Whale Songs

NOV 27, 2019

A conversation between A.R.T. Executive Producer Diane Borger and Moby-Dick Adaptor and Composer Dave Malloy

After Beowulf, Three Pianos, Ghost Quartet, and Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812, this will be the fifth show you’ve done with us here at the A.R.T. What drew you to Moby-Dick?

More than anything, it was the form of the novel. It’s just an insane, messy novel. The narrator disappears in the middle; some chapters are written as plays with stage directions; there are long digressions into cetology and paintings of whales. The writing is sometimes Biblical and Shakespearean, other times hilarious and downright crude. But when you absorb all that on its own terms, you see Melville playing with the form of the novel, and you see this character dealing with post-traumatic stress in a really interesting way, by delving into the history of whales and whaling and trying to understand everything there is to know. I wanted to embrace all of that. So while we’re not actually doing all 135 chapters of the book, we are doing about forty of them, plus the prologue and epilogue. And the piece is structured in four parts, each with its own theatrical style.

As we’ve been talking about the production, we’ve described it as “the iconic American novel mashed up with where we are right now.”

We’re wrestling with what Melville was saying about America in 1851 and what we’re saying about America in 2019. A lot of the topics that Melville was writing about are things we’re still talking about 170 years later. So environmental issues are a huge part of this production; Melville devotes a whole chapter to speculating on whether whales will become extinct like the buffalo. Race is a huge part of this production; there is a beautiful chapter in the book called “The Whiteness of the Whale,” and race is something Melville touches on throughout, emphasizing the humanity of his non-white characters at a time when the literal humanity of people of color was being questioned. We’re looking at whiteness in America and how white supremacy and patriarchy have put us all on this boat which is doomed to sink. We’re also really diving into Ishmael and Queequeg’s relationship in this adaptation, and making it an overtly romantic relationship—which is hinted at in the novel, but kind of ignored by most adaptations.

You spent a couple weeks on Nantucket this summer. What did you learn?

I got to meet Nathaniel Philbrick, a Melville and Nantucket expert who wrote In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex. It was such a thrill to talk with him and geek out about the book together; he also wrote Why Read Moby-Dick?, which is just a perfect distillation of everything that is incredible about Melville’s novel. I would highly recommend that book; our whole cast is reading it. I also got to see a show called Nantucket: The MusACKal!—because their airport code is ACK—at a community theater. It was a musical history of Nantucket, and was just absolutely perfect in every way, especially in how small-town America its production aesthetics felt, which was so informative for Moby-Dick. One thing we are thinking about for this production is how the design and music all want to feel very American, full of DIY grit and homegrown innovation.

Moby-Dick creator Dave Malloy in conversation with Executive Director Diane Borger at the A.R.T. Open House.

You and Rachel have been working on this project for years. How has the piece evolved over that time?

What’s really interesting about this show is that we’ve been developing it for five or six years, and a lot of that development has happened in public; I did a concert version of Part III at Joe’s Pub back in 2014, and we did an amazing concert of excerpts under the blue whale at the Hall of Ocean Life at the Natural History Museum in New York this past summer. Things have changed radically as we’ve been developing the piece; originally, Ahab was going to be played by a woman and Ishmael was going to be played by five separate actors. And the piece was going to be in seven parts. They were actually going to be seven separate one-hour shows that you could see in any order.

And originally you were going to play Herman Melville—a character you’ve cut from the show.

Yeah, for a long time I wanted to acknowledge my presence in the piece as a white writer trying to tackle these issues of race, highlighting all the privilege, discomfort, and limitations inherent in that, but ultimately it felt like my presence was just taking up too much space. And was taking so much away from Ishmael and Ahab; there was nothing that Melville was doing that Ishmael or Ahab didn’t do better. So now I’ve replaced myself with a white marble bust of Melville, who I’m sure will be a much better actor than me.

What can you tell us about the music in the show?

Like the rest of the production, the music is very American, pulling from gospel, jazz, folk, country, Tin Pan Alley and Broadway, Copland, Glass, Dylan… I tend to be a very eclectic composer, so it’s been such a pleasure to swim in all the diverse musical languages that have been created in America. And of course the history of American music is very tied to race as well, so musical appropriation has become yet another thread in the piece. I’ve also spent the last year listening to a ton of whale sounds, and the body of music that has been composed around those sounds, so there is a bit of that as well—humpback whale wailing and blue whale rumbling and sperm whale clicking.

The company of Moby-Dick rehearses a number.

Interview by A.R.T. Executive Producer Diane Borger


Image Credits
A.R.T. Executive Producer Diane Borger and Moby-Dick Creator Dave Malloy in conversation at the A.R.T. Open House in October 2019: Evgenia Eliseeva
The cast of Moby-Dick in rehearsal: Maria Baranova

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