The Great Experiment: A Note from Writer & Composer Dave Malloy

DEC 7, 2015

Dave Malloy playing the accordion as Pierre.

I get asked about adaptation a lot; I never really made a conscious decision to become such a devout adapter, but when I look back over my work, I can’t help but notice that almost all of it is adaptations of classic works. In fact my very first proper musical was an adaptation of three short stories by Nikolai Gogol (“The Nose,” “Diary of a Madman,” and “The Overcoat”—also starting a long fascination with all things Russian!). This was soon followed by other adaptations, from Clown Bible (which was exactly what it sounds like) to the rock infused Beowulf—A Thousand Years of Baggage, to Three Pianos, based on Schubert’s “Winterreise.” Other pieces have been adaptations of a more oblique sort, including Ghost Quartet (based on a number of horror and fantasy tales, from Edgar Allan Poe and the Brothers Grimm to The Sandman and The Twilight Zone), Preludes (based on many pieces of Rachmaninoff’s) and Black Wizard / Blue Wizard (based in part on Dungeons & Dragons and other RPGs). And I’m currently working on adaptations of the Chuang Tzu, Moby-Dick, and Shakespeare’s Henriad.

Much of this probably comes from being an English Literature major in college (doubling with Music Composition), and just adoring the classics, particularly those passages that feel both startlingly contemporary and outlandishly bizarre. Sarah laughing in the Bible; Schubert’s wanderer being haunted by barking dogs; Natasha seeing the moon while hearing Andrey’s voice for the first time. There is something about these deep and universal emotions being expressed through imagery that the passage of time has rendered just ever so slightly arcane and surreal, that I find fascinating and profoundly moving. And of course there is also such rich opportunity for humor and illumination through anachronism, colliding time periods to both highlight the similarities and revel in the bizarre and subtle differences between the then and now.

The great experiment of Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 specifically was to put a novel on stage; to not just tell the story, but to embrace the formal structure and language of the novel, melodicizing Tolstoy’s incredible narrative voice and rhetorical style. To that end, rhymes are few and far between (though they are employed, when the music seems to demand it), and the characters often narrate their actions, sometimes speaking about themselves in the third person. So much of the brilliance of Tolstoy comes from the vivid detailing of his characters’ rich inner lives: every small social interaction is micro-processed, so that every glance, stare, kiss, blush, and whisper can encompass an entire world of human experience. Dramatizing these moments became a highly intuitive game of show vs. tell, of knowing when to delight in Tolstoy’s text and when to let the music and staging do the work.

Also there is Tolstoy’s deep love for and celebration of humanity, and the vast range of human experiences, from the lowliest troika driver to the Tsar himself…capturing all of these people seemed an essential part of adapting War and Peace. By combining the melodrama of Natasha and Anatole with Pierre’s spiritual search, the Bolkonskys’ domestic nightmare, Balaga’s supernatural exuberance and all the rest, a larger picture of what it is to be human is painted, with every outlook complementing and influencing the others, both directly and metaphorically. The music does this too, combining everything from Russian classical to Detroit techno to tell all of these disparate stories as evocatively as possible.

Above all, with Great Comet and all of my adaptations, the most important thing for me is to ensure that the text is being honored faithfully; while I delight in anachronism and accenting some of the more endearing and quaint period elements of the text, in the end these tales are deserving of our most reverent attention. Too often for my tastes, adaptation can rely too heavily on trite ironic distance and parody; for me, the more rewarding choice is always to take these tales at face value, and work to unlock their secrets for contemporary audiences in ways that are joyful, surprising, and ultimately cathartic.


Dave Malloy wrote and composed Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812.

This article originally appeared in the A.R.T. Guide, published by the American Repertory Theater in conjunction with A.R.T.’s production of Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812.

Image Credit
Dave Malloy: Ben Arons

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