Russia's influence on the current U.S. government is still a matter of investigation, but not even President Donald Trump could deny the country's deep infiltration of the great American art form: Everywhere you look, writers and composers have turned to the golden era of Russian literature as inspiration for musical theatre.
Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812, Dave Malloy's immersive, electronica-tinged adaptation of a sliver of Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace, is currently on Broadway and headed to the Tony Awards with a leading 12 nominations.
Meanwhile, in Toronto, Onegin – Veda Hille and Amiel Gladstone's new take on Alexander Pushkin's novel in verse – is about to take the stage at the Musical Stage Company. The original production at the Arts Club in Vancouver won an unprecedented 10 Jessie Awards and will tour Western Canada come October.
And at the Charlottetown Festival in Prince Edward Island, the new musical jostling for attention opposite Anne of Green Gables this season is A Misfortune, an adaptation of a short story by Anton Chekhov by Kevin Michael Shea, with music and lyrics by Scott Christian and Wade Bogert-O'Brien.
That these long-in-development, romance-filled, Russian-inspired musicals are reaching audiences just as the country now more synonymous with Vladimir Putin is again the subject of widespread fascination (and fear) is a coincidence – one the shows' creators are not entirely certain helps or hurts.
"It's interesting given where Russia is on the world stage right now – which is not romantic," Hille, the singer-songwriter who has lately become a sought-after theatre composer, said over the phone from Vancouver. "I've wondered what will happen to all these Russian shows if Russia gets nastier."
Down in New York, Malloy has wondered what would happen if Trump brought Putin to see The Great Comet ever since U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence paid a visit to Hamilton on Broadway in the fall. "How would the cast respond?" the composer said, recalling how the cast of Hamilton delivered a message from the stage to Pence at the curtain. "I vacillate between wanting to bar the doors or putting on the most amazing performance ever."
More than half a century separates Pushkin's Eugene Onegin, which began being serialized in 1825, and the publication of Chekhov's A Misfortune in 1886, but there's a clear, direct literary line running between the writers via Tolstoy. (Critics have detected the obvious influence of Anna Karenina on A Misfortune, for instance, while in Three Sisters, Vershinin famously hums a few bars from Tchaikovsky's operatic adaptation of Onegin.)
These literary works from 19th-century czarist Russia now adapted into musicals certainly exist in worlds with common elements and themes – married or engaged women being courted by men who don't play by the rules; hard drinking that leads to ill-advised duels; characters who are equally taken by romance and philosophy.
The source material has another thing in common: It's all in the public domain. "Not only do I not have to get the rights for it, I can do whatever I want," said A Misfortune's Shea, who has added an older couple in their 50s, not in Chekhov's story, to act as foils to the three characters involved in a love triangle at the centre of his musical.
These creators all came to the Russians in different ways. Shea encountered A Misfortune when he bought a story collection for a class called Love, Sex and Death in Short Fiction at university – he dropped the class but read the collection anyway. He felt a 21st-century connection to the 19th-century character of Sofya, a 25-year-old woman, frustrated in her marriage, who wonders whether a newly returned shiny suitor from her past is the way out. "I identify with that – being stuck in various ways but not doing anything, being unable to due to circumstances or yourself," he said.
Malloy read War and Peace while working on a cruise ship as a pianist – and immediately saw the musical possibilities in a section where the "A plot" is the courting of the young countess Natasha Rostova by the roguish Prince Anatole while her fiancé is off at war and the "B plot" involves Pierre, a middle-aged aristocrat who is having an existential crisis.
In the case of Onegin, which opens in previews in Toronto on Saturday, it was Gladstone's idea to transform it into a musical after working as an assistant director on a production of Tchaikovsky's opera. The playwright was attracted to the title character – a familiar figure in Russian literature who Gladstone describes as an aristocratic anti-hero who has money and looks to do anything with his life, but who struggles to find meaning and becomes dangerous to the people around him. His collaborator, Hille, meanwhile, was drawn to the character of Tatyana, who pursues Onegin when she is young, then is pursued by him after she has married. "Her story echoes my own in a way," Hille said. "Sometimes marrying the man you're most passionate about when you're young is not the best idea."
While she declined to elaborate on her personal story, she said the incredible thing about 19th-century Russian literature is how, even though we live far in the future and on the other side of the planet, you can recognize yourself inside the heads of the characters Pushkin, Tolstoy and Chekhov created.
Malloy also finds the searching melancholy of Russian culture – what he calls the "soul of Russia" – relatable and profoundly moving. "How do you reconcile all that beauty and joy that life has with all that sadness and questioning?"
The answer, or rather the search for the answer, is to be found in the Russian classics – and perhaps now in these works of musical theatre.