Dallas — I wish more people took advantage of the Off-Broadway on Flora series, but I can understand the hesitation of purchasing a ticket when the production doesn’t include a now-famous local coming home or a well-known name. Dave Malloy is a name you should get to know. His kind of collaborative and community-oriented musical theater performances allow the audience to fully participate, not simply sit on the other side of the lights.
When I lived in New York I had the opportunity to see two of his shows: Three Pianos and Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812. And, I saw both of these on a whim, because I didn’t know Malloy’s work at the time. For Three Pianos, I heard that the piece utilized Franz Schubert’s music and the three performers played the piano throughout the show; and for Natasha, Pierre, a friend of mine working on the show made a posting about cheap tickets for this immersive musical. After seeing both of these, I never looked at musical theater in the same formulaic, presentational lens. In both of these productions and upcoming Ghost Quartet, Malloy’s work contains threads of continuity: collaboration, virtuoso musicianship, community, and the performer/creator wearing many hats.
In musical theater history, usually the roles of performer, musician, composer are divided. However, as we have seen in recent hits like Hamilton and Once, there’s a tremendous interest in connecting the creator of a work to the performance, or actor and musician as well. Malloy is a part of this wave as his immersive Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 will be produced on Broadway this fall, with the two women in Ghost Quartet, Brittain Ashford and Gelsey Bell reprising their roles. And yes, the scenic design will still have an immersive theater atmosphere even though it is going to be performed in a Broadway house.
You may have never heard of this musical based on a scandalous section of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, but it has had a tremendous effect in the New York theater scene. The immersive musical received significant praise in its many iterations (from Ars Nova to the Kazino tents in the West Village and Midtown, in which Phillipa Soo of Hamilton played the title role of Natasha). For the musical’s next step on Broadway, Josh Groban will play the title role of Pierre, which Malloy originated.
Adjusting the location of the Off-Broadway series, Ghost Quartet will perform at LIFE in Deep Ellum—a space known for hosting events like DaVerse Lounge. “The show is an immersive ghost story, it wants to have an intimate living room kind of feel. We initially planned to do it at ATTPAC but it didn’t have the right feel, so [David] Denson suggested Life in Deep Ellum,” Malloy says.
By “right feel,” I think Malloy is talking about the rough nature of theater, that it doesn’t need the dazzling sheen of the Arts District, but a sense of close proximity between performer and audience and a lack of formal decorum. It should feel like you’re in a living room sharing stories and truly a participant in the production.
The name Ghost Quartet reflects several aspects of the show: four sides, four interwoven stories, four favorite whiskeys, and four performers. Yes, Malloy wrote an ode to his favorite four whiskeys, one of them (Evan Williams) is passed around the audience during the show. Passing around drinks, sitting in close proximity in a non-traditional space, it sets up the communal atmosphere of this performance. That spirit seems to be the most important aspect of Ghost Quartet as Malloy says that theater should “acknowledge that we’re all in this room together and experiencing this show together. It’s not just the four performers performing this for a static audience.”
As an audience member, you’re aware of everyone else in the space and you are actively engaging one another rather than feeling obligated to stare at the performers in silence for the whole performance.
In 2014, Ghost Quartet premiered at The Bushwick Starr in Brooklyn, a small incubator space dedicated to emerging artists. The idea to write this song cycle hit Malloy quickly, while he was with Ashford, Bell, and Brent Arnold (one of the original cellists for Natasha, Pierre.)
“The show came about because the four of us were friends,” Malloy says. “I was looking around the table and thought these are some amazing singer songwriters and some of my favorite musicians in New York…we should make a show together!” Malloy wanted to write something in particular to showcase Ashford and Bell, so he “looked for a lot of stories with two women as the main protagonists. So some of those involve mothers and daughters, some involve sisters, and some involve lovers.”
All of the performers play their own instruments and accompany themselves through the performance. These instruments weren’t imposed upon the performers, as Malloy describes the development process as playing to the ensemble’s strengths. This isn’t your typical band either, it includes an eclectic ensemble of forgotten instruments, ones that have seemed to vanish from regular use. You’ll see the four performers playing a Celtic harp, dulcimer, and even an erhu (a Chinese Violin) alongside the cello, piano, and guitar. At moments, the audience is even invited to play some instruments, because you the audience are an important part of this immersive production. There’s no clear, singular character story to follow, rather the performers fade in and out of the tales and songs.
“We were definitely playing with narrative in this show,” Malloy says of this unique structure. “There are basically four core stories but we’re telling them out of order…the exact narrative isn’t the main thrust of the show.” Instead, the show creates a ghost-story atmosphere, where you sense that you’re in someone’s home in the middle of the night sharing a tale about a past life.
Perhaps one of the reasons why Malloy is breaking so many “rules” of musical theater performance is that he didn’t initially train to be in theater professionally. He began working as a musician, and playing in bands.
“When I started getting involved with theater, I thought this is so much better,” he says. “I can be performing my music but at the same time telling a story.” I don’t think this is the same process for many musical theater artists, this sense of creator/composer/performer/musician hybrid is not so encouraged in a vast majority of traditional musical theater performance. I remember in my training in theater, I felt like I could only work in one lane at a time.”
While it may appear that Malloy is “breaking the rules,” I think that he’s just creating the kind of theater he wants to perform, and it’s highly interactive and multi-layered. I hope that more immersive musicals like Malloy’s keep appearing, because this agency and participation on the part of the audience reflects our culture. We enjoy playing an active role, not simply watching from the sidelines.
So I recommend that you take a chance on a name you haven’t heard, like Malloy’s. Buying a ticket on a whim may make you reconsider what is possible for musical theater.