Will Casting Controversy Hasten the Closing of Broadway's 'Great Comet?'

Josh Groban and the Cast of NATASHA, PIERRE & THE GREAT COMET OF 1812- Publicity -H 2016
Courtesy of Chad Batka

An acting-community outcry over problematic racial optics has caused Mandy Patinkin to withdraw from his scheduled run, placing the production's future in jeopardy.

Will an attempt by producers to goose sales of one of the most acclaimed musicals of the past season inadvertently lead to its premature demise?

That's the question Broadway pundits are asking in the wake of a casting brouhaha that sparked cries of insensitivity among African-American members of New York's stage-acting community.

Following the exit of marquee-name lead Josh Groban earlier this month at the end of his contracted run in Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812, Okieriete Onaodowan was recruited to take over the role of Pierre, in the hope that his profile as an original Hamilton principal would help sell tickets.

But producers announced last week that Onaodowan, an African-American actor affectionately known as Oak, would close out his scheduled nine-week engagement in The Great Comet early, with Mandy Patinkin stepping in to replace him for the final three weeks. It was hoped that the return to Broadway of Patinkin, a Tony winner for Evita now widely known from his role on Homeland, would provide a stronger boost to sales, which have dipped since Groban's departure.

However, the move prompted an uproar in a community that is vigilant about fair and inclusive racial representation. A number of prominent stage actors, including The Color Purple Tony winner Cynthia Erivo, took to Twitter to call the casting switch disrespectful to Onaodowan and Patinkin. Many pointed up the perceived slight as being typical of the treatment of performers of color, a bitter irony given that The Great Comet has been lauded for the racial inclusiveness of its ensemble.

Responding to the complaints, Patinkin announced Friday that he was withdrawing from his commitment to join the cast in what would have been his first Broadway musical role since 2000. "My understanding of the show's request that I step into the show is not as it has been portrayed and I would never accept a role knowing it would harm another actor," Patinkin said on Twitter. "I hear what members of the community have said and I agree with them. I am a huge fan of Oak and I will, therefore, not be appearing in the show." The production tweeted that refunds will be given to those who bought tickets specifically to see Patinkin.

Onaodowan also confirmed Friday that he would leave the cast Aug. 13, the date when he was scheduled to make way for Patinkin.

The producers of The Great Comet, led by Howard and Janet Kagan, scrambled to fix a PR disaster after being blindsided by the fuss. "As part of our sincere efforts to keep Comet running for the benefit of its cast, creative team, crew, investors and everyone else involved, we arranged for Mandy Patinkin to play Pierre," the producers said in a statement. "However, we had the wrong impression of how Oak felt about the casting announcement and how it would be received by members of the theater community, which we appreciate is deeply invested in the success of actors of color — as are we — and to whom we are grateful for bringing this to our attention. We regret our mistake deeply, and wish to express our apologies to everyone who felt hurt and betrayed by these actions."

Dave Malloy, the show's composer and creator, also expressed regret on Twitter. "So sorry to have missed the racial optics of it," he wrote. "We had to do same thing with dear beloved Brittain, so in my head it was no different," tweeted Malloy in reference to principal player Brittain Ashford, who took a temporary leave from the cast this month to allow recording artist Ingrid Michaelson to step into the role of Sonya.

"The show was in desperate shape; sales after Ingrid leaving Aug 13 were catastrophically low," he continued. "Show would have closed. It’s apparently a weird show. Turns out it needs a name to sell it. Mandy is a beautiful legend. Had no idea. He didn’t ask to out Oak, the show asked him to come ASAP because we were on brink of closing. Please don’t give Mandy grief, he’s devastated. I am not sure that the show has a future now."

The Great Comet landed 12 Tony Award nominations this year, leading the field, but lost out in all but two design categories, with best musical going to Dear Evan Hansen. Supporters of the show were especially shocked that director Rachel Chavkin's dazzling and intricate work on Comet was passed over, with the Tony for direction of a musical going instead to Christopher Ashley, for the far less complex popular hit, Come From Away.

While The Great Comet was regularly grossing around $1.2 million a week throughout Groban's run, box office has dropped in recent weeks to a little over $900,000. While that figure is still more than respectable by most shows' standards, the producers and Malloy indicated that the ongoing financial forecast was bleak. The production, which began performances at the Imperial Theatre last October, has notched up cumulative grosses to date of $44.2 million.

It remains to be seen whether producers can manage to come up with a quick solution to fill the casting gap in one of the show's title roles. While Malloy, who originated the role in earlier off-Broadway runs, returned to it for a brief stint at the Imperial and could conceivably do so again, neither he nor an understudy would likely do much to lift sales. So far, no firm plans have been announced following the news of Patinkin's withdrawal.

The producers' move to take advantage of the availability of name talent to attract audiences is understandable given the tough realities of the commercial marketplace. But in this case, it may have made the role untouchable to a star with box-office clout, not to mention the challenge of finding a name willing to step in at such short notice. Which casts a cloud over the Broadway future of The Great Comet.