Even in the midst of one of the more eclectic musicals of the recent past, “Letters” stands out as an especially weird song. The first third of the song, which belongs solely to Pierre, careens from topic to topic in his letter to Andrey who, if you remember the “Prologue,” isn’t here. What is at first a typically poeticized nineteenth-century vision of wartime, filled with broad visions of cannonfire and the smoking battlefield, becomes specific. Pierre regrets wounding Dolokhov in their recent duel, citing his “ridiculous” behavior, and growing more melancholy; he envies Andrey’s future marital bliss (which is already secretly in shambles) and laments his own marital troubles which, by any reasonable standard, are worse than Andrey’s situation. This general lament takes an incredibly sharp left turn when Pierre declares that based on his calculations, Napoleon is the Antichrist; this is not unlike flipping channels and going from Kubrick to Herzog. Tolstoy’s theory of history and his refutation of the “great man” hypothesis sandwiches Pierre’s promise: “I will kill him one day!” The rest of the song moves away from Pierre and his alcohol-infused rambling to a more plot-focused sequence, but I confess that these two minutes are two of my favorite in the entire musical.
Dave Malloy’s secret weapon in Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 is his understanding that a beat which punctuates and pushes a song is just as effective in a musical as it is in a club. He is totally unafraid to repeat a musical phrase or a lyric. In “Letters,” that penchant is clear and masterful. A clarinet repeats a phrase on top of a pulsating beat which goes on once the voices have taken over from the clarinet, and once individual voices take the melody. A bass clarinet repeats its line, and then the voices are added in, “ha ha”ing their way underneath that increasingly wrought and abstract monologue from Pierre. For two minutes and eighteen seconds, this buildup increases and pounds until it breaks against a repetition of the regrettable but amusingly memorable “In nineteenth-century Russia/We write letters, we write letters.”
The beating continues afterward, albeit in a much more hushed form, as Phillipa Soo’s verse begins. Like Pierre, her Natasha is writing to Andrey; unlike Pierre, she has no idea where to start. What opportunity Hamilton offers Soo in vocal runs, Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 offers in vocal register showcases. Soo stays in a fairly comfortable mezzo range for just about all of Hamilton, but in Comet, her voice drops far more often than rises. “Dear Andrey,” she begins, and then stops: it is a Lauren Bacall beginning to that phrase. We can measure how cool she is from where her voice sits on the staff, and as she realizes that she has no idea what to say after that, she begins to sing higher and higher until she ultimately reaches a feverish sine wave of notes: “What am I to write? How do I choose? What do I do?” and then, nearly as low as “Dear Andrey,” she finishes: “I shall never be happy again.”
The song is overlong; there are a few songs in Comet which stretch that extra minute in a way that isn’t enthralling. Even if the song’s final third is the most essential element – Anatole, in a genuinely impressive screeching solo, convinces Natasha that he loves her – it’s the least interesting. It’s the cost of doing business when you decide you’re faking an opera, which, when it follows four minutes or so of rollicking harmony and histrionic solos, I’m just fine with paying.
UPDATE – for the Broadway “Letters”
From the start, the new “Letters” is a little more ominous than the original. A bass voice has been added to the chorus and the song is just slightly slower; it emphasizes the dirge-like qualities of the drumbeats instead of the frenetic quality of these different letters being thrown about to great emotional effect. I think it’s a pretty solid reading, in some ways better than the original because it foreshadows the gravity of Natasha and Pierre’s feelings in the second act rather than contributing to the mood of songs like “Preparations” and especially “Balaga,” which is lightning. Some of the extra gravity in the song is in Josh Groban’s voice rather than Dave Malloy’s, which is what it is; that’s weighed with the harpsichord sound underneath Groban’s verses, where Malloy carried on with the bassoon.
For the most part, the lyrical changes in the Broadway Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 are pretty solid. I’m even okay with eliminating “Natasha Lost” in favor of “Dust and Ashes,” which opens us up a little further to Pierre’s sadness at the expense of repeating Natasha’s general anxiety about her interactions with Anatole. I’m even okay with the shifts in this song, although I think they’re a little forced. I like that Pierre on Broadway has a stronger sense of obligation to Andrey’s fiancee than Pierre off: “And Natasha is in town/Your bride-to-be so full of life and mischief/I should visit/I hear she is more beautiful than ever” vs. “And Natasha is in town/I hear she is more beautiful than ever.” Similarly, I like that Pierre on Broadway has a more distinctive alcohol issue than Pierre off. Pierre off Broadway, although as above I think the original is clearly having some trouble. It’s not merely that he’s discovered Napoleon is the Antichrist, but that his number is “Six hundred, threescore, and six!” The number gets us into some trouble with the beat – I’m not sure that cramming the rest of the original lyrics into a line or two fewer is good business – but it fits Pierre’s state of mind in an effective way.
Denee Benton’s epiphany of “love” is far more forceful than Soo’s, with a much more rapturous “Yes! Yes! I love him!” than Soo has, but she voices a much more nervous version of Natasha, one who I believe is full of life but who I don’t buy as full of mischief. Soo’s Natasha, one who occasionally has an axe to grind behind that perfect voice, has much more of that in “Letters” as well. Compared to Benton, we all have a little gravel in our voices, but I confess to missing just a touch of roughness in Natasha in this interpretation, which, of course, if I’d never heard Soo sing the part I’m sure I would adore unconditionally.