Last week, during my kids’ midwinter recess, I finally caught up to Broadway’s most acclaimed new musicals, Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 and Dear Evan Hansen. Seeing the two shows back-to-back, with one daughter each as company, proved quite a crazy ride. I’m still sorting it out.
I caught The Great Comet first with Sara, my 11-year-old. Lea and I then hit Dear Evan Hansen the following day. Lea, who is 14, desperately wanted in on Dear Evan Hansen, a musical about high school misfits, suicide, cyber space and redemption. Who could blame her?
Where Dear Evan Hansen is an original tale about an endearing teen loser who finds love, acceptance and internet celebrity spreading a snowball of lies about his imaginary friendship with another teen misfit who has committed suicide (and the consequences thereafter), Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 is derived from a fragment of Tolstoy’s War and Peace (Volume 2, Part 5) in which young (read: virginal) Natasha is seduced by young (but actually married) Anatole, while older Pierre observes from afar and moons for meaning in his life.
Two very different shows, I grant you. Yet, early on at Evan Hansen, it hit me that both in fact revolve around “fake news.” In each, lies are told and lives are nearly destroyed by duplicitous private epistles made public. Whether handwritten, emailed or online posted, the damage done is immense. The Great Comet and Evan Hansen positively (and negatively) revel in this.
The music with which they revel is also intriguingly convoluted. Though set redolently in the past, The Great Comet grounds its sound in the future (present tense), which more than occasionally cracks open the show’s period sonic shell to let the rave in. Russian folk music and romantic classical strains alternate in composer Dave Malloy’s schizophrenic score with indie rock flailings and electronica dance flourishes. The result is head spinning.
Dear Evan Hansen, on the othe hand, while set in the here and now, looks back musically to a flavor of pop rock that really feels more contemporary for adults than for kids. Think Joni MItchell by way of Rent. This music, by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, is as unobjectionable, really, as Evan Hansen’s behavior is fundamentally objectionable. The result, for me, was more cognitive musical dissonance, without the actual noise.
I’m not complaining. I like to be kept off-balance in the theater. Both scores are damned catchy. I found it difficult, though, to differentiate one song from another, particularly in Dear Evan Hansen. Fortunately, Pasek and Paul’s lyrics are so well-crafted and deeply felt they elevate every undifferentiated note with penetrating clarity, providing specificity that the music often lacks. Oddly, this gave the show a sung-through quality (to me), despite plenty of spoken dialogue. The Great Comet, on the other hand, is, in fact, sung-through, which always casts an extra load on the lyrics. Malloy’s words (by way of Tolstoy) bear that weight, if not altogether effortlessly then very nearly seamlessly.
Each show is ingeniously staged — The Great Comet, by director Rachel Chavkin, on an epic scale that immerses the Imperial Theatre from front-of-the-house to backstage wall; Evan Hansen, by Michael Greif, on a minimalist scale that manages to feel just as epic through the digital deployment of electronics and vast LED screens. The casts, too, in both shows, are smashingly talented, machine-tooled ensembles in service to lead characters who are socially inept and self-avowedly shy. Yet, Josh Groban as Pierre, and Ben Platt as Evan Hansen, deliver performances that are anything but shy. Titan is the word that comes to mind in describing the hefty Groban presence in The Great Comet (both vocally and physically). Titanic is the only word for what Ben Platt is doing as Evan Hansen, both vocally and emotively, in a performance of such raw emotional nakedness I, at times, had to look away.
Sara loved Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812, though we did share a few worried glances in the face of fleeting participatory raunch in the audience (including a cast member’s too-nearby lap dance), glances that silently asked: “Am I/Are You too young for this?” The romantic triumph of good over evil ultimately saved both Natasha & Pierre and Sara & Papa. Sara also loved the EDM (Electronic Dance Music).
Mere minutes into Dear Evan Hansen, Lea began to silently sob. With a bathroom break at intermission to wash her face, her tears did not taper until we were seated in a restaurant and staring at menus. It wasn’t the story itself that made her cry, Lea eventually explained to me. And that was all she said.
I understand. I think. The creators of Dear Evan Hansen have tapped into the essence of every teenager’s sense of facelessness and, thus, hopelessness. That is a hell of an accomplishment. To do so while singing, may or may not have made this easier, or harder, to pull off. I’m still trying to figure that out. What I do know is now, in the span of a year, Sara and Lea and I have witnessed three new musicals (including Hamilton) the likes of which I have never seen before. Something is stirring, shifting ground on Broadway. How delightful to share in that.