As one of the Great American Novels, though a commercial failure in its time, Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick has been adapted often—most famously as the 1956 film directed by John Huston, featuring a screenplay Huston co-wrote with Ray Bradbury, and starring Gregory Peck as peg-legged Captain Ahab and Richard Basehart as the narrator, Ishmael. The novel has been made into comic books and a cantata; Bob Dylan cited it upon winning the 2017 Nobel Prize. Now it’s about to be a musical.
Next week, the American Repertory Theater (A.R.T.) premieres Moby-Dick: A Musical Reckoning at Cambridge’s Loeb Drama Center. It was created by essentially the same A.R.T. team that turned a section of Tolstoy’s War and Peace into Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812 in 2015, with Rachel Chavkin directing and Dave Malloy providing music, lyrics, book, and orchestrations. When it comes to winter-holiday entertainment, Moby-Dick might not be the first candidate that comes to mind. Then again, the Pequod, with Ahab, Ishmael, Queequeg, Starbuck, and the rest of the crew, did leave Nantucket on Christmas Day, as we learn from Chapter 22: “At last the anchor was up, the sails were set, and off we glided. It was a short, cold Christmas … ”
So, how do you cram a 200,000-word novel into an evening? Malloy admits that he’s limited himself to some 40 of the book’s 135 chapters. But there’s no limit to the musical’s reach: this Moby-Dick will meditate on contemporary issues like the environment, species extinction, and, in the context of Chapter 42—“The Whiteness of the Whale”—racism and all things white. The set by Mimi Lien is designed to suggest the interior of a ship, the interior of a whale (one of the musical’s tags is “We are all in the belly of the whale”), even the interior of a Quaker meetinghouse, since the Pequod is a Quaker vessel. The score, no surprise, will draw on Americana—in Malloy’s words, “Gospel, jazz, folk, country, Tin Pan Alley and Broadway, Copland, Glass, Dylan.”
And Moby-Dick himself? He’ll be part of a puppet brigade that’ll encompass fish and the many different whales that find their way into Melville’s narrative. The creative team are keeping the details of Moby’s appearance under wraps; they want “the portrayal of Moby-Dick to be discovered by the audience in performance.” They do offer this much: “He is, of course, a looming presence throughout the piece, as he is in the novel.” —Jeffrey Gantz