In the opening number of Dave Malloy’s thrilling Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812, each character is introduced with a one-word descriptor (young, good, hot, fierce) — until, that is, the dissatisfied, misanthropic Pierre, who’s just too complex to be pinned down to a single adjective.
Josh Groban embodies the character in the current Broadway production, now nominated for 12 Tonys (the most of any show this year), but Pierre was originally played off-Broadway by the show’s author, Dave Malloy — himself the recipient of three nominations for best book of a musical, original score and orchestrations. In the show’s second song, Pierre opens up in a self-titled song incorporating a cornucopia of sonic styles.
Here, Malloy — a musical polyglot who has created a Spotify playlist of inspirations for each Great Comet song — shares the story behind “Pierre” with Billboard.
When in the process of writing Great Comet did “Pierre” come about?
“Pierre” was actually the first complete song I wrote. And it was very much about taking the first chapter of this section of War and Peace [which inspired the show] and just mining it, and reducing it into something that seemed roughly like lyrics. It’s this incredible chapter which is all about where Pierre’s head is — how he’s so unhappy and disillusioned with life, and ill at ease in his body and in the world. There are all these incredible images in that chapter.
“Pierre” traverses a lot of styles in the scope of one song. There’s quite a contrast from Pierre’s soul-searching solo to the jolly chorus.
I knew early on that song should be a solo for Pierre, but that the chorus was a big part of it. Pierre has inherited all this money and a lot of his angst comes from the way he interacts with society, and the way society perceives him. I think I actually wrote the chorus for the song first. The chorus comes in with the line, “Oh, Pierre, our merry feasting crank,” entertaining this image about how he’s at once super extroverted and always spending money, and buying rounds of drinks for people, but no one really likes him because he’s just a mess.
All through this period I was listening to tons of Russian folk music and Russian classical music and Russian rock music, so the chord changes came from those worlds. It’s all in E minor.
What were your inspirations for the Pierre part of “Pierre”?
The other big influence was ‘90s and 2000s indie rock and emo rock because Pierre is so emo, he’s so inside his head. Arcade Fire was a huge launching pad; so were Neutral Milk Hotel, Modest Mouse and Radiohead. I was trying to capture that scale and the epicness of their songs. I feel like Elliott Smith was such a modern-day Pierre — like that level of dis-ease in society. And then some [influences] are more about the piano and chord changes; some have a little bit of [The Beatles’] “Sexy Sadie” kind of motion to them.
David Bowie and Pink Floyd are also on your playlist for the song.
Some older songs too [were inspirations], like [The Platters’] “The Great Pretender”; that’s lyrically who Pierre is. And [Smokey Robinson and the Miracles’] “Tears of a Clown” — that was very much an image of Pierre, this sad clown character who acts very funny but deep inside is just a mess.
Another influence is definitely Billy Joel. Josh and I saw him a couple of months ago at Madison Square Garden and he was amazing. In my head the piano riff [in “Pierre”] shares a lineage with the beginning of “Angry Young Man.” Just that sense of, I’m an angry person who needs to play the piano really fast to get that anger out.
You originally played Pierre. Did you write it with your voice in mind?
I tend to write everything for my voice, then if it’s a song for a woman, the final step is just transposing it up a fourth.
You’re also your own orchestrator, which is unusual in musical theater. Are you thinking along those lines when you’re writing a song?
Very much so. I do all my writing in Logic, and I write everything at once. I’m writing the piano parts, but I’m also writing the string parts, the oboe parts, the bass parts. For a lot of musical theater, it’s a two-step process. For me, they’re intertwined.