Musical review: Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812

This is the year of Hamilton in the world of musicals, and I’m as obsessed as anyone with the bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman. But I can’t possibly add anything substantial to the wealth of words already published about it.

I’m here instead to write about a different musical, one I just discovered incidentally: Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 (available on YouTube and Spotify).

It’s an adaptation of just a slice of War and Peace, which is not among the Russian novels I’ve read (except, since listening to the musical, by what Wikipedia had to teach me).

My many points of appreciation for the musical:

  • The meta tone established at the start, with a catchy song sung in rounds to introduce all the characters, major and minor, with the refrain:

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
‘Cause 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

  • How the characters often narrate their emotional reactions and facial expressions, e.g. “But noticing Sonya’s look of embarrassment / My face expressed confusion / And suspicion”
  • I love Anatole’s introduction in “The Opera,” around the seven-minute mark — such a perfect “oh snap here’s the irresistible bad boy, here to fuck everything up”:

An exceptionally handsome man walked in
With a confident yet courteous air

This was Helene’s brother
Anatole Kuragin
He moved with a swagger
Which would have been ridiculous
Had he not been so good-looking
And though it was the middle of the act
He walked right down the aisle
His sword and spurs jangling
His handsome perfumed head held high
And he looked right at Natasha

  • This play — and Wikipedia’s summary of War and Peace — illuminated one of my favorite fictional character tropes: the “beautiful, charming, and immoral” villain who exists solely to fuck up the wholesome protagonist’s life
  • EVEN BETTER, a set of beautiful, charming, and immoral siblings who are implied to be sleeping together whenever they aren’t maliciously plotting to fuck up the wholesome protagonist’s life
  • They are, without fail, my favorite characters and the ones I will cheer on at every stage.
  • However, concerning Natasha, our wholesome protagonist — I refuse to despise or harshly judge her, as I am sworn to defend teenage girls in every instance. Her virtues and flaws are defined succinctly in the prologue: “Natasha is very young.” Indeed.
  • Natasha reminds me strongly of Jane Austen’s more innocent protagonists, such as Marianne of Sense and Sensibility or Catherine of Northanger Abbey. She’s operating in such a sheltered, romanticized worldview that the following rules apply:
    1. Though he knows I am engaged, this unknown man has pursued me, declared his love, and kissed me.
    2. Therefore: “But I love you
      Of that there is no doubt
      How else could all of this have happened?
      How else could we have kissed?
      It means that I have loved you from the first
      It means that you are kind, noble, and splendid
      And I could not help loving you”
    3. And when I have thrown myself into his hands and broken off my existing engagement, but the elopement plans are dashed, and only then find out he is already married — nothing left to do but to take arsenic. (Okay, a non-fatal dose of arsenic.)
  • I also love Pierre’s angsty drama:

And I’ve been studying the Cabal
And I’ve calculated the number of the beast
It is Napoleon
I will kill him one day
He is not a great man
None of us are great men
We are just caught in the wave of history
Nothing matters
Everything matters
It’s all the same
If only I could not see it,
This dreadful, terrible it

  • Plus there’s just some really fun songs with good beats, from “The Duel” (“here’s to the health of married women and their lovers!”) to “Preparations” and “Balaga”
  • I also like how the title characters don’t meet until the second-to-last song
  • Most of all, I love those ending songs — “Pierre and Natasha” and “The Great Comet of 1812.” They are so sober and heartfelt, yet not overly sentimental or saccharine. Plus, it’s unusual that a musical so concerned with romance didn’t end with the heroine uniting with the hero. Instead, he leaves still married to a wife he does not love; but there’s just enough hope, as something wondrous is happening in the sky, something to give them reason to look up for a while.
  • I think the final message is “we may have fucked up, but perhaps there is such a thing as second chances.” And that is a really nice message for a musical, or any story.

4 thoughts on “Musical review: Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812

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