NEW YORK — In translating Herman Melville’s “Moby-Dick” from the page to the stage, writer and composer Dave Malloy was inspired by the book’s unique stylistic innovations. Most adaptations, from the 1965 John Huston-Gregory Peck film to the 1998 Patrick Stewart miniseries, have focused on the high-seas adventure of the story, Captain Ahab’s obsessive quest to slay the elusive white whale who maimed him years before, while mostly eschewing the book’s scientific and historical meanderings coursing through its 135 chapters.
“We didn’t want to just tell the story. We wanted to embrace the novel’s insane sprawling nature, the experimentation with form, and the fact that it goes off on these wild digressions into every single possible facet of a whale that you can think of," says Malloy over breakfast at a Brooklyn cafe before a recent rehearsal. “So what are the weird digressions that are just too good to get rid of and would be the most fun to keep theatrically?”
“It’s not the plot that makes ‘Moby-Dick’ the Great American Novel,” says director Rachel Chavkin. “It’s the fact that there’s this exuberance in Melville’s writing where he’s veering from this adventure story, to a philosophical chapter about what ‘whiteness’ means and why it’s so terrifying, to an encyclopedic chapter like ‘Cetology’ where he’s cataloging all the different whales. In our adaptation, we wanted to strike a balance between these philosophical whorls and eddies and a propulsive, forward-moving narrative.”
The resulting musical, "Moby-Dick,” will receive its world premiere, presented by the American Repertory Theater, at the Loeb Drama Center Dec. 3-Jan. 12.
Melville’s formal devices include poems, songs, and a chapter written as a short play (“Midnight, Forecastle”). So for his adaptation, Malloy fashioned an entire section as a vaudeville that includes elaborate dance numbers. Within that, the song “Cetology,” inspired by what Malloy calls “the most famously boring chapter, according to disgruntled high school students around the world,” will feature a Olympic-style parade of 24 different whale puppets (designed by Eric Avery, who used trash recycled from the ocean). In the song “The Whale Is a Dish,” one of the mates on the Pequod discusses all the different ways you can prepare whale for eating. At another point, the character of Fedallah, Ahab’s harpooner, will perform a stand-up comedy routine.
The reteaming of Malloy and Chavkin is highly anticipated. Their previous collaboration, the acclaimed musical “Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812,” inspired by a 70-page slice of Tolstoy’s epic Russian novel “War and Peace,” touched down at ART in late 2015 before moving to Broadway, where it ran for nearly a year and picked up 12 Tony nominations. This year, Chavkin followed up by winning the Tony for best direction of a musical for “Hadestown.”
Tackling another literary landmark, Malloy says, felt natural. Even while he was working on “Comet” he began thinking about “Moby-Dick.” There’s something thrilling, he says, about “wrestling with these classic pieces of literature and putting a contemporary spin on them.”
“I love the feeling of reading some observation about humans that was written 200, 300, 400 years ago, and thinking like, oh my God, that’s a thought or feeling I had yesterday,” he says. “I love the realization that human beings haven’t changed that much over the years.”
Part 1 of Malloy’s three-hour adaptation introduces all the characters, including the Shakespearean figure of Ahab; chief mate Starbuck, the ship’s intellectual and moral compass; the narrator Ishmael and his close friend and possible lover, Queequeg, a native Pacific Islander. Part 2 is the vaudeville, and Part 3 is a jazz song-cycle, “The Ballad of Pip,” chronicling the story of the 9-year-old cabin boy who jumps from a boat during a chase and is left behind before he is eventually rescued. “It was always the part of the book that moved me the most — the image of this child lost in this vast ocean,” Malloy says. Part 4 centers on the final chase and face-off with Moby-Dick. “After three years at sea, there’s this idea that the ship has become detached from all reality,” Malloy says. "There’s definitely a dream-like, even nightmarish quality to [that section].”
The score, Malloy says, encompasses a range of American influences, from folk, country, and especially jazz, to classical composers Aaron Copland and Philip Glass. Whale songs, including those woven into Alan Hovhaness’s 1970 orchestral work “And God Created Great Whales,” are also an inspiration.
The set designed by Mimi Lien (a Tony winner for “The Great Comet") is built as a thrust stage protruding into the orchestra, so “there’s a sensation that everyone is kind of aboard the ship with us,” Malloy explains. At one point, a group of audience members will be invited onstage “to go on a whale hunt” on small moveable boats. The stage will feature church-style pews and a raised platform (with a wooden mast) that evokes a ship’s crow’s nest.
While Malloy relishes anachronisms and mashes up period language with contemporary references and slang, he says the show is never irreverent. “At the bottom of it all is a deep love and respect for Herman Melville’s writing. It’s hard to imagine spending so many years of my life working on something that I didn’t completely love and adore and want to hold up and illuminate in a purely admiring and awed way."
Malloy and Chavkin are focusing on the ways the novel resonates with America in the here and now, including its themes of environmentalism, racism, capitalism, and democracy. “Melville was wrestling with what America was in 1851, a few years before the Civil War when tensions in the country were running high. So we’re doing the same thing in 2019."
Ahab (Tom Nelis) is the lone white man in the musical’s diverse cast. “Melville is very clearly thinking about race and America as the collision of all these different cultures,” Malloy says. "And he’s constantly talking about the whale ship as a kind of Utopian example. There are people from all over the world, all different skin colors, all working together to do this one task together.”
Says Chavkin, “We’ve honed in on this idea of the Pequod as this real yet failed promised land.”
The image of an older, ego-driven white man leading his ship to doom doesn’t need any directorial underlining. “It’s not like we have to contort ourselves — or put an orange wig on Ahab — to make these metaphors resonate,” Malloy says with a laugh.
As part of his research, Malloy visited the whaling museums in New Bedford and Nantucket, Melville’s former farmhouse in Pittsfield, and the Mystic Seaport Museum in Connecticut, where he poked around a restored 19th-century whaling ship “to get a feel for what it would have been like to be on the Pequod.”
In New Bedford, he attended the annual 25-hour marathon reading of “Moby-Dick.” ”It was great to rub shoulders with all the other Melville addicts,” Malloy says. “I learned the depth to which this novel has affected people. There are people [at the museum] at 4 a.m. listening to every single word and mouthing along because they know it so well.”
Getting the opportunity to premiere their adaptation in Massachusetts, a place long associated with the novel and with Melville feels felicitous to the show’s creators. “When ART came to us and said they wanted to produce it, we were over the moon,” Malloy says. "It’s such a New England tale, so it feels perfect in many ways to be doing it there.”
MOBY-DICK: A MUSICAL RECKONING
Presented by the American Repertory Theater. At the Loeb Drama Center, Cambridge, Dec. 3-Jan. 12. Tickets from $25, 617-547-8300, www.americanrepertorytheater.org