- The Washington Times - Monday, September 4, 2017

NEW YORK — When skygazers looked up at the Great Comet at the turn of the 19th century, some saw it as a dire omen of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia and other events of catastrophic proportion.

Today, the Great Comet presages a different sort of threat — the one posed to art by political correctness.

“Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812,” the Broadway hit based on a 70-page excerpt of Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace,” delivered an emotional final performance Sunday to a packed crowd at the Imperial Theatre.

“Thank you to every member of the company, cast on stage and off stage, past and present,” director Rachel Chavkin said at the end of the show, before she was drowned out by roaring applause. She told the audience to “keep supporting new work.”

Debuting on Broadway in November, the musical worked its way up from Ars Nova to become the darling of the theater world last season, when it received 12 Tony Award nominations — more than any other production.

The show wowed critics with its raucous party scenes, immersive audience experience and varied musical stylings — seamlessly alternating between jazz, indie rock and electronica, all with an inflection of Russian folk.

But less than a year into its Broadway run, “The Great Comet” announced its closure, citing slumping ticket sales and an irreconcilable casting dispute.

The decline became evident when Josh Groban, the singer-songwriter who played Count Pierre Bezukhov, announced he would depart the show in July. He was succeeded in the titular role by “Hamilton” veteran Okieriete Onaodowan, a Nigerian-American actor known by his nickname “Oak.”

Writer and creator Dave Malloy, who played the role of Pierre off-Broadway, said on Twitter the show was in “desperate shape” and “would have closed” without an immediate reversal in sales.

So producers enlisted Mandy Patinkin, the Tony Award-winning actor who stars in Showtime’s “Homeland” and is beloved for his portrayal of Inigo Montoya in “The Princess Bride,” to take over as Pierre three weeks before Mr. Onaodowan’s run was scheduled to come to an end.

“Oak graciously agreed to make room for Mandy’s ‘Homeland’ schedule, and we sincerely hope that Oak will return to us in the fall or winter,” producer Howard Kagan said in a press release at the time. “He is a terrific Pierre.”

The decision to replace a black actor with a more famous white one — even though the role initially had been played by two white men — immediately drew the ire of progressives in the theater community and on social media.

The phrase used by Mr. Kagan to welcome Mr. Patinkin to the show, “make room for Mandy,” became a hashtag for social justice warriors to draw attention to, as BroadwayBlack.com put it, “questions about how Black actors are valued and supported within Broadway.”

The backlash against “The Great Comet” was especially dizzying because the show featured one of the most diverse casts on Broadway.

The lead role of Natasha Rostova was played by Denée Benton, who applauded producers for their willingness to cast a black actress as a Russian countess. The show also was praised by Actors’ Equity for using a “diverse and inclusive company” to tell a story “portraying citizens of a largely Caucasian community.”

The uproar continued, however, and Mr. Patinkin withdrew from the role of Pierre. He told The New York Times that he was unaware of Mr. Onaodowan’s unreceptiveness to the change and “would never accept a role knowing it would harm another actor.”

“I hear what members of the community have said and I agree with them,” Mr. Patinkin said. “I am a huge fan of Oak and I will, therefore, not be appearing in the show.”

Shortly thereafter, producers announced “The Great Comet” would deliver its final performance on Sept. 3. Mr. Onaodowan still left the musical as scheduled, on Aug. 13, and Mr. Malloy took over the role of Pierre for the show’s final three weeks.

More than 100 members of the cast and crew will have to find new jobs as a result of the show’s closure, The New York Times reported.

Writing at the New York Post, Karol Markowicz declared “PC idiocy” had killed “The Great Comet.”

“There’s a culture war going on out there, and it came to ‘The Great Comet,’” Ms. Markowicz wrote. “Sadly, the show lost.”

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