Editorial Note: We hope to make up for our absence last week with an extra special Throwback Thursday post to the 2017 Tony Awards this past Sunday.
I suppose it is no surprise that we at Adapt That are rather fond of the Tony Awards. Music, theater, and adaptations abound on this blog!
The final results of the evening were, surprisingly, quite dissatisfying. And no, this displeasure has nothing to do with Spacey’s rather host-less hosting of the evening. The New York Times has that angle covered.
I believe the wrong musical went home with the Tony Award for Best Musical. Dear Evan Hansen, although superb and wonderful in every way, was not the most innovative and artistically inspiring Broadway musical of the evening. That designation belongs to Natasha, Pierre, and The Great Comet of 1812, a marvelous adaptation of War and Peace.
And Josh Groban and his angel-voice-sent-down-from-heaven-to-enchant-us-all did not influence this perspective.
Well, maybe only a little bit.
Each musical has unique gifts that were recognized earlier in the awards ceremony. Dear Evan Hansen obviously has the catchiest, heartfelt soundtrack and received the proper Tony for Best Original Score, Best Orchestrations. Furthermore, the cast of DEH captured the essence of the characters and put forth performances worthy of Best Actor, Best Featured Actress. Natasha, Pierre, and The Great Comet of 1812 also received recognition for their groundbreaking Scenic Design and Lighting Design.
Yet despite 12 nominations for everything from Best Actor and Actress to Best Score, the electro-pop opera did not receive Tony for Best Musical. Thus, according to all the powers vested in Adapt That, this blog declares Natasha, Pierre, and The Great Comet of 1812 the true winner of the 2017 Tony for Best Musical. Because not only was Natasha, Pierre, and The Great Comet of 1812 a fantastic musical, but it was also a pivotal adaptation for American musical theater.
Mainstreaming the Snippet
Natasha, Pierre, and The Great Comet of 1812 is based only on an approximately 70-page section of Leo Tolstoy’s classic War and Peace. Beginning with the mid-life crisis moment of Pierre, the challenges the purpose of life in the midst of heartbreak and unfortunate choices. By concentrating on this small section instead of the entire novel, the musical is able to build a beautiful juxtaposition among characters in challenging, life-changing moments. The idea of adapting a small section of a greater whole into a complete production is certainly one way to spur more unique musical adaptations. And when the curtain falls, it gives new meaning to the idea the story continues… because it does! And audiences can find out more in the book.
Breaking the “4th Wall”
This production does a fabulous job of breaking the 4th wall and inviting the audience into the story without completely cracking the mystery that is theater. Part of this is the result of the immersive set that has you pulling up a bar stool to the stage right alongside the actors. Another element of this is the lyrics and characterizations themselves. The “Prologue” song fully recognizes the fictional nature of the characters and encourages the audience to pay attention by having each character introduce his or her character in a rollicking, modern drinking chant style:
“[…]There’s a war going on
Out there somewhere and Andrey isn’t here
There’s a war going on out there somewhere and Andrey isn’t here
And this is all in your program you are at the opera
Gonna have to study up a little bit if you wanna keep with the plot
Cuz it’s a complicated Russian novel everyone’s got nine different names
So look it up in your program
We’d appreciate it, thanks a lot da da da da da da da da da
NATASHA: Natasha is young she loves Andrey with all her heart […]”
Although occasionally hard to follow, the audience is invited verbally and by the circular stage design to participate in this night at the opera—to do their part in the story of these characters. The artistic narration of characters remains spell-binding in the direct and yet removed way it portrays the inner-workings of character’s thoughts. It’s rather refreshing when contrasted with all of the single-character-driven plots of other popular musicals.
19th Century Russia Meets the Digital Age
The approach the creative team made with the lyrics and writing of this musical should please both literary critics and audience members who wouldn’t touch Tolstoy with a nine foot pole as it is the perfect amalgamation of them both. Take for example, the following lines from the song, “Pierre”:
“It’s dawned on me suddenly
And for no obvious reason
That I can’t go on
Living as I am
The zest of life has vanished
Only the skeleton remains
I used to be better […]
I drank too much
Right now, my friend fights and bleeds
And I sit at home and read
Hours at a time
Hours at my screen
Abandoned to distraction
In order to forget
We waste our lives
Drowning in wine
I never thought that I’d end up like this
I used to better”
That style of self-reflection and isolation, particularly the clever use of the word ‘screen’ resonate deeply with a modern audience, but they are not far off the original language of Tolstoy:
“Only when [Pierre] had drunk a bottle or two of wine did he become dimly aware that the tangled, terrible knot of life, which had formerly terrified him, was not as frightening as it seemed to him. With a buzzing in his head, chattering, listening to conversation, or reading after dinner and supper, he constantly saw that the knot from one of its sides. But only under the influence of wine did he say to himself: ‘Never mind. I’ll disentangle it—I’ve got a ready explanation right here. But I have no time now—I’ll think it over later!’ But this later never came. On an empty stomach, in the morning, all the old questions seemed as insoluble and frightening as ever, and Pierre would hastily seize a book and was glad when someone would come to see him.” –Volume II, Part V, Section I
Both sections convey Pierre’s deep dissatisfaction with his life and the lack of meaning he finds in it, but the musical portrays it in song… and without all of Tolstoy’s asides and commas! Some of the love songs are even approached in a modern Pop-Rock style that I think creates a contemporary portrayal of lust and passion in a sentiment that is lost when a citizen of today reads this classic.
Another way this production challenges modern adaptations and its fantastic musical status is that the creative team hired for talent. The cast is diverse and unified by their talent rather than a particular look. In particular, Natasha and Sonya (Russian sisters in Tolstoy’s novel) are played by the gorgeously talented Denee Benton and Brittain Ashford. Although family, no attempt was made by casting to unite the look by casting actors of the same race, and it is up to Benton and Ashford reveal their sisterly connection through superb acting. Despite the “Russian” setting, the adaptation challenges perceptions of what it means to tell a story about 19th century Russia with diverse casting.
Stellar Adaptation…Best Musical?
If Adapt That were selecting the Tony for Best Musical this year, Natasha, Pierre, and The Great Comet of 1812 would have won—hands down. The artistically challenging and innovative adaptation has everything you could ask for in a groundbreaking musical.
And yet… even we will admit it’s not as catchy or as optimistic as Dear Evan Hansen. Perhaps sometimes artistic challenge and innovation is not what we want to hum while doing the dishes. But both of these musicals, (despite the extensive differences), portray a message that resonates with those living in 2017: Hope.
That bright, encouraging comet shooting across a darkened sky.