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Howard Sherman: How bad producing decisions made Great Comet musical crash to earth

Josh Groban and the cast of Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812. Photo: Chad Batka Josh Groban and the cast of Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812. Photo: Chad Batka
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The Great Comet is burning out, and taking Natasha and Pierre with it.

Unlike the recent closing of the play Indecent, which managed to go out as a triumph, with its final week also its bestselling after a six-week reprieve, Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 is closing amid controversy, rancour and disappointment. This is a shame for a work that was in many ways more ambitious than much of what reaches Broadway. Great Comet ends its run on September 3.

Recapping what Mark Shenton has already chronicled, the producers of Great Comet had replaced their original Pierre, Josh Groban, at the end of his planned run, with Okieriete Onaodowan, a member of the original cast of Hamilton. However, seeing that the show’s grosses were declining, and projecting further drops, the producers, led by Howard Kagan, announced just weeks after the actor began that Onaodowan, known to all as ‘Oak’, would depart early. His last three weeks would be performed by Mandy Patinkin, the original star of both Evita and Sunday in the Park With George on Broadway, who himself would stay for only three weeks.

The news that Patinkin would supplant Oak was met with significant pushback online, decrying the sudden decision to replace an actor of colour with a white performer. Within a day, Patinkin withdrew and Oak made clear he wouldn’t be returning.

After the initial wave of anger over what many perceived as racial insensitivity, if not outright racism, the story took a turn. Some pointed out that the production had a racially diverse cast and that, in defending Oak, they might be dooming the show without the box office boost from Patinkin. Dozens of people would be put out of work. Some will undoubtedly argue that that is what has come to pass.

But is that the case?

Regardless of the make-up of the show’s original or current cast, the decision summarily to replace an actor of colour, who was only scheduled to be in the show for two months, with a much older white man for a mere three weeks, was truly bad optics at the very least. At a time when racial representation in the arts is a subject of constant conversation, the decision looked awful, even if it was made with the intention of sustaining the show. But racial conflagration doesn’t sell seats. At least, I hope not.

No one claimed that Oak was giving a bad performance. Having seen two other Pierres, I can state that he was at least the equal of both. The fact that business fell off without Groban shouldn’t have surprised anyone, least of all the producers, since they were going from a major recording star with a huge fan base to a talented working actor taking on his first above-the-title role.

The cataclysm that hit Great Comet is rooted in the decision to cast Groban originally

Pierre is, in many ways, not really a star part, except that a star has played it. The cataclysm that hit Great Comet is really rooted in the decision to cast Groban originally.

On the one hand his presence no doubt lifted the show’s economic prospects considerably. While Great Comet was stupendously creative and ambitious, unlike few Broadway entries in my 35-plus years of seeing Broadway shows, it was also sufficiently unconventional to make it difficult to compete with more conventionally structured works, whether Dear Evan Hansen or Waitress. Groban helped to bridge what, for some, might have been an unapproachable chasm of style.

But very often, once a show has a star, audiences come to expect a star throughout the run, even if each star is successively less famous. The Producers never really recovered on Broadway once Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick left (save for when they returned). Hello, Dolly! rides on the ability to cast almost any big-name musical actress over 40 in the title role, though Bette Midler is generating stratospheric grosses given her fame relative to the size of the theatre. But no one decides to see The Lion King or Cats based primarily on who is in it. The show, in effect, becomes the star.

Would Patinkin have boosted the box office? Yes, I imagine so. I certainly would have enjoyed seeing him – although not once I understood his presence was unceremoniously supplanting Oak.

Let’s also not forget that he was going in for only three weeks, until September 3. So what we have learned was that Great Comet was probably closing anyway. All Patinkin would have done was to yield three weeks of greater profits before the bottom fell out. If the producers had any idea, or plan, of what to do after September 3, it’s not in evidence.

One has to admire the producers of Great Comet for getting it to Broadway, giving it wider exposure than it had at Ars Nova or Kazino, the tent that housed its runs in the Meatpacking District and in a parking lot off Eighth Avenue.

But just as Great Comet started with an entirely unnecessary dispute over a contractual billing credit for Ars Nova, which flared publicly in a very ugly fashion, so too it is going out the same way. The racial controversy arose out of an effort to squeeze the few last dollars out of the show, both Oak and Mandy were put into untenable positions, and all of that served to obscure the fact that the production was going to close no matter what.

Let’s remember the creative success of Great Comet and the many talented people in and behind it. But let’s also remember the unthinking and perhaps ugly producing decisions that marred its achievements, because they shouldn’t have happened at all.

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