Tolstoy Goes Electropop: Dave Malloy Gets Great Comet-y Out of War and Peace

Take his show with a shot of vodka

Mr. Malloy (far right) with Amelia Workman and Phillipa Soo.

Mr. Malloy (far right) with Amelia Workman and Phillipa Soo.

“If you build it—and give them vodka—they will come.”

That appears to be the game plan behind the May 1 grand opening of Kazino, a new theatrical venue at West 13th and Washington Streets in the Meatpacking District. The place comes with a ready-made show—an electropop opera by Dave Malloy, based on “a 70-page sliver” of War and Peace, called Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812—and a design to meet the specific needs of that play.

It’s the same set Mr. Malloy had when the show appeared last fall at the Ars Nova theater in Hell’s Kitchen—the same banquettes and table seating and wraparound bars—but it’s double the size. “It’s a bit more lush and ritzier than what we had before,” Mr. Malloy told The Observer.

Kazino is Russian for casino, but Mr. Malloy hastened to point out, “we don’t actually have any gambling in our show, just lots of vodka.” As at Ars Nova, there are glasses of vodka at every table—and, with Pippin producers Howard and Janet Kagan and Randy Weiner in charge of the transfer, it will likely be of a better grade than the hooch from an Austin, Texas, distillery served before. Indeed, this new club will have a full authentic Russian menu and bar, and the price of a ticket includes dinner and the show. From May 1 to September 1 at Kazino, it will be “Tolstoy Tonight!”

Mr. Malloy, who wrote the libretto, music and lyrics and plays Pierre, traces the show’s beginnings back six years to when he was working on a cruise ship, playing piano. To stay connected while he was at sea, he and his girlfriend, who was on land, read War and Peace together. “We’d be emailing back and forth—things like ‘I’m on page 320. Did you read this part?’ When both of us got to this particular section of the book, we were just completely swept away by it. We could see this poor girl, Natasha, completely ruin herself in the course of a day—and it’s told in parallel with the story of the novel’s other main character, Pierre, who is going through a pretty huge existential crisis of his own.”

The intersection of their stories, to Mr. Malloy, is “the most beautiful, transcendent scene. When Pierre leaves that meeting, that’s when he sees the comet.”

That happens about midway through Tolstoy’s saga, and it takes Mr. Malloy two hours and 10 minutes of through-sung drama to get there.

“In this particular passage, you just see so many characters going through this enormous upheaval in their emotional and spiritual lives. Tolstoy had a very particular style of writing, which is actually something we maintained in the show.”

To maintain that style, the libretto is, wherever possible, word-for-word from the book.

Mr. Malloy didn’t hear melodies in his head at first reading, but said he “sensed that it was inherently the perfect structure for a musical. In a lot of ways, it’s like the traditional structure of a 1950s musical: there’s an A love story and a B love story, and at the end of Act One, everyone’s in jeopardy.”

There are 27 songs in all and no dialogue, so they’re sung through all the way. The music in the production is eclectic, and a particular style of song doesn’t necessarily attach itself to a particular character. “It’s not as calculated as that,” said Mr. Malloy. There’s one exception, however. Whenever Anatole, the young man who seduces Natasha, enters the room, he does so to electronica, bringing a modern touch to a score that is on the whole more traditional and classical. “There are really strong classical and Russian folk elements throughout, but, when Anatole enters, there’s an electronic strain that infects the show and that continues until he leaves.”

As a composer, Mr. Malloy said, he tends to resist genre labels. “I just think of these as songs that borrow from several styles. Some of the songs are in a more traditional pop structure and some are a little more operatic in nature, in that they’re telling dialogue, but even that line gets blurry. There are moments of dialogue that burst into a very melodic chorus. It goes back and forth. There are four or five song—songs that have a very clear beginning and end. They can be taken and sung in a concert.”

Most of the 16-member cast who played the sold-out, six-week gig at Ars Nova will be reprising their roles downtown. In addition to Mr. Malloy’s Pierre, there are Lucas Steele’s sensual Anatole, Amber Gray’s comedic Helene and Phillipa Soo’s tragic Natasha. In her New York debut fresh out of Juilliard, Ms. Soo got nominated for a Drama League Distinguished Performance Award for her work in the show. The musical earned Mr. Malloy the 2013 Richard Rodgers Award for Musical Theater.

He isn’t above outfitting his show with his close musical friends. He’s known Brittain Ashford, who has the “Sonya Alone” song at the beginning of Act Two, for around five years. “That particular song was actually written for her,” he said, “because I know her voice so well.”

Mr. Malloy studied music composition in college. He backed into theater in San Francisco 13 years ago. “I was playing in some bands and working at a record store. One of my co-workers there called me up and said, ‘Hey, I hear you play keyboard. I’m doing a play and need a keyboard player. Do you want to be in this?’ I went, ‘Sure, sounds like fun.’ It was, and I met more people who wanted me to do their shows.”

Gradually, he worked his way up to writing. “First I was playing piano, then I was music-directing, then I was sound-designing, then I was composing. In just about four or five years, I was writing full-scale musicals.”

The sandy-headed 37-year-old has written seven full-length musicals to date, among them Three Pianos, a drunken romp through Schubert’s “Winterreise,” which premiered at the Ontological-Hysteric Theater at St. Marks Church in 2010 and later had sold-out runs at New York Theater Workshop and American Repertory Theater in Cambridge.

Three Pianos was based on a song cycle about a man who gets his heart broken and just goes wandering in a winter wasteland for 24 songs. We sang our way through that song cycle while enacting Schubert and his friends and throwing a Schubertiade at these parties that Schubert used to throw, so we served red wine to the audience.”

Vis-à-vis that vodka at Kazino, it may be that a Malloy song just goes better with booze. “I’m a big fan of that,” he said. A previous show of his, Beowulf, went from the Shotgun, a theater in Berkeley, Calif., to the Abrons Arts Center in New York, but in touring the show, he found that the rock club setting, in which people had beers in hand and were “hooting and hollering,” just worked better. “There’s an old quote from Bertolt Brecht, who said, ‘Theater without beer is a museum,’ which I strongly believe in. When you go to the theater, you should have a festive, joyful time, and I feel alcohol can open that up.”

As for War and Peace, there may yet be a sequel, if Mr. Malloy’s conversations with his director, Rachel Chavkin, go from levity to reality. “We have jokes about how we’ll make this our lives’ work and we’ll just keep doing little pieces of it until we have a 40-hour epic,” he said. “This is very much a Peace section of the book. If we did another section, it would definitely be a War section. We’ve thought about doing it out on Governor’s Island—y’know, we would do a big outdoor show of the battle with a 40-piece brass orchestra and cannons and everything.” Tolstoy Goes Electropop: Dave Malloy Gets Great Comet-y Out of <em>War and Peace</em>