One of my big regrets of last year’s trip to New York was not managing to see this show – I nearly booked a ticket in advance, but naïvely thought I’d be fine to get up and buy a rush ticket when I was over there… Of course, then location, time and financial issues got in the way, and I came back without having seen it (then it closed a few months later). Since then I’ve read a bit more about the show’s history, and find myself wishing I’d been one of the lucky few to have seen it in its original off-off-Broadway home of Ars Nova, or even the off-Broadway pop-up venue Klub Kazino; the intimacy and innovation sound right up my street. I can’t help but hope that someone takes a chance on it over here at some point.
But as I don’t see that happening anytime soon, I decided I should try to experience the show through a cast recording. I chose the original cast version (as opposed to Broadway) as I wanted to get a better idea of where it all began.
The show is based on a small part of Tolstoy’s epic War and Peace, set in Russia in the midst of the Napoleonic wars. Thankfully as it doesn’t try to encompass the entirety of the novel the plot isn’t quite as complicated as it could have been – and it starts at a point that makes it fairly easy to sum up in the Prologue. It neatly introduces each character and a little of their back story, adding them to the chorus after each verse; it even references a family tree in the programme to help people keep up. There are some knowing moments like this that do just enough to make the audience (or listener) smile, but not tread too far and make it all a bit of a joke.
Dave Malloy’s score is quite simply astounding. Beginning with a sole accordion, in the early stages it all sounds quite traditional and very recognisably Russian (without straying into stereotypes), but as it goes on there is more of a modern tinge to the music. Electronica fuses with tradition and creates something quite unlike any other musical I’ve ever encountered. This all ties in well with the choice of some anachronistic lyrics (“Hélène is a slut”, for example) – whilst on paper they may seem a little odd, it’s not at all jarring and helps to efficiently explain the classic novel to a modern audience.
Some of the tracks have several different strands to them, my favourite probably being The Opera. This is where Natasha is first introduced to the decadent Moscow society and first encounters the dangerous Anatole. There is a sense of irresistible foreboding as two worlds collide, and Natasha’s love for Andrey is left hanging by a thread. Another reason I chose the pre-Broadway recording was for the inclusion of Natasha Lost, as she tries to work out which way her feelings lie – an important moment in her life, and not something she’s ever had to deal with before. It’s also another opportunity to hear Phillipa Soo’s beautiful vocals ringing out solo.
Given that the show is sung-through, the cast recording is an almost perfect way to experience it without actually seeing it. For those who did get to watch it, the CD is a great reminder and a way to recreate the show in your mind – and for those who didn’t, the story is easy enough to follow and the music is so evocative that you can’t help but drift off into your imagination as you listen. I also appreciate the amount of information the CD booklet provides, from the family tree to the lyrics; it’s like having your own programme there to guide you on your way.
So, bring out the borscht, crack open the vodka, and create your own Great Comet of 1812 as you listen to this cast recording. Nostrovia!
Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812
Photo credit: Chad Batka
Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 [original cast recording] was released on 29 October 2013 on Ghostlight Records. You can buy the album online.
Tags:#MissedTheBoat, Ars Nova, Broadway, Dave Malloy, Klub Kazino, Leo Tolstoy, music, Natasha Pierre and The Great Comet of 1812, New York City, Off Broadway, Off Off Broadway, Phillipa Soo, theater, theatreCategories:all posts, missed the boat, music, review
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