Dave Malloy is the composer and librettist of the electro-pop opera Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812, based on Tolstoy’s War and Peace, which is playing now through Nov. 17 at Ars Nova. Malloy has written seven full-length musicals and won several awards, including an OBIE. He lives in Brooklyn and is the composer for the ensemble Banana Bag & Bodice. Malloy talked to The Eye about his most recent musical, Russian dinner clubs, Tolstoy, and vodka.
I just want to start by asking, why? Why War and Peace, why these electro-pop influences? There must be an interesting story behind this.
I read the book about six years ago, and the second I read this particular section of the novel, I was very drawn to it. I recognized that it was structured like a classic musical, with an A story, a B story, and a perfect intermission break where the main characters are in jeopardy. But it also kind of subverted those clichés by, for example, making one of the stories not so much a romantic story as it is about Pierre’s spiritual awakening, and I found that pretty compelling. So I had this idea to do this little section of the novel as a musical.
Are you talking about a specific section of the book, or are you focusing on the relationship between Natasha and Pierre in general?
It’s one very small section, like a 60 page section of the book. It’s just the very opening moment of Natasha and Pierre’s relationship, and in fact, Natasha and Pierre don’t actually meet each other until the very end of this play. They’ve known each other for a while, but they don’t really interact until the end.
Musically, visually, plot-wise, and idea-wise, what was your vision at the outset and how did that develop?
I was very much influenced by a trip to Russia I took two years ago, to Saint Petersburg and Moscow. There’s this specific club that I went to in Moscow, this kind of hole-in-the-wall café with live music that was just super, super crowded and everyone was drinking vodka and eating dumplings and there was a tiny band playing, with violin, viola, and piano, playing pop classical hits like “Flight of the Bumblebee.” Like I said, it was really crowded, so I ended up sitting right next to the viola player, and it was a really interesting experience to hear mostly the harmony parts of this band playing. This environment was very much the launching platform for what we ended up doing visually in the piece. We set the whole thing up as a sort of Russian dinner club, which is also something present in War and Peace where the social center of the novel is a Russian dinner club. To create the setting of the piece, we turned the theatre space into a Russian dinner club, with the actors scattered all around and people drinking vodka.
What do you think Tolstoy would have to say about your opera?
Oh God, I have no idea. Tolstoy, you know, he hated opera. There’s a section that we do in this piece where Natasha and her cousin go to the opera. Tolstoy uses this scene to make fun of the opera, because he found opera to be a very high-brow thing, and Tolstoy was more interested in the people and the peasant classes. I also think that Tolstoy would find that we stay true to the story and portray his characters accurately. It’s not an ironic piece making fun of Tolstoy at all, despite the fact that we’re adapting a 19th century novel.
Do you see this piece as a social commentary, or is this just purely an artistic experiment?
I hope that it does both, but I definitely think that the problems the characters face are problems people face today. The novel is called War and Peace, and this is very much a “peace” section. It’s a section where we don’t really encounter the war at all, but the war is always bubbling underneath things. One of the characters is away at war, and the war kind of breaks in at times while the whole aristocratic society is ignoring the fact that the war is marching towards Moscow. I feel like that’s something that definitely has resonance with today, where we are as a country at war but it’s not something that we think about on a day to day basis. And of course the story of Natasha’s reckless love is a story that we all go through, which is why the novel is still so great today.
How would you say the audience reception has been? Does the vodka help?
Really, really great! I mean, it’s a fun piece because it is so immersive, so we can have a really intimate relationship with the audience. Typically, you see the audience as a black void, but in this piece, you can watch them the whole show and see how they’re responding. So I’d say it’s doing really well. And I’m sure the vodka helps.