So okay. Let’s get the agreed-upon bits out of the way first: the cast recording to Hamilton is a game-changer, an instant classic, and also a highly addictive listen that keeps its emotional punch through numerous consecutive plays. But what do you do after you’ve listened to it so often that you (as I did this morning) wake up wondering what the French phrase “casse-toi” in Lafayette’s first rap means? Here’s my first of four blogs about other cast recordings that scratch that same itch in different but still satisfying ways, as well as one that, on the surface, is pretty much the antithesis of Hamilton- a thoroughly traditional book musical- but manages to subvert the form in new and dangerous ways.
1. Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812
If Lin Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton is, as some suggest, the Second Coming of musical theatre, then Natasha, Pierre is John the Baptist. In 2013, two years before Hamilton would begin its initial run at the Public Theater, Dave Malloy and Rachel Chavkin set up a giant tent in the New York’s Meatpacking District, created a 19th century Russian supper club inside, and set their actors loose in and around the audience in this immersive electro-rock opera based on a 70 page sliver of Tolstoy’s War and Peace. One could certainly make that case that Natasha, Pierre’s use of anachronistic dance and hip hop beats to tell a story of love and honor from long ago helped to pave the way for Hamilton’s ecstatic reception by critics and audiences.
But in other ways, Natasha, Pierre remains a bit more prickly and experimental. Malloy hews to the language of the novel so faithfully that he throws out rhyme scheme altogether for about two thirds of the score. It’s a striking effect that gives the songs a real sense of danger, freedom, and complexity, but also keeps them from sticking in your head as easily as Miranda’s skillful couplets. Still, Malloy’s work has its own distinct pleasures, mixing a multitude of styles – a bit of Russian folk here, a Lilith Fair guitar ballad there, a crazy Tom Waits-esque stomper just to keep things interesting- to achieve very clear, memorable voices for each character, and his use of electronic beats is thoughtful and dramaturgically satisfying (they enter with a particular character, and leave with him, too).
One of the things that sets Dave Malloy’s creation apart is its incredible collection of roles for women. Miranda makes a concerted effort to give his female cast more to do than just pine and fall in love, and the last song of Hamilton is a real triumph in that regard, but the story he’s working with demands that the Schulyer sisters are kept mostly to the side of the main thrust of the narrative, and he’s very smart about how much he can fight against that restriction without stalling the progress of Alexander’s journey. Malloy’s source material, however, gives him all sorts of room to create powerful roles for women, and he does so with relish. Natasha is a powerhouse of a lead role, and though she starts off as a lovesick ingenue, the journey she goes on is not the one the audience is probably expecting. Sonia also has a surprisingly satisfying arc, (and gets what’s probably the best song in the show. At least, it’s one of the ones I find most consistently moving.) And the supporting roles of Marya, Helene and Princess Mary are each rich with their own distinct musical moments and complexities.
My favorite part of Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812, though, is its deceptively simple plot. As opposed to Hamilton’s epic rags-to-riches-to-disgrace narrative, Natasha, Pierre looks through a smaller lens, and basically consists of a studious man’s midlife crisis juxtaposed with a young woman’s first teenage explosion of love and sexuality – with all the confusion and impaired decision making that goes with both stages of life. While both wild and bombastic in places, Malloy’s score has the guts to climax with a quiet moment, and in the end, the show becomes a testimony to the power of one simple, humane act of kindness and empathy. Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 may be less instantly catchy than the breakout success that took some of its innovations to a different, more audience-friendly level, but it more than rewards the time and attention it asks of its listeners. Check it out.
Hamilton fan bonus: Want to hear more of Philippa Soo, Hamilton’s Eliza? Well, you can, ’cause she sings the role of Natasha on the cast recording, and yes, she’s just as brilliant here.
Here’s some video if you feel like diving down the rabbit hole.