I am proud to team up with the Tony-Nominated Broadway musical, Natasha, Pierre, and & The Great Comet of 1812, which does for War and Peace on stage what I try to do in my book, Give ‘War and Peace’ a Chance: Tolstoyan Wisdom for Troubled Times, and in my keynotes: bring Tolstoy alive for a wide contemporary audience. In this blog series, I share my experience of the show and the ways it captures Tolstoy’s vital relevance for today. The Great Comet, like Tolstoy’s epic, offers not only a rousing, unforgettable story, but also an urgent moral compass and a celebration of the deep joy of living. The musical is wise and funny and profound, but it’s also jaw-droppingly fun entertainment, proving yet again the wisdom of Tolstoy’s words: “Great works of art are only great because they are accessible and comprehensible to everyone.”
This is the sixth blog in the series. If you missed the last blog, you can read it here.
People in War and Peace behave like, well, people. Nobody is all good or bad. Good people do bad things. Bad people do good things. The French invaders no less than the Russian patriots are described as full-blooded human beings with families and dreams and hardships. Even the arch-enemy Napoleon, whom Tolstoy positively dislikes, is, at least interesting, and even pitiable at times.
It is precisely Tolstoy’s ability to capture the truth of our shared humanity as well as the infinite possibility of human nature that makes him unrivaled among modern novelists. And it is The Great Comet’s ability to bring out that same quality on stage that makes it one of the most important musicals today.
Perhaps nowhere is this ability more evident than in one of the musical’s boldest creative decisions: to cast Denée Benton, a talented young African American woman in the role of Natasha Rostova, Russian literature’s quintessential white, bread-and-butter countess. The result is to call attention not to the color of Benton’s skin, but to its utter irrelevance. Benton, you see, isn’t cast against type at all, but according to type: human type.
Tolstoy’s slender Russian beauty, with her impulsive, fiery nature, jumps right off the page and into your heart. The maddening thing about Natasha is that as soon as you think you’ve got her pinned down, she pops up and defies all your expectations. That’s what makes her so alluring, so real, and so Tolstoyan. Little wonder that nearly every Russian novelist after Tolstoy has tried to create his own version of this bewitching heroine. Only Boris Pasternak has come even close to succeeding, and, let’s face it, Doctor Zhivago’s Lara Antipova just doesn’t get under your skin quite the way Natasha does.
Denée Benton, however, does get under your skin, channeling all of Natasha’s innocent grace and sexual allure, loving-kindness and teenage brattiness, craftiness and authenticity at the same time. On stage Benton is Natasha, proving Tolstoy’s point that, in the end, despite the differences between Black or White experience, male or female experience, American or Russian experience, there is underpinning all of these the most universal experience of all—that of being human.
Benton herself seems to appreciate the creative mission she has been called to fulfill. “It’s powerful to take down the boundaries that separate us and remind everybody that we’re all human and we all have the ability to tell the human story,” she said in a recent interview on vox.com. “The hard thing sometimes about being an actor of color is that you can feel as if white actors have the right to tell the human story.”
What I love about this comment is that it moves beyond the usual identity politics conversation, which emphasizes the importance of representing the experience of marginalized groups in the arts. Of course, Benton, who also stars as a Black Lives Matter activist in Lifetime’s TV soap UnReal, is not blind to the significant value of giving voice to those who often go unheard. But what she is saying here is even more striking still: the full range of human experience exists inside every one of us, and any actor, no matter what his or her background, has the right, indeed the duty, to tell every human story.
This is a deeply Tolstoyan idea, and it is illustrated in Natasha’s own tumultuous journey itself, which is one that any of us, male or female, white or black, can relate to. In both the musical and the novel she starts off as a wide-eyed teenager and inevitably makes some very bad decisions along the way, like falling in love with Anatole and almost eloping with him. That fiasco, however, serves as a watershed moment in her evolution from a rather narcissistic adolescent into the sort of mature young woman who learns to flourish while accepting the limits of her freedom in love and in life.
Perhaps one reason War and Peace and The Great Comet resonate with audiences of all ages is that young people recognize in the musical a coming of age story that they are now living, while older audiences see in it a story that they and generations before them have lived since time immemorial. During intermission on the night I saw the show two high school students sitting next to me started passionately debating the characters and their choices as if they were preparing for a final English exam, reminding me yet again of the utter relevance and universality of Tolstoy’s message.
We grow up, grow old, and if we’re lucky, grow wise, but such wisdom always comes at a cost. Like Natasha, Pierre, and Prince Andrey, we struggle, pursue false gods, and hit dead ends. Every once in a while, though, we also experience moments of intense joy or brilliant illumination, after which the searching inevitably starts all over again. We keep marching on, through every thicket of disillusionment or despair, persisting in our glorious quest for truth and happiness in a world that reveals those things to us only when we are ready.
And that is a human story that any one of us has the right to tell.