Dave Malloy has long been fascinated with Russian culture. His acclaimed Broadway musical “Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812,” staged at the American Repertory Theater in 2015, transformed a slice of Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” into an eye-popping and immersive stage spectacle. His musical “Beardo” focuses on infamous Russian mystic and “mad monk” Rasputin, and he and director Rachel Chavkin are developing a musical inspired by the Oscar-winning psychological thriller “Black Swan,” centered on a production of Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake.” Then there’s Malloy’s musical fantasia “Preludes,” opening at the Lyric Stage Company this weekend. That show delves into the depressed and anxiety-plagued mind of celebrated Russian composer and pianist Sergei Rachmaninoff.
Speaking over the phone from his home in Brooklyn, Malloy traces his obsession for all things Russian, in part, to his Latvian heritage. The countries, he says, share some cultural and historical connections. “I definitely grew up going to parties where there was lots of drinking and eating of rich, hearty food, and then lots of singing as the party went on. So I think that’s where the seed was sown.”
As his interest in classical music grew (at Ohio University he majored in music composition and English literature), Malloy was inevitably drawn to the great Russian composers — Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Prokofiev. “I really respond emotionally to the deep melancholy in a lot of it,” he says. “There’s just something about the Russian temperament that speaks to my soul.”
Moreover, Malloy notes with a chuckle, in the novels of Russian literary lions like Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, “Someone’s always in a huge existential crisis. They’re like, what is the meaning of life? What are we doing as humans on this planet? I find that very moving.”
Set in Moscow at the turn of the 20th century, “Preludes” tells the story of a young Rachmaninoff during a three-year period when he suffered from severe writer’s block and depression. In his early 20s, “Rach” (played in the Lyric Stage production by Dan Prior) is an up-and-coming pianist and composer, but the disastrous premiere of his first symphony — torpedoed in part by the alleged inebriation of its conductor — sends him into a deep spiral of self-flagellation, self-pity, and creative paralysis.
His concerned friends, including the opera singer Chaliapin (Anthony Pires Jr.), and his beleaguered fianceé Natalya (Kayla Shimizu), suggest that he go see Nikolai Dahl (Aimee Doherty), renowned for practicing a then-newfangled technique called hypnotherapy. Dahl tries to guide Rach out of his misery and artistic stagnation. “So ultimately it becomes a show about writer’s block and depression and overcoming that,” Malloy says, “but it’s also very much a celebration of Rachmaninoff’s music and legacy and what it is to be a writer and artist.”
Courtney O’Connor directs the Lyric production; Dan Rodriguez serves as music director and plays Rachmaninoff at the piano. The show, which premiered at Lincoln Center Theater in 2015, also features appearances by such legendary Russian cultural figures as Chekhov, Tchaikovsky, Tolstoy, Glazunov, and even Czar Nicholas II (all played by Will McGarrahan). “Rachmaninoff is trying to figure out who he is in this world and what his place is in the pantheon,” Malloy says. “So he’s talking to all these older Russians about art and legacy, which feels like a very Russian thing to think about.”
As a self-proclaimed “huge procrastinator,” Malloy says he can identify with Rachmaninoff’s creative torpor. “I definitely struggle with writer’s block all the time, though mine tends to be just crises around deadlines,” he says.
While Malloy adores Rachmaninoff, he notes that in “hard-core classical circles, he’s a little looked down upon, because he’s seen as a populist. His music is almost too tuneful or not sophisticated enough for them. He’s never taken seriously in the same way as Shostakovich, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, or even Tchaikovsky, because his music was so unabashedly lush and romantic.”
Indeed, Malloy says Rachmaninoff’s influence can be detected in his own musical palette. “He’s straddling this line between really sophisticated classical music and really populist, tuneful music. And he’s like, ‘There’s room for both!’ I like artists that straddle those worlds, between the aggressively experimental and avant-garde and the populist and crowd-pleasing.”
The “Preludes” songs run the gamut from Rachmaninoff compositions to which Malloy only added lyrics to a few wholly original tunes. Most fall somewhere in between, with Malloy using Rachmaninoff’s music as a jumping-off point for a new song.
Among Malloy’s original compositions is the song “Subway,” which Rach sings as he’s going to see Tolstoy, who by then was the veritable voice of Russia. “It’s about the nervousness of going to meet a giant like this,” he says. Malloy wrote the song after receiving an invitation to visit Stephen Sondheim at his house, where they drank wine and talked about art. “I remember riding the subway there, and I was so anxious and was even jotting down some of the thoughts that became lyrics for that song. It’s very much a love song to Sondheim.”
Besides Rachmaninoff, Malloy cites the influence of Russian theremin virtuoso Clara Rockmore and electronic music pioneer Wendy Carlos, who wrote the scores to “A Clockwork Orange” and “The Shining” and was known for her popular “Switched-On Bach” records that she performed on the Moog. “There’s something about that collision of this baroque music played on these very modern synthesizers that was a huge influence.”
Malloy, whose ”Moby-Dick” received its world premiere at the ART in 2019, likes to pepper his scripts with anachronisms, mashing up contemporary and period language in the same way he does with his music, which runs the gamut from electrified pop to folk, rock, classical, jazz, and more. “It’s how I connect with material. One of my favorite things is when I’m reading a book from the 18th century or the 14th century and seeing the connections and being like, ‘Oh, that’s a thought I had yesterday!’ That continuity of human experience I find really beautiful and compelling.”
Presented by the Lyric Stage Company of Boston, Jan. 6-Feb. 5. Tickets from $25. 617-585-5678, www.lyricstage.com
Christopher Wallenberg can be reached at email@example.com.