Bits and Pieces
Let me take a moment to say how excited I am for the return of the musical Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 this season, this time pitching their tent closer to Times Square in the empty lot by 45th and 8th Ave. The thing about this show I find incredibly thoughtful is that it is based on a section of Leo Tolstoy’s infamous War and Peace, rather than the entirety of the novel. The musical takes its inspiration from Book 8, specifically, and focuses on the affair between Natasha and Anatole. This concept is pure ingenuity. Trying to cram 1,400 pages worth of wonderfully epic storytelling into a two-and-a-half- to three-hour-long stage work is a daunting and often incredibly unsuccessful task. With such a wide scope, I find that I often miss out on some wonderful character and relationship moments that exist within the story that make the story worth telling on stage in the first place. It’s also something that Ricky Ian Gordon & Richard Nelson explored in My Life with Albertine in 2003, adapting part of “Within a Budding Grove,” Volume II of Marcel Proust’s mammoth In Search of Lost Time.
As a writer and audience member with attention problems, I can really appreciate focus in a piece.
This got me thinking of other fabulous stories that could be told in this way. Epic pieces that would thrive in musicalization, but not necessarily in their entirety.
Here are three:
BOIL IT DOWN: 3 Epic Stories You Could Tell Bits and Pieces of on Stage
(Note: None of these are in the public domain.)
I’ll start with a novel I’ve just finished reading, Robert McCammon’s Swan Song. This work is enormous, and parts of it would be wonderful on stage.
Setting: Post-Apocalyptic North America.
Characters: A lot. Okay, we’ll just focus on Swan (a young woman with the mysterious power over plant life), and the Man with the Scarlet Eye (essentially, Satan.) Swan has many friends and protectors as well, so we’ll go ahead and give her Josh and Sister (an ex-wrestler, and a former bag lady, respectively).
Parts Worth Musicalizing: There is a beautiful moment that follows Swan as she resurrects an old charred apple tree in the nuclear wasteland. Months later, she offers an apple from the tree to the Man with the Scarlet Eye, who has come to destroy her. The complex reaction of Satan in that moment is something that would be theatrically spectacular. The give and take between The Man with the Scarlet Eye and Swan is fascinating. It could even function as a duet piece.
Jeffery Eugenides’ Middlesex. This one is also incredibly large, telling the story of Greek immigration to America, the development of the United States as a country from an alternative point of view, all from one of the most fascinating narrators ever, who tracks the passage of a single gene mutation through their family’s history.
Setting: Greece, and Detroit
Characters: Cal, our wonderful narrator, and his grandparents.
Parts Worth Musicalizing: This is one I could easily see many parts of developed on stage, but I find one story particularly touching. The early incestuous relationship between Cal’s grandparents, a marriage greatly affected by the move to the United States is a beautiful story on its own. There is so much to explore on stage between those two characters without even having to step into the next generation of Cal’s family. It could be a spectacular ninety-minute piece on its own.
Doctor Who. Yes. I went there. Doctor Who is a spectacular British Television series, full of great characters, relationships, and incredibly complex situations between them. This is the stuff of musical theatre!
Setting: Everywhere. All the time. Okay. Well, this particular story takes place just outside the edge of the universe.
Characters: The Doctor and the TARDIS (The Doctor’s incredible vessel, Time And Relative Dimension In Space, which, though a machine, has a soul at its heart, and is an essential part of the Doctor).
Parts Worth Musicalizing: The soul is extracted from the TARDIS and implanted into the body of a woman, and for the first time, the Doctor interacts with his most cherished companion. This is a crazy and touching story, and if done in a careful way, could make for some incredible storytelling on stage. The relationship is complex enough between the two of them to sustain attention for 90 minutes or more, and it could provide fabulous insight into how a person reacts when someone they are closest to has a chance to really speak for the first time.
There are so many huge works out there that deserve some form of staging but don’t necessarily need the whole kit and caboodle in order to achieve what you want to. Theatre is so wonderful and intense in intimate settings. Great art feeds off of other great art. Take inspiration from things you wouldn’t normally look at. Take huge sweeping works, look at the relationships within them, and stick a magnifying glass up to them. Really see and expose the audience to those moments up close. That is theatre gold.
(Something worth noting: Another way to take on these huge works is to present them over multiple nights, a la Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, or Tom Stoppard’s Coast of Utopia. I would have loved to have seen Michael John LaChiusa and Sybille Pearson’s early five hour version of Giant, an adaptation of Edna Ferber’s enormous novel. That kind of length of time grants the storyteller a bit more leniency. In many cases, of course, this kind of length is simply not practical. The two-and-a-half hour, and now even ninety-minute musical, is about how long an audience, or a producer, is willing to give us.)