Great Comet, Bad Business
While I have only been active in theatre for the past 20 years, I cannot recall a Broadway fiasco like the one that is unfolding with Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812.
To say it's a mess would be an understatement. If this is how it looks from the outside, I can only imagine what the cast and crew are going through and my heart certainly goes out to them.
However, that is where my sympathy stops because, in the end, this one is on producers and creative team. How they fumbled this one up is beyond me. But given some of their past actions, it wasn't hard to predict that questionable decisions were coming down the road.
Keep in mind that these are the same producers (Howard and Janet Kagan) that booted Ars Nova, who commissioned the piece, from it's contractually agreed on billing and then barred any Ars Nova personnel from seeing the show in previews. Which resulted in a filed but later withdrawn lawsuit.
This is the same producer who strangely felt it was necessary to announce Josh Groban's absence for a performance from the stage rather than on the lobby cast board thinking it would quell anger when it did the exact opposite.
This is the same producer that heard Ingrid Michaelson say off hand that she would love to do the role of Sonya "someday" and then reportedly within a couple of days, she had an offer without any auditions or meetings. Thus leading to Brittain Ashford getting the boot for Michaelson to do the role until August 16th when Ashford returns.
This is the same producer who tried to elicit support for their revival of "On the Town" by sending out chicken scratched, crossed out letters to Tony voters, who said it did more harm than good. In fact, they even used questionable methods to raise money for the show in the first place.
The Oak/Mandy situation, however, was something else entirely. I can certainly understand where the producers and Dave Malloy were coming from. But they handled it terribly. While I'm sure there isn't a racist bone in their bodies, the optics of pushing out a black actor for a white one is hard to ignore, especially from the perspectives of fellow black actors. Just look at the reactions of Cynthia Erivo and others.
The other issue this raises is how was this situation conveyed to Mandy Patinkin? If we go by his statement to the NY Times, it sounds like producers might have misled him in how things were handled with Oak. Thankfully, because Patinkin is a pro, he could see how badly this was dealt with and backed out quickly. But again, this speaks to the terrible decision making on the part of the producing team.
This is the type of show that never needed to be star-centric (ala Josh Gorban), but because it was, that will be its undoing. When you make something so star-centric, when that star leaves, the show is going to suffer financially. And here is where the producers screwed up yet again.
Josh Groban announced on December 5, 2016, that his last performance would be July 2nd, 2017. That gave producers seven months to find a suitable replacement. They announced Oak on February 15th, five months before he would take over the role. Was the decision made too soon? Perhaps. Was Oak the right choice? Love him but probably not. I understand why they did that, to sustain advance ticket sales but perhaps doing a more thorough and time-consuming search, they could have found someone with enough star power to hopefully match Groban's appeal or come closer than Oak's appeal did.
In the end, when The Great Comet eventually closes, which I think will happen sooner than later now, we're going to look back at what could have been. This is not a good show. This is a phenomenal show. I had it pegged early on to be neck and neck with Dear Evan Hansen as the best of the year. Perhaps the worst thing to happen to it was the fact that it came to Broadway in the first place.
Maybe The Great Comet should have stayed away and become that "Off-Broadway show you have to see!" Maybe it should have played in a small theatre or bar for years. Maybe it could have been the long term successor to The Fantasticks. Maybe it still can.
But maybe The Great Comet is a cautionary tale of what happens when good material is ruined by the big business of Broadway and those who do it poorly.