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Josh Groban in "Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812." (Photo by Chad Batka)

How One Song Changed the Arc of ‘Great Comet’

More than just a nice showcase for Josh Groban, ‘Dust and Ashes’ makes the non-linearity of mental illness dramatically compelling.

Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 opened on Broadway last November with singer Josh Groban in one of the title roles. It was an unexpected artistic marriage: Recording artists looking to make Broadway their debuts don’t generally turn to bizarre new electropop operas that began life in tiny but formidable new work venues like Ars Nova. Early press announced that “sections of the score will be expanded for Mr. Groban … and that a new song, ‘Dust and Ashes,’ has been written for his character.” There were strong implications that the changes were being made to accommodate Groban and his star power.

It turns out, however, that the alterations composer/lyricist/librettist Dave Malloy made to the role of Pierre, which he originated at Ars Nova (and which he’ll reenter for some Broadway dates in May and June), are much more substantial than simply dropping in an aria to placate a celebrity. While “Dust and Ashes” was written for Groban in the sense that its range and style were tailored to suit him, the song itself plays a key role in changing Pierre’s arc in the show—and in doing so, creating a character that offers an unusually realistic dramatization of depression.

Dramatists through history have been fascinated with depicting the thing we now would call depression onstage. A particularly prominent example would be Shakespeare’s famously melancholic Prince of Denmark. But while we all acknowledge Hamlet’s sadness, it’s rare to see his much-derided indecision and oft-recited suicidal impulses discussed as originating in his melancholy. “Because he’s sad” is not generally considered a very compelling motivation, nor is it one that tends to come to a satisfactory denouement. That’s probably why dramatic depictions of mental illness often end either in catastrophic tragedy (think A Long Day’s Journey Into Night or ‘night, Mother), or with a faintly artificial sense that everything has somehow been fixed over the course of the story (to a certain extent Proof, or the recent Oregon Trail). But with his revised Pierre, Malloy has filled in a more complex narrative surrounding Pierre’s depression, one with room not only for despair but for optimism as well.

Pierre begins the play lamenting that “for no obvious reason…I can’t go on/Living as I am.” Already such aimless despair is treading on unsteady ground for Aristotelian drama: One expects the “real” reason to be revealed over the course of the show, some hidden sadness to be unburied. But Malloy resists this easy psychology. Pierre’s next major appearance comes near the middle of the act, during which he gets drunk with his brother-in-law, then challenges his wife’s lover to a duel. In the Off-Broadway productions, this was his final appearance of the act; now, the sequence concludes with the song “Dust and Ashes.”

The song is, by all appearances, a turning point for Pierre. He goes from insisting that “Life and love/I don’t deserve…I’ve had my time/Close my eyes/Let the death bells chime” to a realization centered around the song’s title lyrics:

They say we are asleep
Until we fall in love
We are children of dust and ashes
But when we are in love we wake up
And we are a god
And angels weep
But if I die here tonight
I die in my sleep

They say we are asleep
Until we fall in love
And I’m so ready
To wake up now

With a shift into an urgent and almost triumphant key, this seems to be the moment in which Pierre changes his life, just in time to take his place in the events of the second act.

But that’s not what we find at the top of Act Two. Instead, the act opens with Pierre writing to his friend Andrey, off at war. He assures Andrey that his opposite in the duel, whom he wounded, “will be all right, the good man/It should have been me.” And what has he been up to? “Here at home I drink and read/And drink and read/And drink/And I fill my mind with rot/While my heart is empty.”

Despite his triumphant reversal in the first act, then, he is not far from where he started. Even the structure of his appearances echoes the first act: He recedes, then emerges to participate in his brother-in-law Anatole’s amoral hedonism, admiring Anatole’s ability to go recklessly after the things he wants. A collision with this world of selfish young men once again forces him to a personal reckoning, this time culminating in the moment of strange and sublime hope with which the play ends.

Malloy earns his ending through the same structural choices that allow Pierre’s to be a story of depression—or something that looks and sounds a lot like it—as well as a story that is authentic, hopeful, and dramatically compelling. Whereas before Pierre moved in one direction, from dissipation to hope, over the course of the show, the epiphany of “Dust and Ashes” shows us that Pierre’s emotional journey is not so linear. Though the musical ends in a burst of light and transcendence, the audience has seen Pierre on the cusp of hope and change before, then regress; we know the glow of the ending may not be lasting. But oddly, the ambivalence of the moment does not make it less emotionally satisfying, either for the audience or for Pierre the character. Its possible impermanence does not lessen its impact.

Pierre’s circular emotional narrative is able to live within the musical’s fairly traditional structure in part because he is not the story’s driving force. Rather than alternating focus between the title characters, Natasha’s story serves as the play’s narrative backbone, while Pierre appears only intermittently, his songs popping out as snapshots of a very gradual journey rather than a full narrative in itself. Natasha’s story provides the forward momentum, so Pierre’s doesn’t need to. He can take one step forward and two steps back, or just sit and stew for a bit (as he often does, seated in the onstage orchestra pit silently while other scenes are happening) without bringing the pace of the piece as a whole to a halt.

But Great Comet is not just a play—it’s a musical, a form so well suited to expressing ordinarily inexpressible emotional states. One of Malloy’s many skills is his ability (with some help from Tolstoy) to explode a single thought or momentary, wordless feeling out into an entire song with its own dramatic tension and arc. In the case of Pierre’s sadness, this allows Malloy to give a sense of narrative to something that, from the character’s perspective, feels unrelenting and unchanging.

Mental illness does not come with a shape that fits easily into Aristotelian narrative conventions. Crisis and resolution are the linchpins of our most familiar theatrical dramaturgy, but by applying them to narratives of mental illness we have created a body of work that is either unrelentingly bleak or perfectly hopeful, with very little in between—particularly on Broadway, where less traditional narrative structures that can better accommodate these contradictions do not tend to appear. While an argument can be (and has been) made that commercial theatre will never be able to accommodate narratives outside the norm, and that writers who are interested in boundary-pushing and radical inclusivity in terms of content shouldn’t even try, the counter-argument is equally interesting: that finding creative ways to tuck non-normative stories into traditional, commercially successful forms is powerful and important precisely because of a Broadway show’s mainstream reach.

The case of “Dust and Ashes” falls right in the center of Broadway’s increasingly confusing Venn diagram of art and commerce. Despite the implications of the pre-opening press that artistic integrity was being compromised in favor of star-chasing Brodway commerce, a lazy star vehicle was not the result. The casting of a ticket-selling music star seems to have led to the creation of a song that reshaped a subplot into an unusually nonlinear depiction of depression, allowing an untraditional narrative to fit into a fairly traditionally structured Broadway musical.

Score another point for resisting the easy narrative.

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