‘It’s a complicated Russian novel’: Musical Theatre’s Penchant for Adaptation

Dave Malloy’s cult classic Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812 opens by admitting that this adaptation of a certain ‘complicated Russian novel’ cannot capture the scope of its source material, and that the audience should ‘look it up in [their] programme’ if they get confused. Malloy’s website describes Comet as ‘an electropop opera ripped from a slice of Tolstoy’s War and Peace’.

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Source: New York Times

Indeed, Comet’s plot spans only seventy pages of the book. The famously immersive musical paradoxically draws the audience in by immediately breaking the fourth wall, alerting us of its limitations. This is the norm for Malloy: Beowulf: a Thousand Years of Baggage (one of his previous works) is especially subversive of the legend, summarising itself as ‘three academics [romping] their way through mead-soaked Scandinavia.’ Malloy has become known as a composer of genre-spanning musicals that are not only adaptations, but self-aware commentaries on their respective sources.

Malloy’s unique adaptations spurred my interest in musical revisions of literature. It did not take long for me to realise that these are innumerable, and among the most successful musicals of all time. For decades adaptations of Victor Hugo’s works have been plentiful, with the most famous being Claude-Michel Schönberg’s 1980 magnum opus Les Misérables, based on the same-titled 1862 novel. Gaston Leroux’s The Phantom of the Opera has been adapted into three different musicals, with Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 1986 version maintaining popularity in the thirty-third year of its West-End run.

Thanks to the commercial sheen of Webber’s repertoire, it is easy to see musical adaptations as cynical capitalistic entities, but this practice actually predates the modern theatrical establishment. In Hugo’s own lifetime, for instance, his literature was often translated into operas. Arguably, the most renowned example is Verdi’s Rigoletto from 1851, based on Le roi s’amuse.

The familiar flow from page to stage has roots in older habits. The idea of adaptations as immense money-makers was popularised in the musical boom of the 1980s, but if one considers the sheer number of these adaptations it becomes clear that the process creates more than just glitzy mainstream hits. In the context of the operatic precedent, the musical adaptation becomes part of a grand, sprawling tradition.

It is the focus and intent of each adaptation that distinguishes it. Webber’s Phantom contains a different narrative to Leroux’s novel, but it uses lavish excess and immense orchestrations to impart the scale of the operatic story and the opera house in which it is set. Conversely Comet, with its humble beginnings in a non-profit theatre in Hell’s Kitchen, instead takes a small part of a larger plot and tells that story faithfully, but with enough musical and aesthetic flourishes to create a unique experience. From Venice to Broadway, adaptations have always, and still do, take centre stage.

Jacob Ashbridge

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