David, Sonya, and the Great Novel Adaptation of 2012

My column is Song Spotlights, but before I can focus on this particular number from David Malloy’s Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812, I need to share my feelings on adapting doorstopper novels, the looming legacy of Eponine, and naturally, War and Peace.

I read War and Peace in college, and I would (generously) wager that I really read 75% of it. I was more invested in the peace part than the war, so when I heard that Malloy’s show adapted one of the book’s more memorable domestic episodes, I was beyond thrilled.

Regrettably, I never saw the show while I was still in New York and now that chance is closed to me for good. But from listening to the cast recording, I can imagine what a joyful slice of War and Peace its audiences saw. And while it is just that—a slice—it captures the book’s spirit, and its story of ordinary people living day to day, and finding reasons to keep doing so. As adaptations go, it’s a pretty perfect one.

Unlike, say, this version with thin American Pierre (Henry Fonda) and handsome but dull Andrey (Mel Ferrer).

Unlike, say, this version with thin American Pierre (Henry Fonda) and handsome but dull Andrey (Mel Ferrer)

It’s so perfect that I wondered why this hyper-distillation hadn’t been applied to other notable musicals based on decade-spanning epics—Les Miserables and Showboat, to be specific. Also consider that many classic Golden Age musicals were expansions of short stories—Guys and Dolls and South Pacific come to mind.

Showboat, notorious mess that it is, could definitely have benefited from staying in one time frame and focusing on its most compelling aspects. There’s a reason the two things most people know from the show are “Ol’ Man River” and the miscegenation scene. Then again, Les Mis is praised for being closer to Victor Hugo’s book than countless film adaptations.

What it comes down to is classic Content Dictates Form. Leo Tolstoy and Hugo are both concerned with weighty philosophy and matters of life and death, but they have a completely different attitude about how to tell a story. Jean Valjean’s world is one somber and life-changing moral trial after the other. Pierre Bezukhov’s world is one realistic and gradual occurrence after the other, with humor and gravity throughout.

Not even the Thenadiers can cheer Valjean up

Not even the Thenardiers can cheer Valjean up

Tolstoy’s narrative is realistic to the point of feeling absolutely modern in its slice of life approach. And this is why, in 2012, the best way to musicalize War and Peace is to take one slice and throw electronic dance music and Regina Spektor-esque piano ballads at it.

To bring you up to speed with the plot: Natasha is engaged to Andrey, but while the wedding’s been postponed and Andrey is away, Natasha finds herself drawn to the seductive Anatole. She plans to break off her engagement and elope with Anatole, a foolish plan, considering that Anatole is the love-em-and-leave-em type. Sonya, Natasha’s “cousin and closest friend,” is determined to stop the affair, to save her friend and her family. Which brings me at last to “Sonya Alone.”

War and Peace, when you boil it down, is an all-purpose love story. Whether romantic, familial or patriotic, each character experiences some form of love. In the Great Comet, Sonya’s driving motivation is her love for Natasha and the Rostov family. This is pretty identical to Tolstoy’s version, but Malloy omits one crucial character from the book: Nikolai Rostov, Natasha’s brother and the object of Sonya’s eternal but ultimately unrequited affection.

Sonya (May Britt), Nikolai (Jeremy Brett) and Natasha (Audrey Hepburn) in the 1956 King Vidor film

Sonya (May Britt), Nikolai (Jeremy Brett) and Natasha (Audrey Hepburn) in the 1956 King Vidor film

When I first imagined Sonya’s character being adapted, I was expecting Eponine 2.0, given her self-sacrificing nature and status as a love martyr. I have nothing against Alain Boubil and Claude-Michel Schonberg’s Eponine; “On My Own” gave thirteen-year-old Maddie great comfort, and she’s a better role model than Hugo’s manipulative stalker. But I was so excited to see Malloy take the less conventional path, and write a beautiful, heart-wrenching unrequited friendship song for Sonya.

It is set up from the opening musical expression—a little rocking motion—that Sonya sees her friendship with Natasha as different than cousins, different than sisters; she is more a mother figure to the young impulsive Natasha, serving in Countess Rostova’s absence. This is Sonya’s lullaby for Natasha, a gentle rocking melody which will protect her.

And why is Sonya determined to protect Natasha? “Because I miss my friend.” Sonya and Natasha begin their story as close girlhood companions, but as they grow older, Natasha often treats Sonya with contempt. Sonya’s opposition to Anatole only increases Natasha’s cruel rejections. “You don’t know what love is,” she spits in a particularly nasty moment from the book, a comment that couldn’t be further from the truth.

Sonya (Brittain Ashford) comforts Natasha (Phillipa Soo) in Great Comet

Sonya (Brittain Ashford) comforts Natasha (Phillipa Soo) in Great Comet

This doesn’t dissuade Sonya. “I know you’ve forgotten me,” she admits. “I know you so well, my friend.” This impulsiveness and this cruelty are part of Natasha’s character. “I know you are capable of anything” has a distinct double meaning. Sonya also sings, “I remember this family, I remember their kindness,” implying said kindness is in the past.

But the memory of that kindness, and perhaps the hope that it will return, is enough to motivate Sonya. The gently rocking accompaniment represents her steady stream of courage; only for one moment do the chords go minor and anxious, as she asks “Is it all on me?” The vocal line is also pretty consistent throughout, only changing for the climactic “I remember this family” verse, highlighting how important the Rostovs are to Sonya.

Watch this video on YouTube.

Brittain Ashford performing “Sonya Alone”

On my first read of War and Peace, I found Sonya more pathetic than courageous. But courageous is exactly the word I would use to describe Malloy’s music for “Sonya Alone.”  Its plaintive deliberateness cuts straight to my heart. And lyrically, I was shocked to realize how much actually came straight from Tolstoy. This again demonstrates just how modern Tolstoy’s writing is, and also demonstrates music’s power to change a person’s sympathies. If that doesn’t make you want to run out and see what all the fuss is about Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812, then I don’t know what will.

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