Broadway Shockers 2017: The Great Comet Burns Out Too Soon
As 2017 draws to a close, TheaterMania looks back on some of the most jaw-dropping stories of the year.
On February 15, it was announced that Okieriete "Oak" Onaodowan, the original Hercules Mulligan and James Madison in Hamilton, would replace Josh Groban as Pierre in Dave Malloy's Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 beginning July 3. On July 1, it was announced that Onaodowan's start date would be pushed a week to July 11.
Onaodowan had only been in the show for two weeks when the production announced that he would play his final show on August 13, to be replaced by Tony and Emmy winner Mandy Patinkin in his "long-awaited return to Broadway." Patinkin's run was set for August 15-September 3; Onaodowan's own final performance was expected to be September 3.
Almost immediately, chaos ensued with fans tweeting questions. Was Onaodowan being dismissed from the production, or just put on hiatus? Would he return to the show? Replacing an African-American with a white actor sparked an outcry on social media about everything from the way people of color are treated in the entertainment industry to opportunities given (or not given) to younger, less established actors. In a statement, producer Howard Kagan declared that Onaodowan "graciously agreed to make room for Mandy" and that "we sincerely hope that Oak will return to us in the fall or winter."
Onaodowan later revealed that despite the production publicly saying he was welcome to return, that was not the case.
The outrage, combined with an acknowledged bungling of statements by the producing team, led to Patinkin withdrawing just days after he was announced with the following statement: "My understanding of the show’s request that I step into the show is not as it has been portrayed and I would never accept a role knowing it would harm another actor."
The Great Comet lost steam quickly thereafter. Ticket sales had gotten dangerously low after Groban's departure. The show won well-deserved design Tonys, but not the crucial Best Musical award that would likely have kept it going. In an earlier situation that creator Malloy acknowledged was similar to the replacement of Onaodowan with Patinkin, longtime principal cast member Brittan Ashford was asked to step aside for a month so that singer-songwriter Ingrid Michaelson could play Sonya in the hopes of increasing sales.
On August 8, in the aftershocks of controversy, it was announced that The Great Comet would end its run on September 3, with Malloy playing the final performance as Pierre.
The cast, however, didn’t let it get them down. Toward the end of the run, they banded together to pay tribute to their work, as well as the show's diversity in race, ethnicity, body type, and gender. And at this year's Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS Flea Market on September 24, the production raised an astounding $50,612, the most of any participating show, with their tables filled with props and other show-related memorabilia.
Whether it was economics, optics, the vortex of social media, or a combination of all three, the cause of Comet's untimely fall will be debated by theater fans for years to come. But hopefully, this inventive musical slice of War and Peace will be remembered for what it brought to the conversation, rather than what took it down.