Composer Malloy converts literary classics to musical form

  • Composer Dave Malloy. Photo by Michael De Angelis

Wednesday, May 04, 2016 5:58PM

Tomorrow evening, composer Dave Malloy will appear at MacDowell Downtown to take the audience at The Monadnock Center for History and Culture on a musical journey through “Moby Dick” and offer a preview of his musical adaptation of Shakespeare’s Henry plays. He may even play a song or two from that work in progress before taking questions.

Malloy draws inspiration from literary works known for challenging the reader with universal themes, complex characters and intricate, multi-layered plots by writers known for richly crafted language. He brings those works to new life as musicals with surprising relevance as he wraps their settings in beautiful melodies. This Friday he’ll discuss his work on Moby Dick, some previous projects, and perform a few samples.

Currently juggling two projects commissioned by New York’s Public Theater, Malloy doesn’t shy away from large works. It’s probably something of a repeat of past eagerness: He simultaneously earned English literature and music composition degrees from Ohio University. In fact, he says, he’s drawn to complex works. “These are typically things that academia loves, and have a reputation for being incredibly long and boring,” says Malloy, “while, in reality, they are wonderful pieces of work.” A perfect example is his 2012 electropop opera “Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812,” which was  critically acclaimed. Based on Part 8 of Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace,” the off Broadway show won the  American Academy of Arts and Letters Richard Rodgers Award for Musical Theater, an Obie Award, and  three of its 11 Lucille Lortel Awards nominations. Malloy composed the music, wrote the libretto, was  the music director, and performed in the original production.

“Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812” is one of three works Malloy calls his “Impossible Novels  Trilogy.” The second of them, which he will be working on during his MacDowell residency, is his musical  version of “Moby Dick.” He calls the Herman Melville classic “one of the most erudite and dense novels to  turn into a musical.” James Joyce’s “Ulysses” will be the culmination of the trilogy.

“In all three cases, the authors played with the form of the novel, and that really appeals to me,” says  Malloy. “Each has all these different elements that are so interesting on so many different levels.” The Moby Dick project was commissioned by the Public Theater and the Berkeley Repertory Theatre.  The other Public Theater commission the composer will be working on while in residence at MacDowell  is a little thing commonly referred to as Shakespeare’s Henriad. The project, being led by director and  writer Rachel Chavkin, draws upon the last three plays: “Henry IV Pt. 1,” “Henry IV Pt. 2,” and “Henry V,” and  borrows minimally from “Richard II.” “We pitched them both ideas, and they liked both,” he says of the meeting he and Chavkin had with the  Public early on in the project. “And a month in the woods to do nothing but write is exactly what I need  right now, so it’s going to be great.” Previous to “Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812,” which will make its Broadway debut starring  Denée Benton and Josh Groban in the leading roles this fall, Malloy was known for writing the music for  “Beowulf —  A Thousand Years of Baggage,” and co-creating “Three Pianos,” a reworking of Schubert’s  “Winterreise.” Lately, he has been performing in his conceptual song cycle “Ghost Quartet.” Don’t miss what promises to be a fascinating look and listen to works in progress by composer Dave  Malloy at The Monadnock Center for History and Culture at 7:30 p.m. tomorrow. Doors open at 7 p.m.  with light refreshments served.