NEW YORK — In the grand, old musical-theater tradition, composer/writer/performer Dave Malloy, 39, followed his dream to New York City seven years ago. There, with several decidedly nontraditional off-Broadway hits, he has found fame, along with many of the accolades that the musical theater world has to offer, including two Obie Awards, the Richard Rodgers Award, and a Jonathan Larson Grant.
According to formula, fortune is sure to follow — though Malloy appears curiously unmotivated by lucre. “I don’t think that art deserves money,” he wrote on the alt-arts website Culturebot in 2013, even as his electropop opera “Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812” (based on Tolstoy’s “War and Peace”) was drawing rapturous crowds to a custom-built theater tent near Times Square. “I take it when it is offered to me, I’ll ask for a cut. . . . But to make my own work is a private necessity and spiritual gift.”
“The Great Comet” comes to Cambridge in December as an American Repertory Theater mainstage production, and Wednesday through Saturday Malloy will appear at the ART’s second stage, Oberon, in the quirky ensemble piece “Ghost Quartet.” His work — as a composer and performer — has previously been featured at both venues, with “Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage” at Oberon in 2013 and “Three Pianos” at the Loeb Drama Center in 2011-12. We caught up with him at a cafe on his home turf in Brooklyn’s Park Slope.
Q. The ART’s promotional material describes “Ghost Quartet” rather obliquely as a song cycle “spanning seven centuries, with a murderous sister, a treehouse astronomer, a bear, a subway, and the ghost of Thelonious Monk.” Watching the New York production, I found that the harder I tried to follow – or invent? — a throughline, the more perplexed I got. Is that intentional, where you sort of lead the audience on, and then it’s all over the place?
A. Yeah! We talked a lot about how clear we wanted the plot to be. Ultimately we decided we weren’t as interested in the linear narrative as we were in the pure music, the emotions. So we deliberately lay out enough breadcrumbs: You can piece it together if you want to, but it’s not necessary to the experience.
We were very influenced by a lot of ’70s concept records which do the same thing: Pink Floyd’s “The Wall,” David Bowie’s “Ziggy Stardust.” You know there’s a story there, and you can kind of piece together most of it, but there’s always this one song and you don’t know what the story is, but it doesn’t really matter. You still get a feeling from it — it’s more like this kind of mythological understanding.
Q. It’s an interesting experience, having to relinquish any hope of connecting the dots. And then, before you know it, you’re literally in the dark.
A. Totally. And that’s the most challenging thing about the show: how to guide people on that journey of allowing them to let go. It’s like: Here’s a bunch of story pieces — now we’re just going to have fun!
Q. Of course, the flowing bourbon helps. Will you have a similarly intimate setup at Oberon?
A. There’ll be Persian rugs, chandeliers, lots of whiskey — all that.
Q. In various blogs, you describe yourself as suffering from a certain “sad clown social awkwardness” — which surprises me, because you appear totally at ease when performing.
A. I think that’s very standard, though, right? Extrovert on stage and introvert in real life.
Q. But stage fright isn’t really an issue?
A. Because we’re musicians and not actors, I feel way more safer than when I have to act. We’re just playing music. It just feels like what I do. I love being in the room with people and experiencing it all together. It’s helpful, too, to have a great audience, a communal atmosphere.
‘We were very influenced by a lot of ’70s concept records. . . . You know there’s a story there, and you can kind of piece together most of it. . .’
Q. The “Comet” remount at the Loeb will involve a considerable expansion as well.
A. Yeah, the Loeb has like 600 seats, so it’s tripling in size. They’re basically putting the dinner club on the stage.
Q. During the show’s debut three years ago at New York’s Ars Nova, you made a memorable Pierre. Do you miss playing the role?
A. Honestly, I’m a writer and a composer first, a performer second, and the schedule is grueling. It’s very difficult to find time to write and compose when you’re doing eight shows a week. You go home and you just want to sleep.
Q. Rumors keep surfacing about an imminent “Moby-Dick.” Any other projects on the boil?
A. Director Rachel Chavkin and I are also working on a Prince Hal adaptation: a piece just about his journey over the three plays (“Henry IV,” parts 1 and 2, and “Henry V”) — trying to make Shakespeare’s language accessible to contemporary ears, but obviously without butchering the poetry. I really enjoy taking classics that have a reputation for being overly boring or stuffy and kind of stripping that away.
Q. One thing that impresses me about your work is that you totally avoid the whimsy trap. How do you do that?
A. I guess it’s by trying to stay true to my own sense of humor and avoid the cloying. We try to never be so ironic that we’re making fun of the pieces. With “War and Peace,” for example, we never wanted to be making fun of Tolstoy — though we might make light of Tolstoy at times. You want to be telling a story and give the audience a cathartic experience, which is more rewarding in the end than just cheap laughs.
Q. And you just workshopped yet another play at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco?
A. “The Happiness of Fish” — it’s kind of looking at the debates between atheists and evolutionary biologists and then theists and creationists through the lens of Taoism, which pretty much rejects debate outright. So that’ll be a very weird show. I hope so.Interview was edited and condensed. Sandy MacDonald can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @SandyMacDonald.