Charmed: Tolstoy edition

Last week I celebrated my birthday by finishing one of my 2016 books (The Warrior’s Life – take that, New Year’s Resolution!) and seeing a couple of shows in New York.

Hamilton was amazing, of course. I was online at the right time eight months ago when Ticketmaster released a block of tickets previously held by scalpers, and I somehow got a single ticket before other bots could buy it. The social commentary of the multiracial cast seemed to have special meaning the evening of the Inauguration.

The next night, a friend and I celebrated our shared birthday week with Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812, a folk/electropop musical adaptation of War and Peace‘s Volume 2, Part 5. This was the show that introduced Phillipa Soo to the creative team of Hamilton.

Before listening to the cast album, all I knew of War and Peace was that it was recommended reading for the French Revolution class I took in college, and that there was a miniseries adaptation in 2016 starring Lily James as Natasha.

I watched the first episode and bought the series on DVD because it was so beautiful, but all I remembered was that Pierre was the awkward illegitimate child of a wealthy man and that Natasha got “engaged” by kissing a guy in a garden.

In The Great Comet, Pierre is going through an existential crisis that requires two big epiphanies in one show, while (engaged) Natasha falls in love with the “hot” Anatole.*

Listening to the cast album was one thing, but nothing compares to sitting in the back row in the rear mezzanine and watching the clarinet player dance five feet away in the aisle. Nothing compares to eating pierogies in a theatre filled with chandeliers and anachronistic Soviet posters. Out of all the musicals I have seen in a theatre, The Great Comet was definitely the most immersive, magical experience.

“No One Else,” the song written after Phillipa Soo’s favorite passages about Natasha’s innocence, has been my favorite since I first heard it. The cast recording and Youtube video of her Barnes and Noble performance have been on a loop in my car and on my computer. Pippa’s voice made me love the show, but Denée Benton’s performance reminded me of the sweetness, innocence, and pain of adolescence.

Innocent Natasha, too good for this world and too pure, meets an unbelievably attractive man who kisses her then professes his love. Her confused logic, “We kissed, therefore I must love him,” and, “I have his love letters, therefore I must love him,” makes absolutely no sense, but I remember what it was to be a teenager. She’s young and easily caught up in the moment. He loves her, so she loves him. They’re going to run away to Poland and live happily ever after. It’s the perfect love story.

Then reality catches up with them and they have to face the consequences of their 19th century Russian letters.

Judging by the Wikipedia plot summary, darling Natasha has some of the biggest character development in War and Peace. She should, considering that she ages 15 years in the 1000+ page novel. She goes from being the girl who kisses a boy as a way to get “engaged” to becoming a responsible adult/wife/mother. She grows up. She is the reason why Tolstoy has moved back to the top of my To Read list.

According to my friend’s boyfriend, Pierre has a new epiphany every 25 pages, so unless he’s singing about falling in love like Josh Groban, I assume his existential crisis is going to get old very quickly. To be fair, however, his epiphanies are good song material.

And a performance of his last epiphany and the title song.

I don’t know if War and Peace will end with a great epiphany. Anna Karenina, the other Tolstoy novel that I have read, did end with an epiphany. Levin has his big religious conversion, then resolves to keep it secret from his wife because, “It is a secret, necessary and important for me alone, and inexpressible in words.”

I almost hope that Pierre’s final epiphany is so awesome that he can’t bear to tell anyone. I don’t think I understand now why he lives so aimlessly, but I hope his existential crisis is worth all his worries.

Four books remain on my reading list. That means I only need to finish two or three more books before I can start a new 1000 page one.

I can do this.

*You might remember my annoyance with hot characters. I didn’t like Vronsky in Tolstoy’s other famous work either. Seriously, Natalie, if you’re leaving your fiancé for this guy, he should write his own love letters. And ring the doorbell. You need higher standards.


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