May 23, 2013

The Real Malloy


I first heard about musical Renaissance man Dave Malloy when I graded the reviews for Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage for Critic-O-Meter back in 2009; the repeated comparisons of his rocking score for the show to Tom Waits piqued my interest. I finally met him doing this preview of Three Pianos, the oddball Schubert party he concocted with Alec Duffy and Rick Burkhardt, and we've exchanged our views about the state of musical both in person and online. Along the way somewhere he mentioned an opera based on War and Peace.

And now, in a scandalously short amount of time for a musical, it's here: As you no doubt have heard by now, a little show called Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812, which was a sensation last fall at Ars Nova, is now an even bigger sensation in a custom-built tent under the High Line (and not just because of l'affaire de telephone). I interviewed Dave at length some months ago for my epic overview about band-performed musicals for American Theatre, a trend piece I included him in because, like Stew or the Lisps, he largely performs in what he writes, and I'd argue that that gives his shows a special frisson (and the Waits comparison is apt, by the way, though vocally I hear as much Elvis Costello croak as Waits gravel), not to mention a literal immediacy (more on that in a second). Here's how he replied when I marveled at how quickly his show had gone from page to stage:


Q: How long have you worked on the show?
Dave: I’ve been working on it about a year and half between writing the first song and opening night. 
Q: That is so quick.
Dave: That’s what people say. But, for me, coming from a jazz world, especially, we would write songs in a day. Sgt. Pepper was done in a couple of months.
Q: I think this has something to do with the professionalization of musical theatre, or what Cesar Alvarez calls "over-curation."
Dave: I very much came from the mindset of the devised theater company where you go, "OK, this is our next show, and here’s the show date, so we have these six months to develop this show and create it from start to finish." It’s only in recent years that I’ve started working on pieces that don’t have firm commitments from theaters to produce them, and they go on and on, and it’s awful because you lose that immediacy.
There are those who may point out that the comparative speed shows in the final product—that Natasha, Pierre's libretto and lyrics don't work the way a traditional book musical does, that there aren't all that many song-songs with identifiable hooks; perhaps the best and fullest expression of this dissent is this well-considered review of the original Ars Nova run by David Barbour. But I would argue that what is gained from this immediacy—from literally removing obstacles from the process and allowing an artist's impulses and affinities to spring more directly from his musical/theatrical brain to the stage—is a quality of musical fluency and pungency that is as akin to a rock 'n' roll experience as theater (or at least musical theater) gets. Indeed, I was surprised, given how little of Natasha, Pierre is conventionally hummable, how much of the music kept buzzing in my head the next day and beyond; I guess I'd have to guess that it makes a palpable difference when music feels like it came from the gut and hasn't been overthought, and no amount of dramaturgical fussing or "development" can layer that viseral feeling into a work (I felt much the same about Here Lies Love).

The direct and full realization of all of his and director Rachel Chavkin's ideas is one theme I pick up in my new Times feature on Malloy. There's a sense in which writing about theater is a job, of course, but I'd kid myself if I didn't also see it as a privilege, and I must say I feel grateful for the chance to write about Dave and his work—to nerd out about orchestrations in the paper of record, for one, and more importantly to note the arrival of a major musical-theatrical talent.

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