Dave Malloy talks Tolstoy and new musical, 'Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812'

Dave Malloy, composer and co-star of the new Dave Malloy, composer and co-star of the new musical, "Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812." Photo Credit: Michael De Angelis

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In the Meatpacking District, under the popular High Line promenade, there's a tent where, inside, it's all red velvet and Russia. The leather banquettes are as sumptuous as the accented waitresses, the vodka flows, actors swirl around you (leaving props on your table, maybe sitting with you for a spell), and characters from Leo Tolstoy's "War and Peace" come to life. And sing.

It's "Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812," an immersive theatrical experience -- with drinks and dinner -- conceived, composed, written (with help from Tolstoy), and orchestrated by Dave Malloy. He originated the role of Pierre, a Russian aristocrat who (in a 70-page chunk of the novel) observes his friend's romance come unhinged. Malloy also played piano in the band. (He left the show last month.) So ... how do you say "workaholic!" in Russian?

The show, running at Kazino, a performance space, through Sept. 1 (visit kazinonyc.com for details), gained notoriety recently after audience members nearly came to fisticuffs. (It seems a woman wouldn't stop texting -- a nearby patron asked her to stop -- and when she didn't he threw her phone across the room. The show is participatory, but not that much.)

Malloy, an Obie Award winner, laughs at the incident now. He chatted with Newsday contributor Joseph V. Amodio before a recent performance.

Why "War and Peace"?

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I was playing piano on a cruise ship a few years ago, and my girlfriend was on land. We thought it would be fun to read a giant book together while I was away. And "War and Peace" is as giant as they get. We'd email and chat on the phone -- "Ohmigod, can you believe this part?" Or "I haven't gotten there yet, don't spoil it." It was fun.

And why no stage?

I wanted the audience to be immersed amid the actors. I went to Russia and to a few clubs, which were amazing. These ... caverns ... with live music, everyone drinking vodka, eating dumplings, singing along.

You've somehow created dinner theater that isn't tacky but ... cool.

A big part of it is keeping the dinner service separate from the show -- there are no waiters in the room during the actual performance. That helps. And educating the audience a bit.

I like how you say at the start: "Cellphones -- nyet. Texting -- nyet. Googling -- nyet."

The performers interact with the audience ...

and they'll shush you if necessary. We try to do that as discreetly as possible. Then, of course, there's the famous cellphone-throwing incident ... which is now urban legend.

How'd you become so musical?

I grew up in Cleveland. My dad played saxophone in college, but tragically had to sell his horn to make his way through college. In school, I sang, I played jazz piano, timpani in the wind ensemble, xylophone in the marching band.

What music did you listen to then?

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I grew up on The Beatles and Pink Floyd. In high school, I went through a jazz-snob phase, in college a classical-snob phase. Then I moved to San Francisco and started listening to electronica, indie rock, hip-hop. Now I listen to ... everything. Contemporary, indie rock, Björk, Radiohead -- and a band I'm really into right now called the Microphones.

So can you really tell me about all 156 episodes of "The Twilight Zone"? It says so on your website.

I could. Growing up, I was a big sci-fi and horror nerd. I read every Stephen King book. I think it informs my work now. I like things that are slightly heightened and surreal.

Maybe you'll bring us the first sci-fi musical.

I've thought of that. I tend to go after things in the public domain. So I don't have to deal with copyrights. But there isn't a lot of sci-fi in the public domain. Maybe Jules Verne.

What's next?

I'm actually working on seven projects.

Seven?

Yeah, it's a little absurd. I have a couple of commissions, and some pieces I'm self-producing with friends. I'm doing a show in December called "Black Wizard, Blue Wizard" -- which I'm writing with my girlfriend. She's a playwright. It's about a kind of mundane wizard. It'll be done in the East Village.

And I hear you're tackling a musical version of "Moby-Dick."

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That's just a dream project now. The Museum of Natural History has a big exhibit on whales, so I took a look yesterday for inspiration.

Have you read the novel?

In college. And I just did a reread -- I finished it two days ago.

So how does ol' "Moby" hold up?

When you read something as an assignment, it's a different experience than reading for pleasure. In school, I had to read so many pages by a certain date, so I was skimming at times. But now I really took my time. Read all the whaling chapters. It's a lot funnier than I remembered.

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