Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812 was a musical for those of us who don't feel like heroes.

The Great Comet Was a Broadway Show for People Who Don’t Feel Like the Heroes of Their Own Story

The Great Comet Was a Broadway Show for People Who Don’t Feel Like the Heroes of Their Own Story

Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog
Aug. 14 2017 6:00 AM

The Great Comet Was a Broadway Show for People Who Don’t Feel Like the Heroes of Their Own Story

dave_malloy_in_broadways_natasha_pierre_the_great_comet_of_1812._photo_by_chad_batka._1
Dave Malloy as Pierre in Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812.

Chad Batka

The Broadway musical Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812 just announced its closing, and I feel bereft. I’ve been lucky enough to see the show, based on a story from Tolstoy’s War and Peace, several times, both at its original home of Off-Broadway’s Ars Nova and on Broadway. Nevertheless, its closing announcement feels like a blow, and I've been thinking a lot about why.

Not why it’s closing. A lot of other people already have talked about the show’s economics—the box-office boost of the singer Josh Groban, and the box-office lull when he left the show—as well as the casting disaster that contributed to this announcement. As a white guy, my place in conversations about diversity and representation is to listen and do what I can to help. And as a theater producer, I understand that what the public knows about any given production is usually about 20 percent of the actual story.

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No, I’ve been thinking about why the closing of this show, a show I’m not producing and in which I have no personal stake, should feel both so devastating and so poetically perfect.

Some friends have told me that the character of Pierre reminds them of me. I've even been confused with the composer Dave Malloy, who originated the role and will be playing Pierre for the show’s final two weeks. (Although that comparison probably won't last, as he's about ten years younger than me and isn't aging nearly as quickly.) I play accordion, I love Russian composers, I write music … but that’s not why I’m so sad.

Pierre is a depressive who's self-medicating with liquor and sadly limping towards 50. He gets fixated on Napoleon and picks fights with his friends for absolutely no reason—only to be paralytically sad when he realizes what he's done. He's good to have at a party—but when he’s not at a party, he sits obsessively in front of his distractions, desperately trying to avoid how awful he feels about his life. Which is to say, it isn’t exactly flattering to be compared to Pierre, but the fact that my friends recognized him in me meant that the way I’d felt for years wasn’t the secret that I long thought it was.

The show begins with each character introducing themselves in a single word—“Anatole is hot, Sonya is good, Natasha is young …” before moving to the song “Pierre,” where the title character can’t be summed up in a word. As he describes his sad, angry disaster of a life, he snarls at the audience:

And how many men before
Good Russian men
Believing in goodness and truth
Entered that door
With all their teeth and hair
And left it toothless and bald?
You empty and stupid
Contented fellows
Satisfied with your place
I'm different from you
I'm different from you
I still want to do something
Or do you struggle too?
I pity you, I pity me, I pity you
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This Kafkaesque—Tolstoyesque, really—feeling of inadequacy, not just in oneself but in everyone, rips at all of us as we enter middle age. We’re waking up to the fact that the world we wanted to build is farther away than ever, and that it was our own laziness and need for comfort that led us to this disaster. And even as Pierre excoriates those around him, he realizes that they might be doing the same, and we’re all to be pitied.

At the end of the musical, Natasha has destroyed her life by betraying everyone close to her. She's attempted suicide, and Pierre is left in a room with her, and he's furious. He has utter contempt for her. She asks him to apologize to the man she betrayed, and sings, “I know it never can be, but I’m still tormented by the wrongs I’ve done him."

Pierre’s confused. He tries to console her, and she sings, “Don’t speak to me like that, I am not worth it… All is over for me.” His fury melts, the orchestra fades so there’s only one piano in a simple arpeggio, and he sees her for what she actually is. She's 19, she's screwed up, she says her life is done. Finally he says, "Stop. Stop. Stop … All over …?"

And then, for just one moment, the orchestra stops playing—the one moment of orchestral silence in an entirely sung-through score. Pierre simply says: "If I were not myself, but the brightest, handsomest, best man on Earth. And if I were free ... I would get down on my knees this minute and ask for your hand. And your love."

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I have been told that I misunderstood this moment. I didn't read it as a romantic overture. I thought Pierre was telling Natasha, "You say you have no value. You say your life is over. But you’re wrong. The brightest, handsomest, best man on Earth is the only kind of man who could possibly spend their life with you. Not me, but the smartest, handsomest, best man on Earth could ask for your love."

I've always known I wasn't much of a person, despite whatever modest successes I'd had. I've never thought of myself as the hero of my own story. I’m the supportive husband or dad, the wisecracking friend, the foil. But some years ago, right around the first time I saw The Great Comet, I looked at my life: a theater artist with my best friends, living with my wife and the kids in the greatest city in the world. I didn't put it into words, but that feeling—that the brightest, handsomest, best man in New York deserved this life, not me—made me seek out medication and therapy.

I have bipolar disorder. I struggle sometimes, but seeing someone on a stage struggle in the same ways I struggle is … life-affirming? Sanity-making? There’s no right word for it.

A lot of stories aren’t made for people like me. Stories are made for heroes, for people whose journeys resolve satisfactorily, or whose struggles can be named. For a couple of years, though, on stages around New York, I got to see a play whose hero is a heavy, depressive alcoholic, a man whose self-indulgence is somehow both too loud and too hard to hear ... but who, in the end, saves himself by loving someone. Not because that person would ever love him back, but because loving someone is the only thing we can do to earn our place in the world.

To the Greeks, to the Romans, to the Russians of 1812, comets portended untold horrors. In the final moments of The Great Comet, Pierre looks at the sky and sees the comet arcing across the sky, appearing for the briefest bit of a long human life. “But for me, the comet brings no fear,” he sings. “No, I gaze joyfully.” Every time I was lucky enough to watch this play, I thought, I do too.

Sean Williams is a New York theater producer whose company just released its first narrative fiction podcast, Steal the Stars.