The Great Comet Composer Dave Malloy’s 10 Favorite Theatergoing Experiences

Favorite Things   The Great Comet Composer Dave Malloy’s 10 Favorite Theatergoing Experiences Malloy shares the story of the six-hour, immersive, overnight theatrical experience that changed his world—plus two legendary Broadway dames who left him in awe.
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Dave Malloy received three 2017 Tony nominations—Best Original Score, Best Book of a Musical, and Best Orchestrations—for his work on the award-winning new musical Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812. Malloy, who created the role of Pierre in the Off-Broadway production of The Great Comet and played stints in the current Broadway run at the Imperial Theatre, is also the author of Ghost Quartet, Preludes, and Three Pianos. Here, the composer-writer-performer details the performances that most affected him as part of the audience. (Editor's Note: Malloy's Favorite Things were submitted in late June for an early August run.)

Les Miserables, Playhouse Square's Ohio Theater, Cleveland, Ohio, circa 1986

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Les Misérables Michael Le Power Trench

This was the first Broadway touring show I ever saw...I was blown away by it, by how cool and rocking the music was, by the barricade, and especially by Javert’s suicide...I remember seeing the bridge fly up into the rafters as Javert stood still, arms outstretched as he “fell” to his death, and being so awed and entranced by that simple bit of stagecraft.

Laurie Anderson’s Strange Angels tour, 1989

Laurie Anderson’s <i>Strange Angels</i>
Laurie Anderson’s Strange Angels

Another formative show, while not a theatre piece per se: Anderson’s hybrid of performance art/music/theatre expanded my understanding of how music and theatre could work. There was also a video loop of some sneakers running in slow motion that I remember being mesmerized by.

The Gods Are Pounding My Head! (aka Lumberjack Messiah) by Richard Foreman, Ontological-Hysteric Theater, NYC, 2005

Jay Smith, T. Ryder Smith, and Charlotta Mohlin in <i data-rte2-sanitize="italic">The Gods are Pounding My Head!</i>
Jay Smith, T. Ryder Smith, and Charlotta Mohlin in The Gods are Pounding My Head! Tom Brazi

The first piece of theatre I ever saw in NYC, I feel like my mind never actually recovered from the insane melting this piece inflicted on it. Foreman’s beautifully non-narrative surrealism, and his complete auteur’s vision of text, sound, and design, have really stuck with me; because of pieces like this, I am always thinking about the entire, holistic theatrical experience. And his use of experimental sound and music have been a huge influence on my own sonic palette.

Patti LuPone in Gypsy, 2008

Patti LuPone in <i>Gypsy</i>
Patti LuPone in Gypsy Joan Marcus

Incredible. I’ll never forget her insane performance of “Rose’s Turn,” particularly the way she fed off of and demanded more applause of the audience at the end, in an incredible moment of performer/character blurriness; she was simultaneously Rose and Patti. The audience and I gladly obliged, clapping and screaming for what felt like an eternity. Legend.

In the Heights, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s last show, 2009

Lin-Manuel Miranda and company in In The Heights.
Lin-Manuel Miranda and company in In The Heights. Joan Marcus

Somehow when I saw this show, it was Lin’s last performance; it was total coincidence, we had no idea, just wanted to see the show and bought the tickets from a scalper on the street. It was amazing, the energy in the room was electric, and the music was just so different from what I understood Broadway to be at that time. And the blackout moment was so boss (again, I’m a sucker for simple stagecraft!).

Fela!, 2010

Sahr Ngaujah and Saycon Sengbloh in <i>Fela!</i>
Sahr Ngaujah and Saycon Sengbloh in Fela! Monique Carboni

Still the best music, in terms of style, groove, authenticity, and sound design, that I’ve ever heard in a Broadway theatre. This show had its flaws, but I was so deeply moved (literally) by the badass sound of the Antibales Afrobeat Orchestra, playing actual loud, fierce, and grooving Afrobeat music on a Broadway stage—as opposed to a watered-down version by non-Afrobeat musicians at low volume it so easily could have been—that I just didn’t care. (Though I do kind of wish the lead had done his own sax playing!)

Hotel Medea, Edinburgh Fringe, 2011

<i>Hotel Medea</i>
Hotel Medea Ludovic des Cognets

Maybe my favorite theatergoing experience of all time. This piece, by the Brazilian/British ensemble ZU-UK, began with a raging dance party at midnight; an hour into the incredibly fun and sweaty dancing, Jason and the Argonauts arrived (the Argonauts, topless women with machine guns and motorcycle helmets), and began courting Medea. An hour later the audience bathed Jason and Medea, the men and women separating and washing their nude bodies while singing an impossible ritual chant; later in the night, we became their children, lying in bed drinking hot cocoa while we heard our parents fighting in the next room. The show ended six hours later, with the audience separated into small groups, me and three others sitting in a doorway of the old veterinary hospital the show was staged in, waiting for a nude shaman to come back and bring us to the funeral. Then we all ate breakfast, exhausted, as the sun came up. An extraordinary piece of immersive theatre.

Bernadette Peters in Follies, 2012

Bernadette Peters in <i>Follies</i>
Bernadette Peters in Follies Joan Marcus

Her performance of “Losing My Mind,” long one of my favorite Sondheim songs, shook me to the core. I had never heard anyone perform it so literally before, where her breakdown while singing the song actually made me want to rush up and hug her and hold her and tell her it would all be okay. Heart-breaking.

The Lion King, 2015

<i>The Lion King</i>
The Lion King Joan Marcus

I had never seen this show until a couple years ago, and I found it just glorious. The vision that Julie Taymor brought to the show’s direction and design, making something brand new and dazzling out of beloved source material while still staying true to the original film, stand out to me as a perfect example of how film adaptations can work. Too often movie musicals feel too beholden to the original, not allowing artists to run wild and make something new and their own. Also, the integrity of the show’s presentation of African culture, in its casting, music, and design, feels like an excellent model of how American theatre can respectfully and beautifully collaborate with other cultural traditions.

All of Broadway, 2017

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Because of Comet (and having Tony-voting friends!), I saw more Broadway theatre this year than ever in my life. It was such a ridiculously great season, with so many moments of jaw-dropping artistry...but some highlights for me included: Jake Gyllenhaal, Annaleigh Ashford, and the Chromolume in Sunday in the Park with George; Sara Bareilles killing it in Waitress; Ben Platt in Dear Evan Hansen; Barrett Doss in Groundhog Day; the whole damn ensemble and experiment in storytelling of Come From Away; the incredible orchestrations, onstage band, and "Nobody" from Bandstand; every aspect of A Doll's House, Part 2, from the writing, design, direction, and performances, particularly Laurie Metcalf’s astounding non-verbal flailings and Condola Rashad’s tone-perfect otherworldliness; and the beautifully ethereal rain scene in Indecent.

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