Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812, a musical whose history is nearly as complicated as the Russian novel that inspired it, will close after the matinée performance on September 3rd at Broadway’s Imperial Theatre. It will have played 32 previews and 336 regular performances.
The announcement from Matt Ross, a spokesman for the $12 million show, concludes one of the most fiercely divisive episodes in recent Broadway history, in which issues of color-conscious casting came up against a truism as old as Broadway itself: No matter how noble the artistic intentions, if people aren’t buying tickets, everyone is out of work.
The closing notice went up after several weeks of furious activity on the part of the producers, led by Howard and Janet Kagan, to revive a flagging box office in the wake of the Tony Awards in June and the subsequent departure of Josh Groban. The recording star left the show in early July after playing the title role of Pierre since the show’s first Broadway preview last October 18.
Groban’s replacement, announced in February, was Okieriete “Oak” Onaodowan, who was slated for a two-month run that would have taken the show into the post-Labor Day period. In late July, however, with ticket sales slumping and advance sales falling off sharply, the producers announced that Onaodowan had “graciously” agreed to step aside while Mandy Patinkin played Pierre beginning August 15.
The decision to replace Onaodowan, who is African-American, with Patinkin, who is not, sparked a furor in social media over the move. Supporters sympathetic to Onaodowan accused the producers of failing to give the Hamilton veteran time to develop an audience, and asserted it was all too symptomatic of the treatment of actors of color in the entertainment industry. Postings also suggested that Onaodowan had not gone as willingly as the producers implied and that he was, in fact, angry about his dismissal.
Patinkin quickly withdrew from the plan, stating that he had been misinformed about the circumstance surrounding his casting and that he had no intention of putting a fellow actor out of work. The Kagans issued a statement apologizing for bungling the move and promising to move forward.
The show’s director, Rachel Chavkin, who has been outspoken on matters of “color-conscious” hiring both on- and backstage, told Deadline last week that “Everyone is focused right now on finding a productive way forward in the best interests of this beautiful show, the cast and everyone working at the Imperial Theater.”
However, Great Comet was in free-fall as ticket sales continued to drop and the negative publicity persisted. Composer-lyricist Dave Malloy told followers in social media that the show was destined to close Labor Day weekend barring a drastic uptick in ticket sales. The show, which involved an extensive renovation of the theater and has a large cast, is expensive to run and had fallen below its minimum sales, allowing the Shubert Organization to book another show into the Imperial. It has returned to investors only a small percentage of its capitalization.
The bungling of the casting was not the Great Comet’s first producing misstep. During previews, a program billing dispute between the Kagans and Ars Nova, the off-off-Broadway nonprofit that originated the show, threatened to derail the December opening. And while the musical, based on a 70-page section from Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, earned the devotion of many critics – along with a season-leading 12 Tony nominations – it was Groban’s presence that sold the tickets. In fact, the show never would have gotten a Broadway booking absent a bankable star’s name on the marquee. Great Comet won Tony awards for set and lighting design, but was denied the key prizes that move the box office.
And so, with Patinkin out and Onaodowan insisting his last performance would be on August 13, a backlash against the backlash ensued. Critics observed that in yielding to the outcry over Onaodowan’s dismissal, an entire company faced the unemployment line, including a celebratedly diverse cast.
That’s precisely what has happened, and yet it’s unlikely that Patinkin’s brief stint would have changed that outcome. Many shows close in the post-Tonys culling, and while The Great Comet generated plenty of buzz in its unconventional pre-Broadway venues (including two runs in tents that were converted into nightclub-style spaces where the action unfolded around a crowd that was also dining on a Russian-style meal served with plenty of vodka), that buzz did not transfer to the Imperial. The show’s visual sumptuousness outshone an eclectic, non-traditional score and book that could be confusing and difficult to follow in a Broadway setting where such details count.
Onaodowan will play Pierre through August 13. From August 15-20, Pierre will be played by Scott Stangland, and for the final two weeks, Malloy, who also originated the role, will return. Brittain Ashford will return to the role of Sonya August 15-September 3.
Evidence of just how fraught the Great Comet situation had become is clear in what the closing announcement didn’t have: Any statement at all from the producers saluting the company and creative team for their efforts. It’s a revealing omission, and a sad one.