How a Musical Adaptation of Tolstoy Helped Us Get Through the Pandemic
Theodore Wheeler on Dave Molloy's Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812
I didn’t like musicals when all of this started. Half my childhood was spent with a Julie Andrews VHS playing in the background, sure, but that was childhood. And only half. As an adult, I had too many objections. Musicals pander to the audience shamelessly; they’re corny; the characters are patently ridiculous and often lack nuance and depth; they generally rely on low humor; there is a lot of singing.
I was, in a word, reluctant.
This all really started in the lockdown spring and summer of 2020.
By June my two daughters and I had worked out a routine of taking long drives to pass the time. We called them “Road Trips to Nowhere.” This was just to change the scenery, to connect with each other in some way because our spirits were threatening to shut down and wither away.
So the three of us strapped in and headed out to wander on abandoned roads. Anne was older, a bit more reserved and deliberate, with flashes of jubilant silliness when she couldn’t help it; Lynne was younger, more assertive, louder and reckless, a double Aries to her core. And me, a hapless but hopeful father, I suppose, doubled over the steering wheel to let wind from the open window brush back my hair, navigating by instinct.
One of the things I love about Omaha is that it’s a real city (in most ways) but even from our midtown home we’re only a thirty-minute drive from the country. So this is what we did most days that spring and summer. I picked the route (there was never a destination) and my daughters picked the music. Because we had seen a performance of Hamilton the fall before, we listened to a lot of musicals. Many, many musicals.This is where Tolstoy came in—with a musical called Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812, Dave Malloy’s immersive adaptation of Part 8 of Tolstoy’s War and Peace.
This is where Tolstoy came in—with a musical called Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812, Dave Malloy’s immersive adaptation of Part 8 of Tolstoy’s War and Peace. This is the seventy-page section where ingénue Natasha Rostova, while her fiancé is away fighting in the war against Napoleon, falls under the spell of the roguish charms of Anatole Kuragin. The Great Comet features one actual duel, many threatened duels (because musicals from the last decade apparently need at least two) and a lot of doomed romance, adapted into a sung-through “electropop opera” that is big and loud and often ridiculous.
When the show arrived on Broadway in 2016 it starred Josh Groban and Denée Benton, and became a modest hit for a few months. It was nominated for twelve Tonys and won two—for set and lighting design. Ultimately the show ran less than a year, floundering after Groban moved on, and it closed in September 2017.
I didn’t know any of this, of course, when Anne first played The Great Comet for me while we were on a drive. She merely said, from the backseat, that she thought I would probably like this musical since it was adapted from a novel. Then she apologized for the language, as the first ensemble number features the word “slut” multiple times.
Anne was twelve years old, then, both short and slight, like her mother, and was mourning the loss of her sixth-grade graduation ceremony. She’s a very earnest person, yet quiet, so sometimes it’s harder to listen to her than it should be.
Kids started to withdraw so quickly and profoundly that summer that it was hard to pinpoint exactly what was going on inside their heads. Anne’s favorite thing to do, even before Covid, was to put on her headphones in the car—so not only did we listen to different music, I couldn’t even speak to her. We made an agreement: If we all listened to her music in the car, she would take off her headphones. If she took off her headphones, then we could hear each other speak.
I just wanted to keep her talking. During the parts of the day when she withdrew to her bedroom or spent hours on the swing set (itself a retreat to a younger age, it seemed) she would do research on message boards.
In the car, she tried her best to explain why The Great Comet is so good. She told us the story of how Lucas Steele (Anatole) surprised the rest of the cast when he sang and sustained a high C note during rehearsals, even after the part had been rewritten to lower the note because the producers didn’t believe it could be done consistently. How, if you had seen the show on Broadway, audience members received little egg-shaped shakers so they could join the percussion section during the upbeat rocker of a song, :Balaga.”
When we listened, Anne giggled behind her palm when the characters asserted that the innocence of maidens should be protected, so only married women are fair game when it comes to extramarital sex. I guess we all giggled at that one.
A physical change came over Anne when she talked about The Great Comet and all the minutiae of its production. I noticed that. How she sat up straight, eyes wide. How she moved from the backseat to the front seat, because it was easier to talk if we sat next to each other. She laughed when she talked about musicals. She became giddy, like a twelve-year-old girl becomes giddy.
Maybe it was her earnestness, maybe it was repetition, maybe after a while you get used to all the singing, but I did start to enjoy the music. I didn’t have a favorite musical. I didn’t even like musicals. But suddenly I did.
One of my favorite moments from our road trips to nowhere happened on a gravel road outside Brownville, Nebraska. We were a bit lost out in the middle of cornfields, at a time of late summer when the corn was high. On either side there were only walls of corn stalks. We could only see ahead because dust clouds blocked the view behind us. Since we couldn’t turn, the only choice was by what speed we moved forward. At that moment, we decided to go fast.
Anne queued up the theme song of crazed troika driver Balaga, an up-tempo, comical ensemble singalong that comes right before an attempted elopement. This is the point in the musical when audience members had been encouraged to use their egg-shaped shakers. There’s chanting, soaring clarinets. It was the perfect “hold onto your seats” kind of song.
So off we flew, outside Brownville, banging out percussion by punching the roof of the car, bounding over the rolling hills, leaving a column of dust in our wake. Even adrenaline-hungry Lynne called from the backseat to me slow down at the moment in the song when Balaga brags that he has, more than once, jumped my troika right into the air!
After months of being exercising an abundance of caution in every aspect of our lives, how good it felt to mash the pedal to the floor, to shout with abandon out an open window.
And we found our way, no doubt, that only way forward. The song ended and I let off the gas. The dust settled behind us. We popped out of the corn onto the main highway and drove home.
This is where the story ends. Not on that gravel road, thankfully, but together.
We listened to the original Broadway cast recording many times. If it had been a cassette tape, we would have worn it out. But the reality that faced us at the beginning remained: since the Broadway production of The Great Comet had closed three years before we even heard it existed, and any national tour was doomed before it started because of Covid, our repeated lockdown listenings of The Great Comet became a melancholy part of a melancholy time. The more we loved the show, the more the reality—that we’d never get to see the show in person—set in.
That Christmas we bought Anne her own pair of egg-shaped maracas, the kind you could only get if you had seen The Great Comet on Broadway. (We got hers off eBay.) She loved them. It felt like a nice ending to a bittersweet era—a totem that she could hold and keep.
But, maybe because Anne loved the shakers so much, it seemed like maybe we could ask more from life. This was the end of winter in 2022 and things were becoming possible again. I did some searching and saw that a company in Wisconsin was putting on The Great Comet in a barn outside Madison. It wasn’t that far away. School would be out. We could wear masks. I bought us tickets for opening weekend.
It seemed a little silly to drive so far for one musical that was being put on by a regional theater, but we had already invested so many hours listening, we had said so many times, “If only we could see it put on live just once!” Didn’t we have to go?
That May, we found ourselves right in the middle of all the Russian melodrama. There were vodka shots, dueling, love affairs. The show was amazing; everything we hoped it could be. One more road trip, a real one this time, and we finally got to see the show.
Sitting in the audience I started to feel the power of connecting from the stage. I felt like I was part of the show, not a detached observer. This was all done on purpose, of course. That’s what musicals do so well. They abound with connection points. Familiar stories. Bawdy jokes. Songs that beg to be sung along with in the car. They are meant to be experienced collectively.I’m still not sure I like musicals, honestly. But I like what they do. I am grateful for what they have done for me.
I’m still not sure I like musicals, honestly. But I like what they do. I am grateful for what they have done for me. Two years earlier we had threatened to wither away before we could again experience something like this–but The Great Comet helped us hang on.
That night was so emotional. All the music, the dancing, the drama, the laughter. We crouched together on wicker cabaret chairs in our most stylish clothes, in a barn in Wisconsin that was temporarily transformed into an immersive theater with a live electro-pop orchestra, with Natasha’s and Sonya’s long skirts swishing behind our ears. Anne on the edge of her seat, the front of her mask rustling as she moved her lips along with the words, her eyes and ears open. And me too, right along with her.
The trip to Madison was a way to confirm what we’d already known: that we had saved each other by connecting through The Great Comet. We had already been redeemed.
The War Begins in Paris by Theodore Wheeler is available via Little, Brown.