Natasha, Pierre and The Great Controversy of 2017

Joanne Sadler (@joelsa29) assesses the future of the Great Comet and discusses the recent controversy.

 

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Josh Groban (left) and Oak Onaodowan (right)

In what is arguably the biggest controversy in Broadway this year, Okieriete ‘Oak’ Onaodowan was ousted from his role as Pierre in the twelve-time Tony nominated Natasha and the Great Comet of 1812, and replaced by Mandy Pantinkin, an experienced, respected actor who happens to be white. I’ll do my best to maintain an unbiased narrative throughout this post, but it’s difficult when the facts point to many dichotomous conclusions.

Oak Onaodowan joined the cast a month ago, learning new two instruments and an entire soundtrack for the part. Even with big boots to fill following the departure of Josh Groban, Onaodowan succeeded to astound with his fresh and exciting portrayal of Pierre, so when a sudden announcement came stating that his already short run would be cut even shorter, there was bound to be some furore. But no one expected the response to be quite as drastic as it was.

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What later came to light as a cast change made with the intent to boost sales following a financial downturn was interpreted as racist and disrespectful move, sparking the hashtags #notmypierre and #makeroomforoak. With people threatening to boycott the show, composer Dave Malloy had to step in to clarify and defuse the situation. The tweets read:

‘hey all. bit of a devastating last 24 hours. so sorry for how everything went down. nothing but love and artistic awe for @OakSmash. the show was in desperate shape; sales after ingrid leaving Aug 13 were catastrophically low. show would have closed. 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 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. signing off now. going for ice cream or whiskey or likely both. so sorry. thank you for the love.’

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This was quickly followed by a response from the official twitter page, who posted this photo captioned with ‘our deepest apologies.’

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Museum Of The Moving Image 30th Annual Salute - Arrivals
Broadway veteran and TV star Mandy Patinkin

And just when we thought the situation had been eased, it was announced that Mandy Pantinkin had stepped down from the role and was ‘devastated’ following the fiasco. So with confirmation of ‘catastrophically low’ sales and the exit of the future leading man, no one is sure about what the future will bring for the show. It’s only a matter of time before the show bucks up or leaves Broadway.

As a two-time Tony Award winner, the Great Comet of 1812 was expected to do incredibly well. You’ll note how I’ve written a post before about whether a Tony Award defines success (https://mtasambassador.wordpress.com/2017/06/13/do-tony-awards-define-success/) and it seems we may have just found a show to break the trend.

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The theatre is a risky business, and the producers of Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet are experiencing this first hand. Do you think the responses from the theatre community were justified, or simply absurd? Let me know in the comments.

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