“it assaults our senses and soothes them in equal measure”
Aged just nineteen, Sergei Rachmaninoff wrote his Prelude in C-sharp minor to world-wide acclaim, was commissioned to write his first symphony and he was engaged to the love of his life. He seemed to have it all, yet within months a depressive paranoia and anxiety had stopped him in his tracks; a darkness that no doubt came from within but was also prompted in part by Tchaikovsky’s death, and by the effortful completion of his own Symphony No. 1 which was subsequently panned by the critics. The conductor, an alcoholic, was drunk at the premiere. But Rachmaninoff’s writer’s block had already set in. He was already displeased with his composition, feeling he had peaked too early with his Prelude, and the Orthodox church was thwarting his plans for marriage.
Composing had become impossible. How do you escape the darkness and come back into the light? All this, and more, is explored in Dave Malloy’s “Preludes” which examines, in extraordinary and beautifully surreal ways, the true story of this particular episode of his life. A musical fantasia set in the hypnotised mind of Sergei Rachmaninoff.
This is not just another musical about a tortured artist. Malloy, who wrote the book, music, lyrics and the orchestrations has crafted an enigma. It defies categories, but also mixes them. It feels experimental but is perfectly formed, it lulls you into its trance-like dreamscape but keeps your attention razor sharp; it mixes the past, present and future. We are in a world where Mahler, Reggae, Beethoven and Doo-Wop can share the same phrase, where Acid Trance weaves its rhythms into the phrases of a Piano Concerto.
The starting point is the composer’s session with his therapist Nikolai Dahl (Rebecca Caine). “How was your day?” she asks – not the question to ask a damaged, depressed artistic genius three years into a stifling breakdown. Keith Ramsay, as Rachmaninoff (or rather ‘Rach’), launches into a monologue which sets the pace for a tour de force performance. Ramsay is the picture of unsettled alienation; wide-eyed and wild-eyed, uncertain of his worth. Intense, chilling and hypnotising. His words bleed into Malloy’s haunting melodies which in turn flow into Rachmaninoff’s timeless compositions.
We are never too sure if the surrounding characters are in the composer’s mind or not, but under Alex Sutton’s riveting direction they are brought to vivid life. They circle him, cajole him and bravely try to help him. Georgia Louise, as Natalya, is pivotal to restoring the composer’s state of mind with her patience, stretched to the limit at times. There are moments when their voices collide in their duets when you can forget everything. Tolstoy, Tchaikovsky and Tsar Nicholas II brilliantly spill out of Rach’s mind into the camera shot, thanks to the vigour, versatility and virtuosity of Steven Serlin. Norton James, as Russian opera singer Chaliapin, plays with our minds with a Mephistophelean portrayal that verges on psychedelic madness. Crucial to the piece is Tom Noyes at the piano, letting the true genius of Rachmaninoff reveal itself through the musical accompaniment.
The production transfers from stage to camera in an astounding blaze of glory. Aided by Andrew Exeter’s lighting and Andrew Johnson’s eclectic sound it assaults our senses and soothes them in equal measure. Contradictions have never been more harmonious. The mix of classical music, musical theatre, trance beats, neon lights; introspection and overt humour, reality and fantasy, past and present, just would not work on paper. But on stage and on camera it is an intoxicating brew. Dark and beautiful. And hypnotic.
Sergei Rachmaninoff was just beginning his career as one of Russia’s most promising composers when he was struck with crippling depression. For three years he was unable to write music and eventually began seeing a hypnotherapist to overcome his creative block. Dave Malloy’s Preludes, originally produced off-Broadway in 2015, reimagines these years. Filled with Rachmaninoff’s music, and framed as a series of hypnotherapy sessions, the story follows the young musician’s journey back from the brink. Alex Sutton directs the London premier.
Described as “a musical fantasia set in the hypnotised mind of Sergei Rachmaninoff”, the show fits the bill. It’s warped and weird; intriguingly surreal. A blend of present and past, the world is a dreamlike confusion of modern-day New York City and 1890s Moscow. Rach and his friends take the subway to meet Tolstoy, and he must ask permission from the Czar to marry. Malloy reinforces this alternate universe with modern adaptations of Rachmaninoff’s compositions. The grand piano on stage is flanked by two keyboards (Jordan Li-Smith and Billy Bullivant).
The hybrid music is a successful experiment. Although Malloy’s lyrics can feel simple and uninspired at times, the cast’s strong vocal performances are a treat. Georgia Louise stands out in particular, and Norton James and Rebecca Caine’s operatic voices nicely contribute to the show’s clash between modern musical and nineteenth century opera.
Preludes’ setting is impossibly tricky: it’s Russia and America; 2019 and late 1890s; it mostly takes place inside a character’s mind. But set and costume designer Rebecca Brower has risen to the challenge. Rach (Keith Ramsay) wears a long overcoat, black combat boots, and eyeliner. He has the double-headed eagle insignia of the Russian Empire tattooed on his back. Natalya (Georgia Louise) wears a blouse, a long taffeta skirt, and Superga trainers. Brower’s set frames the stage in concentric rectangular shapes which light up with the music, invoking an EDM concert as well as a trance-inducing illusion: a canny reminder that the scenes are figments of a hypnotised mind – that we should be prepared for the distorted and the unreal. It all comes together to create an uneasy yet appealing aesthetic.
Like Rach’s psyche, the show divides the artist in two: there’s the tortured young man (Ramsay), and his music (Tom Noyes). Cleverly, the two manifestations occasionally acknowledge or disrupt each other. Ramsay is ideal as the troubled genius. His hunched shoulders and wide eyes give him a haunted air. He’s the sensitive, uncertain artist, wounded by the world, and at the same time the defiant punk Malloy believes the composer was at heart – deliberately wanting his music to upset his teachers, to blow the walls off tradition with his big, loud, chaotic scores. Noyes is at the piano throughout, and his performance is a delight. Steven Serlin brings much of the comedy with his characters (Chekov, Tolstoy, the Czar). He plays nicely off Ramsay’s insecurity and gloominess.
While Preludes is smart, imaginative, and greatly enjoyable, there are moments where it falters. The beginning takes a while to get going. The wedding scene, which begins compelling and funny with Serlin’s Czar, runs on and becomes saccharine with discussion of where God can be found. The painfully long guided hypnotism near the end will test your patience.
But as a whole, the show’s strengths outweigh its flaws. Inventive and enticingly strange, Preludes is a fantastical celebration of music. It’s playful and irreverent with a deep love of its subject at its heart. Malloy and Sutton seem to be arguing Rachmaninoff would have appreciated the audacity. They might be right.