Replacements cause chaos on the White Way, not just the White House.
July 28, 2017 3:02 PM   Subscribe

Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812 (previously) debuted in 2012 as an intimate soiree at Ars Nova, a small Off-Broadway theatre. This past November, a beefed-up Broadway production opened to rapturous reviews and high grosses, helped in large part by the appeal of crossover singer Josh Groban in one of the title roles.

Ticket sales have flagged a bit since Groban was replaced by Okieriete "Oak" Onaodowan (of Hamilton fame). Two days ago, it was announced that Oak would be departing his 9-week run three weeks early, making room for Broadway (and television's) Mandy Patinkin to step into the role. While many fans welcomed the news of Patinkin's return to Broadway, others bemoaned that a talented actor of color was being replaced by an established white star.

Those unhappy voices grew following a statement from producer Howard Kagan, implying that Patinkin had asked for the role:
"This continues our show's remarkable history of having great actors and singers see the show as audience members, only to tell us they are inspired to join the cast! Whenever possible we will accommodate them as we did here with Mandy and his Homeland TV schedule. Oak, who was scheduled to appear as Pierre for this period graciously agreed to make room for Mandy, and we sincerely hope that Oak will return to us in the fall or winter. He is a terrific Pierre.”
Oak, however, shared on instagram that he would not be returning to the role, saying "In spite of everything, I am grateful to have had the time to bring this character to life..."

Today, following the backlash, a bunch of things happened: Mandy Patinkin has backed out and apologized, the producers confirmed that they had asked him to take the role to help save a flagging box office, and the show's author Dave Malloy took to twitter to apologize for how everything has been handled:
"hey all. bit of a devastating last 24 hours. so sorry for how everything went down. nothing but love and artistic awe for @OakSmash. 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. so sorry to have missed the racial optics of it. we had to do same thing with dear beloved brittain (context) so in my head it was no different. please don’t give mandy grief, he’s devastated. i am not sure that the show has a future now."
And if you just want to catch up, Buzzfeed and the NYTimes are keeping the pieces together.
posted by Zephyrial (31 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
This has broken my heart. I really wanted to see Oak, although I knew I would not have a chance with this run anyway, and I hoped that there would at least be a release of a big number of his. Pierre is a type of role that black men almost never get to play - tender, eccentric, overeducated, and above all vulnerable. I have been listening to the album most days for a while now - I know, I'm fan trash - but I'm not sure when I can really enjoy it again.
posted by Countess Elena at 3:10 PM on July 28, 2017 [5 favorites]

Possibly relevant to how badly this was handled: that Kagans have a history of being terrible.
posted by Mavri at 3:11 PM on July 28, 2017 [2 favorites]

Ugh, this whole thing is terrible.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 3:13 PM on July 28, 2017

Yes, it's messy and pretty awful for all involved. The biggest casualty in all of this is likely to be the show itself, and its fans. The production boasts an unusually large and diverse company. It's sad that so much seems to have hinged on having a named star in one role.

It's worth pointing out, too, that the box office of Great Comet has still been taking in around $900k a week, which I've heard is enough to cover their operating expenses. It's not near the $1mil Groban brought in on an all right week, or the $1.4mil they made in his final week, but it's definitely not "flop" territory.
posted by Zephyrial at 3:18 PM on July 28, 2017 [2 favorites]

Though, to follow-up on the box office numbers: apparently those recent $900k weeks were due to Ingrid Michaelson's run as Sonya, and with her departure looming the presales were dire.
posted by Zephyrial at 3:20 PM on July 28, 2017

I really get the sense from the various statements that this wasn't handled with any carefulness at all. Like I don't see in Oak's statement or Dave Malloy's any indication that they sat with Oak and explained everything and came up with a plan for unified messaging. So I kind of feel like if you're not going to handle things with care then you deserve for your project to tank. Do better next time.
posted by bleep at 3:25 PM on July 28, 2017 [3 favorites]

Saw the show with Josh Groban in May and am disappointed that this likely means fewer will get to enjoy future runs. It's a fantastic show.

What a colossal fuck up.
posted by grimjeer at 4:02 PM on July 28, 2017

I haven't seen a musical on stage in years. The tickets are so expensive! I'm curious, how much money does a show need to make per week to stay in business?

This show seems to be pretty creative and innovative. I wonder if it had debuted on Broadway with Okieriete instead of Josh Groban what would have happened. The reviews would probably have been as good. I guess I'm wondering if such a creative production also needs a big star out of the gate? Are there any shows on Broadway now breaking even with actors primarily known for the theater in the leads?
posted by bluefly at 4:17 PM on July 28, 2017

Well, I guess my October ticket isn't worth the paper it's printed on. If they need a star, any star, to sell tickets, than it wasn't going to survive on Broadway anyway; sounds like everyone handled this poorly, except the blameless actors, but it's nobody's fault that it ultimately made more sense in the tent. (I would have loved to see both actors' interpretations of Pierre, and am sorry that Patankin couldn't have been brought in a competent, aboveboard manner that didn't involve throwing him bodily into Onaodowan's spotlight.)
posted by thesmallmachine at 4:20 PM on July 28, 2017 [2 favorites]

Broadway marketing often snatches defeat from the jaws of victory.

Look at almost any theatrical musical commercial (*shudder*) or weirdly staged Today show performance. Go ahead!

Seems PR and producers did a horrible job being honest to both their actors and how to explain the change to the public. Add the fact that the audience skews young and socially active and that MANY splashy minority-led shows like Shuffle Along and Here Lies Love closed early. Then, things almost naturally blew up with little effort.

Do not be surprised by a lawsuit involving the producers.

I like the show with Groban and would have liked to seen others' take on it.
posted by Freecola at 4:39 PM on July 28, 2017

Huh. Seeing this Tuesday and I thought Okieriete had a weirdly short run but didn't see that Mandy Patinkin was coming in even before Okieriete was due to end his original run.
I was excited that Hamilton had given him a chance to get noticed and get some other parts. This is really awful.

Still, looking forward to seeing him. I hope he's able to have a little fun with the rest of his run despite how gross this whole thing was.
posted by clarinet at 4:41 PM on July 28, 2017

Ahhhh I didn't even realize Oak was in this. I was just in NYC and didn't really have much time for shows but would have made the effort to see it if I'd realized. He was a real highlight of seeing Hamilton for me.
posted by lunasol at 5:11 PM on July 28, 2017

I've become Tumblr-teen level Comet fan trash too, and this week has been so painful. I cashed in all my frequent flyer miles so I could take my daughter to see the show this coming Friday (it will be my second time). I assume it will stay open at least till the 13th (she said, willing the universe to make it so), but this has put a damper on the giddiness I felt just a few days ago.

The cast is adorable and, when they're not having to issue badly-worded statements, their social media team is first-rate. I hate this for them.
posted by Sweetie Darling at 5:27 PM on July 28, 2017 [1 favorite]

We saw it a few months back, still during Groban's run (though we got his understudy.) It was a phenomenal production of an almost utterly worthless book (meaning book for the show, not War & Peace.) The dirt-simple and slight to the point of almost non-existent plot was aggressively sold as "so complicated you'll probably not even follow it!" in both the opening number and everything throughout and outside the theatre, and then the performers sung all of their stage directions as lyrics throughout, a quirk that had no point and added absolutely noting. The design and direction were spectacular on every level, and I'm glad I saw it, but it was an exercise in absolutely exquisite makeup on a very dire pig.
posted by Navelgazer at 7:32 PM on July 28, 2017 [5 favorites]

^ This is so true. I saw the show with Groban and I thought it was great and I like some of the songs from the soundtrack (especially "Sonya Alone") but some of them are just exceedingly silly.
posted by bleep at 8:01 PM on July 28, 2017 [1 favorite]

"Sonya Alone" is, truly, a very good number.
posted by Navelgazer at 8:04 PM on July 28, 2017

To each their own: I think the sung stage directions are arch and witty, and really capture the slightly surreal pleasures of ultra-formal 19th-century prose, especially in translation.
posted by thesmallmachine at 9:12 PM on July 28, 2017 [4 favorites]

I got kind of crazy lucky, having just bought my tickets to see Oak right before he goes. I guess that show might now be the third to last Comet ever, which just makes me so sad. I love this show dearly, and I feel terrible for the cast, this entire thing was such a gigantic mess. Even if the show closing is inevitable now, going out under this situation just really, really sucks.

Here's some cute behind the scenes stuff including Oak busking with his accordion before the show.
posted by colorblock sock at 9:28 PM on July 28, 2017 [1 favorite]

To each their own: I think the sung stage directions are arch and witty, and really capture the slightly surreal pleasures of ultra-formal 19th-century prose, especially in translation.

Interesting. I found them a too-cute exercise in dramaturgy that didn't bring anything else out to me, but I'm glad they worked for others (seriously.) I wish I'd seen it in the tent. My friends who saw it there had a much different experience from me and I really have to guess that the things that put me off probably would have worked gangbusters in a more intimate setting.

The cast we saw was also great - literally the only issue I have is with the bones of the show itself, though that's a pretty big issue. It felt almost like if someone had made a musical about the Yule Ball sequence in Goblet of Fire: yes, there's enough there to work with to make a full musical, and you'll probably have some show-stopping sequences, but it doesn't encapsulate any character's arc in any meaningful way, and saying "look at all these characters you have no immediate context for!" at the top doesn't improve anything.
posted by Navelgazer at 9:42 PM on July 28, 2017 [1 favorite]

Yeah this has been such a mess, and it's really disappointing all the way around. I'm glad they've listened and are making it rightish, and hope the show can stay open.

It's a show I really wish I could see again, and I now doubt I'll make it back to New York in time for that to happen before it closes. I saw at it as a Sunday matinee with Groban, which I almost always find to be an intolerable way to see theater but I was cramming a lot of shows into a short trip, and spent way too much mental energy trying to analyze it and focus in on really specific details of the performance and the design, especially as I found many of the songs rather repetitive in their sameness.

But as I've listened to the album a few times, it's really grown on me, and it would be great to go all in on a close-up seat, enjoy it with a drink in hand, and just really take in the experience as a whole and get really into it.

And honestly, at least for me, I really don't think the choice of actor for Pierre makes such a difference. Obviously, they do think so from a marketing perspective (and the numbers seem to bear that out) , and don't get me wrong, seeing Groban was fantastic, but I feel like the actual choice of the actor who plays Pierre is pretty immaterial to the experience, which is much more about the totality of the ensemble, and the talents of Benton, Ashford, and Steele.

Brittain Ashford and Ingrid Michaelson did a duet version of "Sonya Alone". The sound quality isn't great, but it's still pretty amazing.

On a related note, I also came across these hilarious and salty summaries of musicals from Natalie Walker and can't decide whether to post them as an FPP or not. The Great Comet summary starts:
Enter NATASHA and the 2nd billed star of this show NATASHAS COAT (also a man as well but he run away soon, is very secondary to COAT. This fucking COAT you GUYS !) Enter JOSH GROBAN IN A PREGNANCY BELLY PROSTHETIC "WAITRESS" LEFT AT A.R.T. "Im casually establishing there is a WAR and that guy u just saw is NATASHAS BF ANDREY and he is GONE NOW" says PREGNANT JOSH GROBAN. your MOM grabs ur arm and says "is that one josh Groban?!!!?! He let himself go!!!" and u tell her to be quiet bc the show has started and she is so bad at whispering. Each character walks out and introduces themselves w 1 descriptor like in improv 101 where ur meeting everyone in a circle & u have to go like "IIIIIIIM JUMPING JOE" "IIIIIM RADICAL RACHEL" "IIIIM NATALIE &I STRUGGLE W DEPRESSION"
posted by zachlipton at 9:50 PM on July 28, 2017 [11 favorites]

I saw it last December with Groban, largely on the strength of the NYT review that said it was on a par with, and perhaps more enjoyable than, Hamilton. Sadly, I was not impressed. In hindsight, I suspect I would have liked it more had I known more about it (e.g. that a lot of the book was drawn from the original War and Peace text - without knowing that it sounded strangely disjointed). I liked Act 2 more than Act 1 - I suspect a combination of it actually being better, my being more settled into the rather odd style, and some frantic googling at interval so I at least understood what they were trying to achieve. I also find Josh Groban oddly unappealing, so maybe a different male lead might have improved the experience for me. Denée Benton was excellent as Natasha.
posted by une_heure_pleine at 3:19 AM on July 29, 2017

zachlipton, those are hilarous. Thank you.
posted by still_wears_a_hat at 11:19 AM on July 29, 2017 [1 favorite]

I'm still thinking through the complexities of this situation...

1. Broadway is getting far more open to diverse actors, especially with the advent of Hamilton, to the delight of performers and fans.

2. But there are still profound institutional issues that keep these actors from sustained success. Mandy Patinkin became Mandy Patinkin, Broadway Legend, because his talent received sustained support and promotion for forty years. He moved from "impressive supporting actor" to "star" to "icon" without being blamed for poor ticket sales and asked to make way for someone more bankable. Oak Onaodowan doesn't get the same trust. His own path to becoming a Broadway Legend who might be called in to save ailing shows has just become much more complicated, even though he's the single least culpable person in this mess, and even though he's a world-class talent who just came off a starmaking role in an iconic show. I'm sure there are powerful people who've just decided he's "difficult" because he was clearly hurt.

3. It sounds like Comet was in deep trouble and being kept alive by fame transfusions. (Or, just possibly, it sounds like Comet was in deep trouble and producers were becoming increasingly reliant on the quick fix of fame transfusions, while in fact the show was just facing a difficult transition from a Groban vehicle to its own thing, and might have righted itself. But I'm inclined to trust the people who are most familiar with the situation.)

4. Comet has a very diverse ensemble and two black actresses in major roles, including ingenue Denée Benton as Natasha. Keeping the show alive at any cost keeps all of these people employed, and Benton's brilliance front and center.

5. But why was it Onaodowan, exactly, who had to suffer for that? That's where things get questionable. If they needed star power even at the expense of someone like Brittain Ashford, who's been so important to making the show what it is, then why not bring in some significant hunk or doyenne to play Anatole or Marya, rather than shut down Onaodowan? Obviously the size of the role doesn't really matter so long as the person has a fanbase; Sonya is not a large role at all, and apparently Ingrid Michaelson's Sonya was enough to keep things afloat for a while. I might be talking out of my ass and I'm definitely not conversant with the intricacies, etc., but I feel like there were ways to solve this problem on their own terms and still do their part to make the institution of Broadway better. I mean it was three goddamn weeks.

6. Malloy might have considered that this wouldn't come off quite the same as furloughing Ashford, his close collaborator and friend, but Malloy in general has been a good ally -- has a long history of casting diverse actors in all of his shows, and also genderswapping male roles to give women more interesting things to do (both are much in evidence in his new Moby-Dick project, which I'm very excited about). I'm still a huge fan, I don't want to rain down fire on him for this, and I hope he's OK. (Realistically, though, he's not at the same professional risk as Onaodowan.)
posted by thesmallmachine at 1:41 PM on July 29, 2017 [5 favorites]

But how does one have "a long history of casting diverse actors in all of his shows" and still not consider "the optics" of this and be party to this complete clusterfuck?

I'm heartbroken for Oak and wonder if this is a show that really only got made because they had Groban on board; in other words, was it ever going to be financially viable? Does every show on Broadway need to haul in over $1million/week?

I'm reminded of the wonderful Rhiannon Giddens' devastation after she was tapped to replace the pregnant Audra McDonald in Shuffle Along last year and then they pulled the plug on the show when ticket sales lagged too much. As was said above, if your entire show depends on a single huge name bringing in the tickets, that seems like a huge problem for the industrial model as a whole.
posted by TwoStride at 1:55 PM on July 29, 2017 [3 favorites]

I don't think there's a contradiction. I know that I work passionately to live up to my ideals, but I've also let them down when the stakes go up -- when I am hurt or scared. I don't know anyone involved or what's in their heads, but, I mean, I see how this happened.

I feel like this is what happens when marginalized people's welfare depends too much on allies' goodwill. Allies are subject to the full range of human weaknesses, and end up having disproportionate power to take people out with them (and often instead of them) when they fuck up. The only solution is a saner distribution of power, but when that, too, depends on allies' goodwill, you've got a basically untenable community. And now I really need to take a walk. I don't want to try to talk people on this thread into expressing their disappointment exactly as I do.
posted by thesmallmachine at 2:30 PM on July 29, 2017

and then the performers sung all of their stage directions as lyrics throughout, a quirk that had no point and added absolutely noting.

I think they do have a point. First, those lines are quotations from War & Peace, so it's mostly Malloy showing his love for the source material and trying to let Tolstoy's voice shine through. Second, I think their purpose is to heighten the feeling of artificiality in the play. I think the production never wants you to forget that you're "at the opera" and all the characters are rich people playing at drama, mostly heedless to any greater consequences or thoughtfulness about what they're doing.

Anyway, I agree that it doesn't work that well. I think it's too cute and removes you too much from the emotion, a problem which was less present in the superior, more intimate original production. But I appreciate when a show tries something new, even if it's not entirely successful, and for that I forgive Great Comet a lot of its awkwardness.

For all its many faults it's still a very special work, and I was so excited for Oak's run. Very disappointed in the way he was treated. I think this show flew a little too close to the sun, with all the celebrity gimmicks, and would have been better left as a smaller, more modest production.
posted by Emily's Fist at 10:00 PM on July 29, 2017 [5 favorites]

More thoughts, as the backlash-to-the-backlash continues. (That sounds glib, but I do think folks are now starting to say "well hold up, what's really going on here, on multiple levels.")

BroadwayWorld: THE GREAT COMET's Azudi Onyejekwe Addresses Casting Controversy
The pitchfork mentality of society conjoined with the proliferation of social media continually runs the danger of cutting off true dialogue—and manifests itself into an attackfest where listening to contrary viewpoints is shoved out the window—which is not useful.

[...] Please do not be hoodwinked, do not be bamboozled into scapegoating one show to be the main representation of Broadway's very real diversity problem. A show that employs (on stage alone) 15 actors of color, a show that (comparatively speaking) is among the upper echelon if not the most diverse musical on Broadway. I'm not saying it doesn't have its flaws when it comes to diversity.

[...] And once again, this statement is in no way saying that huge mistakes were not made, because they were. The situation was unfair to all. But my call is for nuance, layered critical thinking, putting language to root causes and asking questions to hear answers not to just blitz with no hope of a dialogue.
Riedel: Don’t cheer Mandy Patinkin leaving ‘Great Comet’ just yet
The Kagans should stop groveling. They should not have to apologize for doing their job — which is to save their show.

“Comet” had been a big hit — grossing more than $1 million a week — and the Kagans have a responsibility to fight for it. If that means bringing in a household name at the expense of a fine but unknown actor, so be it.

The mistake they made was thinking “Great Comet” could survive on Broadway without a name. The show is based on “War and Peace.” It wasn’t Leo Tolstoy who turned out the crowds. It was Josh Groban.

[...] A lot of good comes from a Broadway show that runs. Nothing comes from one that closes.
posted by Zephyrial at 11:31 AM on July 30, 2017 [1 favorite]

I think this show flew a little too close to the sun, with all the celebrity gimmicks, and would have been better left as a smaller, more modest production.

Yeah, I understand why they felt it had the potential to be big, but I know that aesthetically, I'd rather have seen it in the small theater or the tent. It's intimate and textured and while, yes, it's also got lots of dancing and flailing around, even that stuff benefits from being kind of gestural and campy. And they made some big changes to take the show to Broadway, mostly making things more explicit and obvious, which didn't help the tone read correctly. (I was also annoyed that they took substantial steps to make the show more about Pierre and less about Natasha.)
posted by thesmallmachine at 1:33 PM on July 30, 2017 [1 favorite]

From the article by Riedel at NYP:

The Kagans should stop groveling. They should not have to apologize for doing their job — which is to save their show.

“Comet” had been a big hit — grossing more than $1 million a week — and the Kagans have a responsibility to fight for it. If that means bringing in a household name at the expense of a fine but unknown actor, so be it.

The mistake they made was thinking “Great Comet” could survive on Broadway without a name. The show is based on “War and Peace.” It wasn’t Leo Tolstoy who turned out the crowds. It was Josh Groban.

Bringing Mandy Patinkin in for 3 weeks would not have "saved their show." It would have brought out a different (and certainly fuller) crowd, and attracted additional attention that would help make more people give the show a chance, but this is not a new, unknown show. It has been on Broadway since November 2016 and was nominated for a dozen Tonys (and won a couple). If this is going to be a long-running hit, it needs to survive on its own merits.

This was stunt casting that would at best buy them a few weeks to come up with the next bit of stunt casting, not about long-term health. And I say this as someone who seriously looked into flying across the country to see Patinkin in this upon hearing the first announcement (before seeing or understanding what else was going on), even though when I was last in NYC I didn't seriously consider seeing the show with Groban.

The idea that they should be as ruthless as they want because it gets them money, and because there are additional cast and crew members they haven't (necessarily) jerked around is ridiculous.

And the one good thing that comes from a show that closes: it frees up that theater (and cast and crew) for other shows.
posted by mountmccabe at 1:00 PM on August 2, 2017 [3 favorites]

And it's over (September 3rd) NYT: ‘Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812’ to Close on Broadway
posted by zachlipton at 4:59 PM on August 8, 2017 [1 favorite]

I saw it last night and Oak was wonderful. I hope this mess doesn't impact his career.
posted by Mavri at 10:29 AM on August 10, 2017 [2 favorites]

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