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War And Peace and Joni Mitchell combine for a musical-theater treat

In Hear This, A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well—some inspired by a weekly theme and some not, but always songs worth hearing.

The musical Natasha, Pierre And The Great Comet Of 1812 seems intent on placing as many boundaries between itself and the audience’s enjoyment as it can. For starters, it’s a self-described “electro-pop opera” staged in a tent set up so that there’s no central stage and the actors and orchestra are situated all around the audience. The audience members, for their part, are often invited to be a minimal part of the action, or to imbibe vodka or to partake in vaguely Russian foodstuffs. Oh, and all of that Russian is intentional: The show is based on a small section of War And Peace in which a young woman ruins her name by cheating on her fiancée with a hot dude she meets at the opera, while an aging intellectual attempts to find a reason for existence beyond wanton debauchery. (The thrilling climax hinges on whether someone will smile.) As a final hurdle for audiences to clear, many of the lyrics are taken directly from an English translation of Leo Tolstoy’s novel, the actors singing some of the author’s weird descriptions of their characters’ behavior rather than acting those things out.

Yet Natasha is one of the most exciting American musicals in years, and its cast recording—available Dec. 10 on CD and now via digital download—should be required listening for anyone interested in the evolution of the form. The show understands that an audience will cross any number of hurdles if it’s engaged with a story’s characters on an emotional level, and as such, composer Dave Malloy—who also played Pierre in the original cast—has leaned into the novel’s emotional grandiosity. The dominant mood in American musicals in the last decade or so has been either pointless pastiche or ironic meta-commentary, and it would have been easy to make this show exactly that. (“Can you believe we made a musical of War And Peace!?” the actors might wink at the audience.) But the dominant mood in Natasha, even when it seems to be piling up so many elements that it’s destined to self-destruct, is earnest sincerity.

That goes for Malloy’s score as well. Though there are occasional numbers with overtones of traditional musical theatre (particularly the opening number), the vast majority find a middle ground between electronica and indie rock that wouldn’t seem out of place on Reflektor. Particularly when seeing the show live (which those in New York can still do through January 5), that confluence of elements—the stripped-down orchestra, the burbling electronic samples, the lyrics’ odd anachronistic quality—blends into something that all but demands the audience follow the show down the rabbit hole. 

Malloy also invites the audience into the show’s world by placing straightforward songs of heartbreaking sincerity in the midst of everything else. Take the second-act number “Sonya Alone.” Supporting character Sonya, essayed in the stage show by singer-songwriter Brittain Ashford, has slowly come to realize that her friend Natasha is going to throw her life and engagement away in the name of a man she’s just met. Determined to stop Natasha from ruining herself, Sonya sings both of her epiphany and of her determination, turning turmoil into underlying chords that resolve—but never in the place the ear expects them to—a downward progression that suggests the vortex Sonya fears will swallow her friend. Malloy leans into Ashford’s uncanny vocal resemblance to a young Joni Mitchell, and the song kinda sorta almost sounds like it wouldn’t have been out of place as a hidden track on Blue.

It’s the lyrics, though, that make “Sonya Alone” so beautiful and demonstrate why Natasha’s audiences keep clamoring over hurdles to join the show in its unabashed emotionalism. The verses are complicated, busy, overly ornate, and filled with Tolstoy’s language. The chorus, however, is impeccably direct, the sort of evocation that will resonate with anyone who has tried to save a friend from themselves: “I will stand in the dark for you / I will hold you back by force.” Malloy doesn’t dare mock Tolstoy’s novel or the idea of making a musical of it. Instead, he embraces the book’s raw regret and immense sense of empathy, bypassing irony and pastiche in favor of something direct, pure, and more than a little delicate.