A critically acclaimed musical with one of the most diverse casts on Broadway tried to reverse slumping ticket sales by replacing a black actor with a more famous white one, but social justice warriors torpedoed the move, and the show will not go on as a result.
“Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812” will hold its final performance on Sept. 3, four months after it was nominated for 12 Tony Awards, the most of any production last season.
The historical musical joins a growing list of artistic endeavors to offend social justice advocates over issues of identity politics. Social critics savaged last year’s Marvel Universe film “Doctor Strange,” accusing filmmakers of “whitewashing” an Asian character by employing actress Tilda Swinton as The Ancient One.
They also rejected the Nina Simone biopic “Nina” because lead actress Zoe Saldana had to use a prosthetic nose and darken her skin for the role.
“This is an area where race shouldn’t matter, in part because the production itself was known for its diversity,” Mr. Toto said. “This was not an all-white show where they finally hired a person of color and kicked him out. This was a show with a very diverse cast doing what you’d think was the right thing from the social justice playbook, and it still wasn’t enough.”
Based on a 70-page excerpt from Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace,” “The Great Comet” enjoyed a meteoric rise to prominence when it opened at the Imperial Theater last fall.
The role of Pierre Bezukhov had been played by singer-songwriter Josh Groban, who is white. He left the show in early July and was replaced by “Hamilton” veteran Okieriete “Oak” Onaodowan, who is black.
Ticket sales lulled without Mr. Groban, and producers Howard and Janet Kagan feared “The Great Comet” would come crashing down without a new star to fill seats.
On July 26, they announced that Mr. Onaodowan had “graciously agreed” to step aside for Tony-winning actor Mandy Patinkin, who stars in the Showtime series “Homeland” and has been one of Broadway’s biggest names for decades.
“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,” Mr. Kagan said in a statement at the time. “He is a terrific Pierre.”
The decision to replace a black actor with a white one resulted in an immediate backlash on social media and in the theater community.
Writing at the website Broadway Black, Jamara Wakefield said the move “raises questions about how Black actors are valued and supported within Broadway.”
“It is ironic when Black actors participate in narratives about colonial history, change present day history by adding to the diversity to Broadway, and then are easily replaced as if their only value to a production is based on ticket sales,” Ms. Wakefield wrote.
Tony-winning actress Cynthia Erivo said the effort to boost ticket sales “shouldn’t override a person doing his job.”
“What I know for a fact is that Oak worked extremely hard for this,” Ms. Erivo said on Twitter. “Which makes this occurrence distasteful and uncouth.”
In response to the public outcry, Mr. Patinkin withdrew from the role of Pierre, saying he misunderstood Mr. Onaodowan’s receptiveness of the change and “would never accept a role knowing it would harm another actor.”
“I am a huge fan of Oak and I will, therefore, not be appearing in the show,” he wrote.
The show’s producers released a statement saying they 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.”
In a series of posts on Twitter, “Great Comet” creator Dave Malloy said the show approached Mr. Patinkin only because it was in “desperate shape” and on the brink of collapse. He apologized for missing the “racial optics” of the situation.
Despite Mr. Patinkin’s withdrawal, Mr. Onaodowan announced that he would still be leaving the show and delivered his final performance on Aug. 13. The role of Pierre will be played by Mr. Malloy during its final two weeks.
“The Great Comet” is not the only show that has run afoul of the arbiters of political correctness, but it may be the most diverse.
Indeed, director Rachel Chavkin said “The Great Comet” went out of its way to make “color-conscious” casting decisions.
“Internally — and this emanates from Dave and me, but it’s a value shared by everyone on the team — there is a commitment to color-conscious casting, to ensuring diversity at all levels,” Ms. Chavkin said in an interview with Deadline in June. “I’ve been acutely aware of my own failings to ensure always diverse creative teams, and that’s something I’m beginning to be more conscious of in my career.”
Meanwhile, the World War II film “Dunkirk,” which depicts the evacuation of British troops across the English Channel, was panned by some critics for lacking a diverse cast.
HBO’s “Confederate,” a streaming series that has yet to air about what would have happened if the Confederate States of America had won the Civil War, already is facing charges of “cultural appropriation.” Critics have accused two of its producers, who created the network’s popular “Game of Thrones” series, of seeking to create a slave fan fiction for Confederacy apologists.
Given how diverse the cast of “The Great Comet” is, Mr. Toto called the efforts of the social justice warriors short-sighted.
“You would think that the people sharing their outrage would think, ‘Wait a minute, if the show closes because they get rid of the successful white actor, then those people are out of work,’” he said. “And now those people are out of work because of it. It’s very short-sighted, and it’s very absurd.”
Copyright © 2017 The Washington Times, LLC.