Controversy has been brewing around the Broadway production of Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812 since it was announced that actor Mandy Patinkin was being brought on to replace Okieriete “Oak” Onaodowan, of Hamilton fame.
The New York Times reports that the decision to bring in Patinkin was in response to the departure of Josh Groban. Though they’d announced in February that the role would be taken up by Onaodowan for a nine week run, producers abruptly decided to bring in Patinkin for the final three weeks, citing a decline in ticket sales.
Onaodowan, who had learned to play the accordion for the role and prepared for months, announced his departure in a gracious message on social media on Friday:
Later that day, Patinkin announced he would step down from the show before even performing, saying he agrees with the outcry from the community about a black actor having his run cut short to be replaced by a white actor:
Variety reports that first-time lead producers Howard and Janet Kagan issued a statement of apology about their decision:
“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,” they 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.”
The show’s creator, Dave Malloy, wrote on Twitter that sales had slowed so drastically after the departure of Groban that producers feared it would close. They had similarly replaced another performer with Ingrid Michaelson, a more famous singer-songwriter, and Malloy stated he saw it as the same thing, claiming he missed the “racial optics” of it.
According to NYT, the show made $1.2 million on average each week with Groban starring as Pierre, and made $923,571 in the last week Onaodowan performed in the role. This is still considered high by Broadway standards and does cover the cost of production.
On Twitter, Onaodowan is retweeting messages from fans, including Groban and his fellow performer, Azudi Onyejekwe, who are still encouraging people to see the show, but to do so thoughtfully:
Kagan told the NYT that Onaodowan is welcome to reprise his role as Pierre at any time. He has no intention of doing so, saying, “I will not be returning.”