UPDATED, 5:50 AM: The producers of The Great Comet have released the following statement: “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. 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.”
PREVIOUSLY, July 28: Mandy Patinkin took to Twitter and The New York Times on Friday afternoon to say that he has pulled out of a planned three-week stint in the Broadway musical Natasha, Pierre and The Great Comet of 1812. Lead producer Howard Kagan had announced earlier this week that Patinkin had been signed to play the title role in the show, replacing Okierete “Oak” Onaodowan, an African-American actor who took over as Pierre after Josh Groban left earlier this month.
Onaodowan is an original company member of Hamilton whose casting as Groban’s replacement in The Great Comet was announced with great fanfare in February. The abrupt change to Patinkin prompted disbelief and angry responses on social media from theater people and others who claimed the change was disrespectful and all too typical of the treatment of actors of color throughout the entertainment industry. Onaodowan, they said, had not been given enough time to develop an audience for the show.
In his tweets, Patinkin said he supported those concerns and cited them as his reason for pulling out of the show:
Onaodowan also took to Twitter late this week, announcing that his final performance in the musical would be on August 13 and that he would not be returning to the show. Kagan had expressed the hope that Onaodowan, who originated the roles of Hercules Mulligan and James Madison in the Broadway run of Hamilton, would return to the show at a later date and is “a great Pierre.” It isn’t known whether Patinkin’s announcement will change Onaodowan’s mind; his run also had been planned as limited ad would have ended in a few weeks.
All of those factors played into the chaotic week for one of the most celebrated and racially diverse shows of the recently ended season. In an interview with Deadline in June, director Rachel Chavkin said that she and the show’s creator, Dave Malloy, along with the producers, were committed to diversity throughout every aspect of the production. The role of Natasha, originated off-Broadway by Phillipa Soo, an actress with a diverse background, has been played on Broadway from the beginning by Tony nominee Denée Benton, an African-American actress.
Asked whether race had been an issue in casting Benton and other members of the company, Chavkin told Deadline: “I’m very happy to say it wasn’t. Internally – and this emanates from Dave and me, but it’s a value shared by everyone on the team – there is a commitment to color-conscious casting, to ensuring diversity at all levels. I’ve been acutely aware of my own failings to ensure always diverse creative teams, and that’s something I’m beginning to be more conscious of in my career.”
But when The Great Comet came away from the June Tony Awards with just two medallions — for the set and lighting — ticket sales took a precipitous drop for performances after the departure of Groban, whose popularity as a recording artist had been the show’s chief marquee draw. Patinkin, a Tony- and Emmy-winning actor best known as Saul Berenson in Showtime’s Homeland, clearly was seen as a way of drawing ticket buyers through the slow period on Broadway that extends from the middle of August through Labor Day and most of September. Given the show’s record of diversity, the team clearly felt insulated from the kind of criticism that unfolded anyway.
Mallow himself, also referring to co-star Ingrid Michaelson in the role of Sonya, tweeted, in a series of posts:
“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. mandy is a beautiful legend. had no idea… the show asked him to come asap because we were on brink of closing. so sorry to have missed the racial optics of it.”