It’s been a tough week, and it feels a little strange and vertiginous to be excited about art. But last night I got the chance to see Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 on Broadway, and I’m feeling buoyed by it.
I moved to New York in 2014 partly because I’d recently seen the Off-Broadway production of this musical, and been so impressed and inspired I decided it was worth the challenge of starting a new life in an intimidating city to be exposed to more of this type of art. Dave Malloy’s electropop opera—based on a tight, high-drama slice of War and Peace, directed by Rachel Chavkin so the performers move through and among the audience—is incredible. It’s on a living creative edge of adaptation and pastiche and narrative interpretation, the shared experience of artists and audience. It collapses and expands still further the scope of a source text that’s concerned with everything from social awkwardness at a party to the Napoleonic Invasion of Russia. It’s truly a gorgeous piece of theater, inspiring in part because it doesn’t shy away from being Weird. (I have my fingers crossed for its chances on Broadway, where I know a show’s longevity depends largely on its accessibility to tourists. The production’s biggest gesture in that direction is in casting Josh Groban as Pierre. He crushes the part, of course, particularly in a new showstopper written for his addition to the cast—but he also takes wonderfully to the marginal nature of Pierre as a character, confined for much of the show to a literally depressed office set/pit orchestra, playing piano accompaniment. I hope the humility of his performance isn’t at cross purposes with his marquee casting; I would love this show to run forever.)
The Great Comet means a lot to me, artistically and personally. I write fiction that riffs on history and literature; I majored in Russian Studies and lived for a summer in St. Petersburg (medium-low commitment, and/but/so maximum nostalgia); I committed to NYC partly because of the show; I’ve seen it exclusively in moments of high feeling. At least twice I’ve made solo road trips from Florida to New England blasting the cast album and singing along to every part. I was perfectly positioned to love this show no matter what. But it’s also objectively excellent—it has really benefited from the increased production values that come from moving to Broadway; even just the size of the room makes certain scenes and technical flourishes profoundly moving, with lighting design that involves warm-toned lightbulbs descending from the ceiling over both stage and audience to create a winter firmament. (We sat on stage, something it was important to me to recreate from my Off-Broadway experience of the show. It was worth it.)
I was a little nervous to see The Great Comet so soon after the election. I was worried that the theater-going experience would be tainted by my general grief and worry. But it turned out to be the perfect way to spend an evening—and not just for the general reminder that we all still have the power to make diverse art and work hard and tell stories; not just for the chance to share a room with a crowd of people also still processing the events of the week. The Great Comet is specifically about the way life goes on, with its personal triumphs and defeats, no matter what is happening geopolitically. It’s a story from the Peace section of War and Peace, but it doesn’t ignore the War. Everything is linked; every move by one character affects the others, and the portended end of the world—theoretically signaled by the titular comet—doesn’t have to come to pass. Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 is about pulling through heartbreak and existential crisis to a new purpose. It might be just what we need.