Mandy, Oak, and the “Great Comet” Controversy of 2017
There has certainly been a great deal of controversy over the ousting of Okierete “Oak” Onoadowan in favor of Mandy Patinkin to play Pierre for a three week engagement in Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812. It has been a polarizing subject that has inspired outrage, from the cogent argument that it's not right to replace a contracted performer because an arguably more-marketable one has become available, to more outlandish cries of racism which, if you look at the makeup of this diverse cast, doesn't really hold water. The question here is, “Is it acceptable, for reasons of publicity and box office potential, to relieve a performer of his or her contracted duties in lieu of a bigger name? Where are the lines of professional courtesy and etiquette crossed?”
Looking at things for a moment from a strictly practical standpoint, the allure of bringing in a well-respected talent of the musical theatre such as Mandy Patinkin makes sense. There are plenty of people who will buy tickets just to see Mr. Patinkin’s return to the Broadway musical after an unhappily long absence. This creates an event around a show that may be in dire need of a box office boost, as is purported to be the case for Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812. The idea of star casting to keep a show running is not without precedent. David Merrick did it with Hello, Dolly! in one of the most-famous cases, and Chicago has certainly bolstered its long run with waves of stunt casting. It’s good business and can make the difference between whether a show stays open or not.
That being said…
I always try to speak from my heart with love after listening. I have listened. I'm more than grateful for all the love and support the community and fans have shown me. It makes what we do and deal with as artists easier when you know many people do indeed have your back and that you are valued for your work. In spite of everything, I am grateful to have had the time to bring this character to life with a remarkable cast that truly make the Imperial Theater a sacred place every night. My pops would always tell me to be aware of the company you keep. I'm fully aware of the remarkable talents this cast holds, with Denee at the helm. My work is just a reflection of what they bring, have brought and will continue to bring, be it me, Mandy, whomever is co-pilot to Denee. AUGUST 13th WILL BE MY LAST SHOW! I will not be returning. So make room in your schedule between now and Aug 13th. Come through, have a drink, and let's celebrate the time we have because as always, that's all we are guaranteed. We make the most of the gifts we are given and I'm driven to deliver a defining moment in time, with every line I let loose on stage. #MynameisOak #TheHomiesRollDEEP #TheFansMadeRoom #WeAreTheChange #IPierredAndProspered #MyPierreWillPerish #August13th #OnwardsAndUpwords #KatyPerry #SkateyPierre?
How much benefit will Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 receive from a short, three week stint by Mandy Patinkin? It is hard to imagine that a struggling show will somehow turn around its fate in less than a month, even with what a Tony-winning star the caliber and renown of Mr. Patinkin brings to the table. I’m no student of economics and wouldn’t dare venture to do anyone’s taxes, but looking at the weekly grosses and percentages for Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812, it seems possible to me that the lack of ticket sales that have been reported post Ingrid Michaelsen’s impending departure, may be the result of the September slump that most Broadway shows must endure. If that is the case, Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 is most likely to bounce back as the holidays approach, especially if replacement casting continues to be inspired, diverse, and, yes, a bit commercial. If that doesn’t seem like a possibility, then odds are that Patinkin’s presence would not have saved the show and the argument for letting Mr. Onoadowan go becomes null and void.
Where things get sketchy is when such casting decisions are made at the expense of another performer who is already contracted to perform the role in question. In this case, Mr. Onoadowan still had three weeks left of his contract, but was allegedly pushed out to “make room” for Mr. Patinkin without being given the respect of being told that this was happening. Though “Oak” would be bought out of his contract, it is suggested that he was not given a voice in whether or not these terms were acceptable to him. When Mr. Patinkin learned of this ostensible offense, he withdrew from the production in an act of solidarity and compassion. Good for him. All artists, whether they are a star or not, should be afforded the respect of finishing out their contracts unless some egregious offense has been committed.
If Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 is indeed mired in financial struggles, I do hope a remedy can be found. Broadway deserves more innovative, out-of-the-box, experiences like this show has to offer and I’d like to think that there is an ongoing audience for such a special piece. Do I think the show’s producers were intentionally malicious in this scenario of replacing Mr. Onoadowan? Not at all. They simply jumped at an opportunity that most people would be excited to explore: Mandy Patinkin, a Broadway legend, in their show. Were they right to do it? Probably not, but sometimes desperate measures can be called for to save a show. Can Mr. Onoadowan finish out his three weeks and then an actor of Mr. Patinkin’s stature step in and help boost those ticket sales? There are others besides Mandy who can make this kind of box office magic happen, but let us make sure that appropriate timing and propriety are observed.