Pierre, Natasha and The Great Comet of 1812 closed on Sept. 3 due to casting conflicts and controversy.
Actor Mandy Patinkin was set to replace African-American actor Okieriete “Oak” Onaodowan as the role of Pierre three weeks before Onaodowan’s run was intended to end, which caused an uproar on social media and eventually led to the show’s closure.
The previous Pierre, played by Josh Groban, left the show in June, with Onaodowan set to replace him for two months, ending after Labor Day.
Due to a slowdown in ticket sales, Onaodowan’s run was cut short and he was to be replaced by Broadway legend Patinkin in an attempt to save the show.
However, many argue that this is a racial issue and a common problem in the entertainment business. Supporters of Onaodowan accused the producers of not giving him enough time to develop an audience and believed that the producer’s decision truly was about race.
The show’s producers issued a statement saying, “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. 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.”
It is common for producers to replace lesser-known actors with better-known performers in order to sell more tickets, which is what producers of Comet claim to have done.
Patinkin later declined the role, saying that he did not understand the situation and did not mean to hurt a fellow actor.
Patinkin, a musical theater legend, left the show with no stars to pick up ticket sales, which were looking extra grim following the departure of singer-songwriter Ingrid Michaelson in mid-August. After Patinkin turned down the job, the producers offered it to Onaodowan, who then turned it down.
Aside from the ticket problems the show was having during Onaodowan’s run, producers claim that he was not prepared to fulfill the requirements of the role, including portions of his piano and accordion playing, which were cut and given to other performers. An understudy was forced to play his role for a week because he was unprepared.
The show was praised for its diverse casting, even receiving an award for extraordinary excellence in diversity on Broadway from Actors’ Equity. The roles of Natasha and Pierre are usually reserved for white actors, yet this was not the case in this production, which was commended.
The show earned 12 nominations at the 2017 Tony Awards, which was the most nominations that any show received that year. It only won for set and lighting design, however, which are not categories that tend to draw people to go see the show.
Pierre, Natasha and the Great Comet of 1812 was seen as novelty in the way that it incorporated the audience into the show and because of its unique and innovative set.
The praise from critics really came from Groban’s performance and ticket sales dropped considerably because of his departure. Groban’s performances had brought in over $1 million per week in ticket sales during his time.
Although the show was doing relatively well, the reconfiguration of the theater and other requirements to keep the show afloat were pricey. The producers could not handle the continued decline of tickets, particularly following this scandal.
The theater was oriented in a way that allowed the audience to be part of the show, with options of stage seats in banquettes or dining tables. The production took the classic proscenium stage, but removed almost 200 seats from the audience to accommodate the design. The Broadway production cost about $14 million to stage.
This is not the first scandal involving the show. There was a problem regarding program billing when the show premiered.
The contract between Ars Nova, the theater where the show started off, stated that all productions be billed as “The Ars Nova production of,” yet this was missing from the program, almost leading to a lawsuit.
The show may be adopted to become a touring production, and is currently being reviewed to see how the staging and scenic design can be modified for this purpose.