Of all the classic novels in modern literature, Herman Melville’s long, discursive Moby-Dick may be one of the least suited to musical theater. The self-serious novel takes place on the sprawling sea and includes long interludes describing how whalers processed blubber and the anatomy of whale skeletons.
Smithsonian Ingenuity Award winners Dave Malloy and Rachel Chavkin, creators of the much-lauded musical Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812, decided to take on the task despite—or perhaps because of—the unique challenges the source material poses for a musical adaptation.
The production, scheduled to premiere this December, will use various musical styles, including folk, blues, whale song and jazz to investigate the classic tale of Captain Ahab pursuing the legendary white whale through the lens of race, identity and the environment. Puppets and goo will be used to recreate the scenes of whale processing and hunting.
In late July, theater-goers on the hunt for something new got a first look at the massive new show at the American Museum of Natural History when American Repertory Theater at Harvard University debuted excerpts from the upcoming adaptation.
Jenny Singer at the Forward was present for the preview, which took place under the hulking, 21,000-pound blue whale model in the museum’s Hall of Ocean Life. With Malloy at piano and a seven-piece orchestra accompaniment, a cast of 11 put on the 90-minute performance with no costumes or sets. “It is not a musical adaptation of the novel, but a musical interrogation of it,” Singer noted.
Atlas Obscura's Jessica Leigh Hester was also in attendance. She reported that the show tells the well-known story and incorporates much of Melville’s original language, and even some of his long sidebars, including a song about squeezing spermaceti oil from a sperm whale's head (which is actually available on YouTube). But, she added, there were also plenty of modern updates to connect viewers to the story, especially when it comes to the modern view of whales.
In Melville’s day, the animals were seen as an endless economic resource, one with huge jaws that could swallow a person whole or ram a ship to pieces. Today, of course, they are the poster animal for conservation. “It was nice that they put something in there that was an environmental-awareness issue. I thought that was great,” whale anatomist Joy Reidenberg told Hester after the show. “Everybody loves the whales—before, they used to be afraid of them. They’ve gone from dragons to unicorns.”
This isn’t the only Moby-Dick musical adaptation out there. A West End musical production Moby Dick! The Musical premiered in 1990. The campy cult musical centers around a girl’s boarding school, which decides to stage a performance of the novel in its swimming pool to save the school from bankruptcy. The production is still put on by theater groups today.
Time will tell if the new production will be a cetacean version of Hamilton, but musical theater nerds can get their own preview with an early version of the featured song "The Pacific" on Soundcloud and a snippet of "Pip's Tune" here.