I remember one Christmas a few years ago when I specifically asked for a Google Play gift certificate in order to buy and listen to the Off-Broadway cast recording of Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812. Since then, I’ve been hooked on this show and others like it (meaning: weird musicals that probably shouldn’t work as musicals but still do). This is one of the reasons I fell in love with Phillipa Soo and how I was introduced to composer David Malloy. So of course, when this show transferred to Broadway, I knew I had to see it.
When I review cast albums, I like going in blind, as that’s the way that the majority of people in the world will experience Broadway shows if they don’t have a considerable amount of money or live in New York. I was lucky enough to have seen this show (from a balcony seat, no less!), so my judgement is a little skewed, as this production is EXPLOSIVE. But it’s fairly easy for me to separate the incredible visuals from the music, as I originally experienced the show aurally through the Off-Broadway soundtrack.
When I listened to this soundtrack, I was mostly looking for differences between the Off-Broadway production and the Broadway one. And that’s because: the Off-Broadway album is fantastic. I never formally reviewed it, but it is mind-blowing. If you don’t know anything about Great Comet, the show is an electropop opera. YEAH. Basically it’s a work of genius.
So I was really interested in finding differences between the two albums, which doesn’t make this the most accessible review ever, as it kind of assumes you have already listened to the Off-Broadway soundtrack. Which you should.
The major difference between these two productions is the size of the cast. This is a HUGE cast. And you can hear the difference in size when listening to the two albums. The Broadway recording is so rich in terms of sound, and overall it sounds so much fuller. It makes the experience even more invigorating. It sweeps you up and doesn’t slow down until the last few scenes, which end the show so delicately.
Much of the original show was left intact other than a few lyric changes. The most disappointing change for me was in the song “The Private and Intimate Life of the House.” (Brace yourself for some extensive analysis, feel free to skip this part if you aren’t a giant nerd.)
For context, this song is sung by Princess Mary, a very plain and religious young woman, and her abusive father. There’s a repeated verse in this song that was drastically changed from one production to the next, both melodically and lyrically. Melodically, it lost a lot of its power, as the sailing high notes were brought down and became more subdued. In terms of lyrics, this is how the original song goes:
Time is moving
It’s now or never
I’ve abandoned the hope of getting married
And this is the new verse in the Broadway production:
And time moves on
And my fate slips past
And nothing ever happens to me
Later on in the song the lyrics change again:
And time moves on
And my fate slips past
Is this all I’ll ever make of my life?
Will I never be happy?
Will I never be anyone’s wife?
This fear of never getting married appears in both versions, but as it is repeated several times in the original, it becomes emphasized in the Off-Broadway version. One could argue that Mary is shown as more independent in the newer version, as she is less concerned about becoming a wife than she seems to be in the original.
But here’s the thing: the original is more true to the reality of her time and situation. She’s this very plain, shy girl who won’t have many suitors, meaning she’ll be less likely to marry (and marry someone she loves), which is the only way for her (a woman in early 19th century Russia) to advance in life and society. In other words, it makes sense for her to be worried out of her mind about not getting married. And besides the social aspect of it, on a more personal level, Mary is an extremely lonely character. She is left isolated because of her father, and she craves intimacy and friendship, which is another reason for wanting to be married, as it would whisk her away from the abusive household.
TL;DR: The Off-Broadway version of the song is truer to Mary as a character, although I see the reasoning behind the new lyrics, which try to make her seem more independent.
Finally, the biggest change in the show: the addition of the song “Dust and Ashes.” I see the logic behind the placement of this song. They brought in Josh Groban, a Big Star, into the role of Pierre, pretty much guaranteeing him a shot at a Tony nomination. The only problem? The Big Star didn’t have a Big Showstopping Song. Enter: “Dust and Ashes,” the angstiest song in the show, a chance for Pierre to have his big musical monologue.
Being the nerd I am, I have read War and Peace (which Great Comet is based on, if you didn’t know). And Pierre is a hugely psychological character. Throughout the entire novel, there is constantly so much stuff going through his head. And we don’t see a whole lot of that in the Off-Broadway production. The song “Pierre” does a pretty good job of introducing him, but it’s really cool to get to see deeper into his psychology. My issue? “Dust and Ashes” doesn’t really do that. It tries. It tries so hard. But in the end the song uses a fairly weak extended metaphor (i.e. sleep) to explain that the reason why Pierre feels so numb is because he lacks love in his life.
I hate being a purist, but that’s really not the way I interpret Pierre. I’m treading into super subjective territory here, and most of my opinions about this song are a matter of interpretation, so I don’t expect people to agree with me. But the biggest internal battle Pierre experiences in War and Peace is about whether to succumb to earthly desires and pleasures (basically, partying your life away), or to try to make a difference in the world, to do good.
And this makes for fantastic emotional turmoil, which “Dust and Ashes” totally could have been about. As it is now, it’s an extended angsty ballad that can’t decide which direction to move in musically (a full choir? a single piano and voice? a full orchestra? let’s just do it ALL). So besides my issues with the distorted themes presented in the song, I also don’t find it that well-constructed in terms of music and lyrics.
So this is a HUGE post but I’ve been thinking about this album a lot since it dropped May 19th. If you’ve read this far, you rock. If you skipped most of this post, I understand. To sum up and (add on): the new album sounds explosively rich and richly explosive, Denee Benton (Natasha) is a goddess (and so is Pippa Soo), Groban is now a Broadway Star, I’m not a giant fan of the new song “Dust and Ashes,” and I’m a huge nerd and snob and like comparing musical adaptations to the original source material. Basically, I have way too many opinions on everything.
But you should listen to Great Comet, either the Off-Broadway or Broadway version, but preferably both. Nerd on my lovelies.