Novel Narration: How Broadway's Russian Novel May Be An Oratorio

After my last post speaking rather negatively about one of this season's most highly-acclaimed musicals, I thought I'd better make up for it by extolling the virtues of another one. But rather than more or less parroting what all the other reviews say, I hope to contextualize in the frame of a classical oratorio. And this blog post will be short.

Much of the praise for Natasha, Pierre, And The Great Comet Of 1812 cites its highly innovative and immersive staging. It is perhaps more often described as an "experience" rather than a "musical." The corollary to this is that I have heard it criticized as being too complicated, difficult to follow, and not having enough hummable tunes.

I will not justify that hummability criticism with a response. I thought Sondheim smashed that argument into the ground.

The funny thing is that I don't find Great Comet complicated at all. I had to look it up on Wikipedia (it does tell you to do your research in the opening number) but I was able to latch onto the plot pretty well. It helped when I realized that it basically parallels the part of Pride And Prejudice where Lydia elopes with Wickham. (Note: Pride And Prejudice predates War And Peace. I know. I was surprised too.)

The most innovative conceit of Great Comet, as far as I'm concerned, is in how it derives its text. It is based on a short section of War And Peace, and it draws much of its text directly from the original source. The result is what in the opera world we call a prose libretto. That is to say, a libretto that is written without rhyme or meter. Prose librettos came into the opera world in the late Romantic era, as arias became more free in form, and more integrated into a holistic score. (Compare Mozart to Puccini for example.)

In addition to lacking meter or rhyme, Great Comet deriving its text directly from War And Peace has a second major effect on the musical: Characters frequently sing their own narration. This is an interesting, almost Brechtian, distancing effect, and makes me immediately think of classic oratorios. Mendelssohn's Elijah, for instance, derives its text directly from the bible, and, like the libretto of Great Comet, has a mix of dialogue and narration. This is necessary, because oratorios lack staging.

It seems strange to compare Great Comet to an oratorio when so much of the praise heaped on the musical has been for its immersive staging. Oratorios are typically anything but immersive. But the staging of Great Comet was inspired by a Russian club. The Imperial Theatre has undergone some structural revisions to accommodate a different sort of theater space, including seats on the stage itself, a la the recent revival of Cabaret. This is a further distancing effect, and the intended illusion is that you are sitting in a club or cafe watching actors perform the story. Which is the exact opposite of immersive.

Bertolt Brecht (a playwright so influential he has an adjective named after him) was not fond of realism as a theatrical movement. He viewed it as disingenuous to try and trick the audience into thinking what they were seeing is real. He believed that the audience should always be aware that they are watching a play. Some things he did to achieve this effect included having characters break the fourth wall, comment on the action in song, and exist in a stripped-down stage setting, with the technical workings of it visible to the audience.

I believe that this is the theatrical idiom in which Great Comet exists. Its immersive nature is therefore something of an illusion, designed to actually distance the audience, and thereby make them more receptive to the oratoric nature of the musical. You don't become immersed in an oratorio and let the story wash over you. You sit down ready to hear the story told to you. It is a much more active form of listening. And so while the songs of Great Comet won't play on the radio as nicely as the songs of Dear Evan Hansen, they are just as deserving of accolades. They exist in different idioms, and Great Comet's idiom is one which includes primarily oratorios, Brecht, and not much else. That is what makes it innovative as a hit Broadway musical.


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