Most people look at theater and wouldn’t expect that a show to have influence from video games, let alone a show that bases itself on a Russian literary classic. Enter Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812, an electropop opera based on a 70-page sliver of Leo Tolstoy’s behemoth of a novel War and Peace. The show, composed and orchestrated by Tony Award-nominee Dave Malloy, ranges in styles from Broadway-style ballads to pulsing electronic dance music and almost everything in between.
However, what sets this show apart from the rest is how video games and pop culture made an impact on the show’s writing. In the days leading up to the launch of the Broadway cast recording of Great Comet, Malloy began to share a series of playlists consisting of songs that inspired every piece in Great Comet’s score. Classics like Fiddler on the Roof and Company are present, but so is the title theme to the animated X-Men, the Metroid NES theme, and a several pieces of music from Ocarina of Time. This isn’t merely coincidental either; one of his more recent shows, Ghost Quartet, explicitly mentions The Legend of Zelda as an influence alongside Castlevania, Fables, The Twilight Zone, and 2001: A Space Odyssey.
I was interested in learning more, so I sat down with Dave about how video games like The Legend of Zelda influenced his Tony-nominated work.
Video games as a lasting impression
Malloy’s video game influence started early. “I had an Atari — that’s how I first got into video games. But the very first Zelda game I played was the NES. I was so hooked on it. My parents had to drag me away from the machine on more than one occasion. [The] Adventure of Link… also blew me away and both had a profound impact on me as an artist and creator. I just thought there was something so beautiful about those games.” In fact, Malloy waxed very deeply on his memories of playing Zelda II. “I loved it. I remember the caves were so annoying in the dark. They’re infuriating. [And] there were these statue guards, and they were very, very hard, and you had to use the underhand sword to really get them.”
“I was so hooked on Zelda. My parents had to drag me away from the machine on more than one occasion. I just thought there was something so beautiful about Zelda games.”
But as for how Zelda found its way from NES console into his score for Great Comet, Malloy said that it starts from a very fundamental place. He broke down Tolstoy’s work from seventy-page Word document into several sections that would eventually become the segments that he wrote songs for. From there, it became a question of analyzing the depths. “I really start from a place of character [when writing the songs for the show],” Malloy said. “So I’m always like ‘Who is this character? What is this character talking about? What kind of music is going to support that?’”
I pressed Malloy to elaborate on it, and he came up with a strange though fitting metaphor. “I guess for me there was something about Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark; there’s something about the tempo of both video games and those movies where you have these events, like when you go into a dungeon, it’s like, ‘Now we’re in a dungeon! Now this is a big event that’s going to have a climax with a boss. That’s exciting, and the boss is cool, that type of thrilling and emotional dramaturgical moment that happens.” So how does that fit into his work? Malloy continues, “So I feel like what my mind was constructing Great Comet, there just seemed to be set pieces like that. Like in, and this sounds so strange, I think of ‘The Opera’ as a dungeon. You enter the opera scene, and then you’re in this long, ten-minute sequence that goes to all these different places, and there’s riddles and puzzles.”
As for Zelda, well, it’s no doubt that his days of playing Zelda back on the NES all the way through the earlier years impacted him greatly. “I looked at parts of the show and thought, ‘Video games could work here.’ And for me, Zelda is the pinnacle of that. They are the greatest games I’ve ever played—[The Legend of Zelda and The Adventure of Link], Ocarina of Time, A Link to the Past, and Majora’s Mask.”
Malloy remains fascinated in so many ways by video game music, and he thinks that it’s definitely a platform on which really crazy and really interesting sorts of music can be played and reach an audience that might not normally be accessible to it. “I love video game music so much. And I think it can be so evocative and so weird and avant garde. I was a big World of Warcraft person for a long time too, and some of those specific [areas], one of the deserts, one of them had a really weird avant garde classical orchestra playing tone clusters, these really beautiful things.”
“I looked at the parts of the show and thought, ‘Video games could work here.’ and for me, Zelda is the pinnacle of that.”
Video games inspiring art
One of the biggest results of Malloy’s use of video games as inspiration inside is work comes within the final twenty minutes of the show. “Marya comes and calls Pierre out of his cave and basically gives Pierre a quest, and his quest is, ‘You gotta get rid of Anatole and make Natasha feel better.’ And then he goes through a series of ‘dungeons.’ The first dungeon is just finding the dungeon “Find Anatole.” And then it goes into “Pierre and Anatole,” and Anatole is the first boss. That’s the music that’s the most overtly video game-ish. There’s a lot of eight-bit noise going on.” And it fact, this is the point in the show where the NES Metroid theme was mentioned as an influence in Malloy’s Spotify playlist.
Continuing on, “Then Pierre beats that boss, but then the game takes a twist as Natasha attempts suicide. And then there’s another boss he didn’t even know, which is Andrey. So he’s gotta deal with that boss, and that that boss has a weird twist ending because he doesn’t really defeat it. And then Natasha’s the final boss, and to me ‘[The] Great Comet [of 1812]’ [the final musical number of the show] is the beautiful music that plays over the credits of a video game. The last boss is Natasha’s depression and suicide, and he beats it with an act of kindness, and so his reward is ‘The Great Comet.'”
But certainly Malloy used influence from games all over, sneaking them into the show. In the last few seconds of “The Abduction” in the show’s second act, there’s an eight-bit synthesizer sound effect that pays homage to the extra life sound from Atari’s Missile Command. And in reference to Zelda specifically, the horse-like sounds in the second act’s “Balaga” are inspired by Ocarina of Time‘s Gerudo Valley. He also mentioned that the music from Lon Lon Ranch managed to find its way into his work as well.
Moving forward, Dave also told us about his next work-in-progress — a four-act, five-hour long durational adaptation of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. If you’re thinking that sounds a little long, don’t worry. Malloy isn’t cruel. “The audience will have dinner together, and the audience will be the crew of the ship. [Moby Dick] is this mammoth novel, and we are trying to respect the form of the novel, which is not just a story, but it famously goes on these long diversions and tangents about whaling. One chapter’s like an encyclopedia entry. So we’re trying to embrace that, and do all the weird whaling stuff.”
In the last few seconds of “The abduction,” there’s an eight-bit sound effect that pays homage to Missile Command.
But despite this, this doesn’t mean he’s against the idea of composing a video game. It’s definitely something he’d consider given the right circumstances.
Some rapid fire Q&A
I ended our interview with a handful of rapid fire questions:
- First game played: Space Invaders
- First console purchased: Atarti 7800 — “All my friends were buying Nintendos, but I had all these old Atari games, so I’m going to buy the 7800. And then a month later, I’m like, ‘Mom, I want a Nintendo.'”
- Favorite console: The original NES
- Favorite video games: Ocarina of Time, The Legend of Zelda, and World of Warcraft
- Least favorite video game: The Final Fantasy franchise — “I can’t call it my least favorite game, but it puzzles me because I know it’s so profoundly loved by so many people. I have the PS4 one [Final Fantasy XV], and it hasn’t grabbed me.” I recommended he try Final Fantasy VII.
- Favorite video game musical score: Ocarina of Time
- Most recent console: PS4 as of when I interviewed him, but he apparently purchased a Switch two days later.
- Most recent game played: Hearthstone (“on my phone about 30 minutes ago”)
- His go-to video game: Hearthstone — “World of Warcraft I was deeply, deeply obsessed with for a while. And it go to a point where I had to quit for my own mental well-being. I find Hearthstone to be such a nice, little taste of World of Warcraft, and the games are really short. It’s a nice, little thing to dabble in.”
- If given the chance to make a musical adaptation of any video game: Metroid — “I feel like there’s something that sci-fi world and how dark it is. And the score too. It’s just scary, and it feels really desolate. And I think it’s really beautiful. And I feel like it could be incredible. Sci-fi musicals haven’t really done so well in the past, but I feel like it’s an untapped territory.”
Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 played its final performance on September 3rd, 2017. The show’s cast recording is available on iTunes and Spotify.