Musical theater is about finding the sublime in the heart of cringe. When the cast of Les Miserables baldy inform us that heaven is real and they've just gone there, we know in our hearts that it's true. Such is the power of the best musicals' method: tenderizing us with embarrassing levels of emotion, with camp, with spectacle, until we are so aesthetically open that we see a God we don't believe in.
It's both like and unlike the spectacle of opera. Opera can't help but emphasize artifice. Whether it's an intimate avant-garde production or a grand classical opera with a chorus of 100 and a diva whose job it is domme an entire theater, it's inherent in the form that everyone is making cataclysmic, superhuman sounds. Musicals, by contrast, are a "realistic" form. They're campy, they're big, but they emphasize voices that feel conversational and attainable. Opera is a caricature of singing, musical theater a caricature of speech.
The really interesting thing is when musicals present themselves as operas, whether that's my mom's favorite musical (Phantom) or my favorite musical (Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812), which is the actual topic of this essay. I finally saw The Great Comet for the first time yesterday. This isn't a review of that (excellent) production, but an essay on the show itself, which is self-consciously fun, aesthetically rich, and does the best job I've ever seen of exploring the musical's interplay of sublimity and cringe, presenting it openly as part of the text. It arrives at the sublime through the medium of being exhausting.
Comet was originally marketed as an "electropop-opera." Sung through, except for one very specific moment, it does have an operatic vibe, though like Phantom it also parodies opera extensively. An adaptation of a few crucial chapters of War and Peace, it concerns Natasha (the diva role), a young noblewoman who comes to Moscow for her social debut and falls in love with a rake, Anatole. Their ill-fated affair ruins Natasha's engagement to another man, and almost causes her death by suicide, but she survives. It's all presented with a lot of frenetic activity, and with a libretto that quotes War and Peace heavily – often with characters narrating their own movements in the third person. The tone is arch, somewhat dissociated, the humor campy; beautiful arias periodically interrupt the action, leavening it with sincerity to keep the thing from collapsing into a big formal goof.
The show takes a massive turn in its final moments. In a pair of deeply affecting songs, Natasha makes a connection with a relatively minor character, but one whose immense gravity has been warping the entire show from the start. This is Pierre, Tolstoy's hero, an alcoholic spiritual seeker, crackpot, and dreamer with deep untapped reserves of emotion. He has spent most of the show looking on, only taking an active role at the end. In these final moments, he finally realizes why he is on stage, that he is here to comfort Natasha.
Their conversation acts as a counterpoint to the almost panicked tone that's marked the musical up to this point. It is dignified, solemn, painful. Both of them realize that their desperate, often sordid search for love and meaning is pointless on its face. They also realize that that pointlessness, the exhaustion of it, is also bringing them closer to enlightenment.
To audience members who've read the book, it's clear that they still have a long way to go. War and Peace is a tragic, very funny novel about enlightenment through suffering, and particularly about the cycle of progress and relapse. It's about how our most painful moments are also the moments when our emotions become heightened and we glimpse the meaning of life, only to lose sight of it when we are safe again. At the end of the show, the exhausted Natasha and Pierre both experience one of these moments, and so do we. It is a thunderous dramatic break from everything that's come before.
The story of The Great Comet is inseparable from its tortured production history. The show was initially staged in a variety of smaller spaces, most famously in a big tent; it's presented as a floor show in a nightclub, with actors moving among the audience and sitting down at tables with them. Later, it moved to Broadway, in a production that was well reviewed but basically on life support from the start, reliant on a parade of hastily booked guest stars to stay open week by week (it turns out that a moderately experimental musical based on War and Peace is a hard sell on that scale).
The show finally closed ignominiously, amidst a scandal in which an up-and-coming Black actor who had just begun a run as Pierre was replaced by a well-known white actor whom the producers saw as a safer bet. This was the height of the Hamilton era, and Broadway was supposed to be reckoning with its historical whiteness; this story, while not terminal, does demonstrate the shallowness of that reckoning. The new actor didn't save the show – in fact, he quit before ever performing the role. It's abundantly obvious that it was going to close soon no matter what they did, and should simply have closed with dignity, but I get how these things happen. Nobody meant to say that they didn't think a Black Pierre could carry the show – only that they needed someone astronomically Broadway-famous to keep it alive – but the thing is that these are the same statement.
The reason I tell this story, I think, is because it speaks to musical theater's central contradiction – the one between realism and escapism. We don't think of the musical as a realist form, but as above, I'd argue that it is. It presents itself as the everyman's opera, purely pleasurable where opera has a learning curve. Where the realism comes in is the attainability of its music, the way a high schooler or a reasonably talented karaoke singer can navigate its arias. Anyone can enjoy musical theater, and anyone can sing it, and I think that's morally and aesthetically neutral, except that when matters of equality and political subtext come in, suddenly it's all fantasy and we don't get to complain.
The musicals of Dave Malloy, Comet's composer and librettist, are especially interesting in light of this, because most of them are explicitly about the collision of the id and ego. In the elaborate reincarnation anthology Ghost Quartet, in Preludes (which takes place inside the mind of a hypnotized Sergei Rachmaninoff), and in Octet (whose characters are an internet-addiction support group), Malloy explores various states of fantasy, of dissociation, with his trademark sophistication and nuance. For better and worse, he comes off as an instinctive creator, one who writes sublimely, but palpably struggles when he tries to edit himself. You're almost tempted to call his work anarchic, but it is governed by strict internal laws, ones which can be divined but not deduced. Ghost Quartet is at least seven songs too long, but good luck cutting it without hitting an artery in its eldritch body. Comet's transition to Broadway was, to my mind, rough for the same reason. When asked something like "how about explaining some of these obscure Tolstoyan references, like 'the candle in the mirror,'" or "how about giving Pierre an aria in the middle of the show, instead of having his two big numbers be two hours apart," he is game but unconvincing (and no wonder; he was right the first time).
It sometimes seems to me that Malloy is an opera composer in musical theater pants. His work would be perfect for an artistic world where nobody's expected to understand more than half of what happens, and where shows run for a month and are three hours long. Honestly, I've also been more convinced by the way the world of opera handles political matters, even though I'm sure it's almost as quietly fucked; my local opera house ran a series of thoughtful essays in its program exploring the ways Eugene Onegin and the life of Tchaikovsky can shed light on Russia's historical relationship with Ukraine, while the theater company putting on Comet offered free drink tickets to guests who arrived dressed as 19th-century Russians. (Faux fur hats were encouraged, and relatedly, America has an incredibly strange relationship with Russia.) Comet is a great piece of work, an example of Malloy's reliable excellence, but because of how it's framed – not even staged, just framed by what people expect of the form – it can't function the way it should. It would probably be easier to change those expectations than to ask an artist to switch genres, so maybe I'll leave it here: how about we ask more of musical theater? I believe it can answer, if we do.