Today is a sad day for Broadway as Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 closes its doors. The show was supposed to be the next Hamilton, but while tickets for the latter are still impossible to come by and continues to extend its run, the former was forced to close early partly as a result of racial controversy.
Josh Groban, the original Pierre for the Broadway run, had a big enough name to sell a lot of tickets and is one of the main reasons why this broke college student dropped $190 on the closest seat I could get to him. After Groban ended his run mid July, the African-American actor, Okieriete Onaodowan of Hamilton fame, was set to take over. Although a talented performer, Onaodawan had yet to become well-known outside of the Lin-Manuel Miranda-obsessed community, and ticket sales began to dwindle to the point of where the show was under financial duress. Producers thought in order to save the show, a bigger headliner was needed to boost the box office and began searching for another actor.
Producers then reached out to Tony Award winning Mandy Patinkin, famous for his role as Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride, asking him to make his Broadway return as the melancholy Pierre. There was only one issue: due to Patinkin’s Homeland schedule, his three week run was to start August 15th prematurely forcing Onaodowan out of his role. The show immediately received backlash when the Broadway community discovered the abrupt replacement of a black actor with a white actor, and critics took to Twitter to condemn the producer’s actions while devout fans rebutted with tweets of their own to defend their beloved show. Even though Patinkin decided to step down as Pierre, the damage was already done, and The Great Comet was condemned to close early.
Hamilton made headlines casting actors of color as the founding fathers, and The Great Comet attempted to do the same. Having seen the show first-hand back in March, I can attest to the diversity of the cast, despite the primarily white landscape that is nineteenth century Russia. In fact, nearly half of the cast is nonwhite, including many of the principal characters such Denée Benton’s Natasha, Amber Gray’s Hélène, and Nick Choksi’s Dolokhov, and the show actually received the
Extraordinary Excellence in Diversity on Broadway Award from Actors Equity’s National Equal Employment Opportunity Committee. After the initial controversy, the cast even made a one minute video attempting to highlight the cast’s differences while communicating the importance of diversity in art.
Although Onaodowan was treated poorly by the show’s producers, I believe the decision made was a business-oriented instead of racially motivated. In fact, it’s ridiculous to target arguably the most diverse show currently on Broadway when shows like Anastasia, or as I like to call it the other show that took place in Russia, as well as the critical darling Dear Evan Hansen have all-white casts. It’s terrible to treat actors as means of making money, because musical theatre should be about the art and not profit, but at the end of the day, money is what keeps shows going, and sometimes it’s necessary to cast actors who are going to fill seats.
It is unfortunate and ironic that a casting decision made in an attempt to save the show was what led to its sudden and dramatic demise, effectively silencing the voices of many actors of color. I think the real tragedy, however, was the social media witch hunt the show endured as critics were so quick to persecute the show without first understanding the bigger picture. It’s easy to hide behind a Twitter handleand bash The Great Comet without knowing all the thought that went into this decision, especially since 140 characters could not possibly begin to cover the facts. This experimental work was honestly the best theatrical experience I have ever had, but I think that the show had yet to reach the commercial success it was hoping because it departed so far from the theater-going norm. Unfortunately, fans will never know how far this comet could have soared, but they can at least hope for a revival.
Goodbye, my Gypsy lovers. I’m sorry that Broadway was just not ready for you yet.