‘Great Comet’ Composer, Dave Malloy, and his Other Musicals

The Tony nominations were announced this week, and musical theatre fans were quick to identify Dave Malloy’s electropop funk opera Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 as the musical receiving the most nominations (followed by Hello, Dolly! and Dear Evan Hansen).

It’s hard to argue with the Great Comet nominations; the show brings immersive theatre on Broadway to a whole new level. This, along with the positively magical portrayal of nineteenth century Russia, a star-studded cast, and award winning music, is what makes the show so enchanting. 

Great Comet is fundamentally a musical adaptation of a slice of Tolstoy’s classic Russian novel War and Peace. It’s a story of love, betrayal, and finding the meaning of life. It first premiered at the Ars Nova Theatre, NYC in 2012 with Hamilton and Amélie star, Philippa Soo, originating the role of Natasha Rostova and composer Dave Malloy playing Pierre Bezuhkov.

During its transfer to other theatres (including the Meatpacking District in 2013 and the American Repertory Theatre in 2015), most of the principal cast reprised their roles. Denée Benton joined the cast as Natasha in 2015, and Josh Groban took over Scott Scangland as Pierre.

Both Benton and Groban are up for Tony’s for their portrayal of their characters in Comet, as well as Lucas Steele, for his portrayal of Anatole Kuragin.

At the core of the performance, as in every show, is the storyline and characters. A whole host of supporting actors and actresses join the ensemble and leading characters – including two of my favourite women in theatre, Brittain Ashford and Gelsey Bell, but more on them later.

For the story and characters, we can thank Dave Malloy, who not only decided how to portray this exceptionally complicated novel and  originated the role of Pierre, but was the composer and lyricist. Malloy – along with director Rachel Chaplin (another one of my favourite women in theatre) and the rest of the creative and technical crew – have put an unbelievable amount of work into this production.

But working hard to create beautiful art is nothing new for Dave Malloy; the three time Richard Rodgers Award winning artist has written or co-written eleven major pieces of theatre.

Born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1976, Malloy began creating his own original works in San Francisco in 2000 – just twelve years before Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 made its first debut. 

Never listened to Dave’s work before? Only listened to Great Comet and not sure where to head now?

Let me introduce you to three of  favourite Dave Malloy musicals – but proceed with caution, reader, for I cannot guarantee dry eyes or mended hearts after listening to these cast recordings. Coincidentally, these musicals are all Malloy’s most recent (save for Black Wizard/Blue Wizard, which is not on my list, but holds a special place in my heart. It was performed in 2013 and Dave wrote it with his wife, Eliza Bent).

My first, and oldest, Malloy musical, is Great Comet, which I – admittedly – have spoken about a lot in this essay. Comet is a beautiful show, almost scientific in its perfect balance of humour, sorrow, comfort, and heartbreak. The human relationships portrayed throughout the acts are intricate and authentic – each time I listen to this musical, I seem to find a new reason to cry about it.

In true Dave Malloy style, Great Comet’s music is a mish-mash of Russian folk music, classical music, indie rock, and electronic dance music. The entire musical is sung through – save for one line, said by Pierre (which is possibly the mostheart-wrenching thing you might ever hear).

The original cast recording from 2013 is available on iTunes, Apple Music, Amazon Music, Google Play, Spotify, and any other music service. You can also listen to some of the tracks here. The original Broadway cast recording is set to be released on May 19th. But you can download four of the songs, or listen to them on YouTube here.

My next Malloy musical is Ghost Quartet; a widely overlooked, beautiful song cycle about ‘love, death, and whiskey’. Never actually performed in a static theatre, but rather around the world in various locations (and a five month stint at the McKittrick Hotel in 2015), Ghost Quartet features Dave Malloy, Brittain Ashford, Gelsey Bell, and Brent Arnold (who played the cello in Great Comet during their off-Broadway transfer to the Meatpacking district).

Although it can be argued that this isn’t technically a musical, it still manages to claim the top spot on my favourite musicals of all time. The styling and music is described by a number of sources as a combination of ‘murder ballads, angular bebop, Chinese folk, Islamic adhan, electropop, honkytonk, doo-wop, and jazz’.

The jam-packed score reflects the story it tells; Malloy took inspiration from over twenty individual sources including The Twilight Zone, Into the Woods, Edgar Allan Poe, and a photograph found in a newspaper.

Don’t let the seemingly lighthearted introduction to this musical fool you; Ghost Quartet has provoked many, many sobbing sessions with it’s ingenious, intricately woven stories. And I’ve got to commend Brittain Ashford for her stunning vocals throughout the whole show – especially the penultimate song Hero. 

You can listen to the cast recording of Ghost Quartet here or on most online music services, or you could listen to the live album from the McKittrick Hotel here or on selected online music services.

My third and final musical by this genius, is Preludes; a biographical musical about Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff. Malloy wrote alongside Rachmaninoff for this show, despite the latter having died in 1943. Malloy took the late composer’s work and put lyrics to it – as well as composing additional pieces for the musical.

The show, which was developed with and directed by Rachel Chavkin – the director for Great Comet – features six cast members and played at the Lincoln Centre Theatre 3 from June to August in 2015. It’s now playing in Austria in German.

The combination of classical, folk, and electro-pop music and Malloy’s carefully crafted lyrics, provides a deeply moving, insightful understanding and portrayal of depression which the New York Times described as ‘the best musical about art’s agonies since Sunday in the Park with George’. 
Preludes is special because of it’s ability to root itself in reality whilst being almost whimsical and disorientating. Malloy demonstrates an almost eerie understanding of Rachmaninoff’s mind, which he  compliments with his classic, mishmash of musical styles, rendering this musical the work of a true genius.

You can listen to the Preludes cast recording on most online music services, or listen to selected songs on Dave Malloy’s website here.

So there you have it, three Dave Malloy musicals that I adore, and that are important and wonderful. In a word, Malloy is eccentric – which he displays so profoundly in his music and lyrics (just listen to the Ghost Quartet album, I promise you’ll understand what I mean if you don’t already).

If you’re not familiar with him, now’s the chance to catch up! He’s currently playing Pierre occasionally in Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812. But no fear if you can’t see it! Dave’s website offers full tracks of all of the musicals listed here – as well as his others – for free! (Also, the site is a amazing, retro tangle of hidden gems – including a secret raccoon!)

Happy listening!

Isla

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