, with a younger man's experience of depression (though the character is still all about depression, and I appreciate that the subtextual suicide attempt at the duel has been made more explicit -- it's part of why Pierre is the perfect person to talk to Natasha after she also attempts). Malloy, although he was almost the same age as Groban when he played the role three years ago, played Pierre as someone who had almost irrecoverably been swept away by self-loathing. The suggestion of a match with the young and passionate Natasha felt much stranger. Now, I think that interpretation worked, and worked very well -- I always felt like the way he and Soo played the proposal scene, this moment of complete mutual understanding was a surprise to both of them, and nobody really knew what to do with it even though it was welcome. But Groban and Benton, with their beautiful, trained voices that fit right together, feel like they could be people who've had a connection for years (as in the book) and only needed a push to admit it.

As an aside, so few of the major roles have actually been recast, but I really liked this much scrappier, rawer new Andrey. One feels less that Natasha saw him as a fairytale prince and more that she actually did know him well.
posted by thesmallmachine at 8:48 AM on May 22, 2017 [4 favorites]

Oh, and if you liked the show and especially if you liked Brittain Ashford and Gelsey Bell (Sonya and Mary), I highly recommend Ghost Quartet, another musical of Malloy's. It's kind of a concept album about ghosts and reincarnation, incorporating a loose adaptation of a murder ballad, an extremely loose adaptation of "The Fall of the House of Usher," and a modern story about a murder in the subway. Ashford and Bell have much bigger parts in it, and Ashford gets to sing two more "Sonya Alone"-style showstoppers, "Any Kind of Dead Person" and "Hero." I personally prefer the live version of "Ghost Quartet," which fills in some blanks in the plot, but they're both great.
posted by thesmallmachine at 11:33 AM on May 22, 2017 [1 favorite]

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