Josh Groban left the Broadway show Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 a few weeks ago. (I saw him in it. He was fine. Big voice.) The role of Pierre was taken over by Okieriete “Oak” Onaodowan, a well-regarded actor, but not a marquee name. (He was the original Hercules Mulligan in Hamilton. I saw him in it. He was great.) The show was losing money, as most shows do when a mega-star leaves. The producers offered the part of Pierre to Mandy Patinkin. (I have never seen him on stage. But I listened to the Evita cast album a lot as a child.) Patinkin said yes, though had only a three-week window because of his gig on Homeland. Oak, who had been in the role of Pierre for only two weeks and had gotten raves, was to be booted before his contract expired. Mmm.
Producer Howard Kagan breathlessly told Broadway World, “This continues our show’s remarkable history of having great actors and singers see the show as audience members, only to tell us they are inspired to join the cast! Whenever possible we will accommodate them as we did here with Mandy and his Homeland TV schedule. Oak, who was scheduled to appear as Pierre for this period graciously agreed to make room for Mandy, and we sincerely hope that Oak will return to us in the fall or winter. He is a terrific Pierre.”
Oak, however, seemed disinclined to return. He posted on Instagram:
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?
The producer’s statement that Oak had “graciously agreed to make room for Mandy” somehow felt, um, suspect.
The Internet was displeased.
Tony-Award-winning Broadway mega-star Cynthia Erivo was also dismayed. She noted on Twitter,
She further tweeted, in a series I’m compressing a bit for brevity: “Mandy is a wonderful man, Oak is a wonderful man. This has been handled badly. Ticket sales shouldn’t override a person doing his job. What I know for a fact is that Oak worked extremely hard for this. Which makes this occurrence distasteful and uncouth. It means Mandy doesn’t get the chance to fully enjoy his takeover, and Oak doesn’t fully get to enjoy his start or finish. Poor show.”
And she said,
So to you @OakSmash I offer my sincere apologies for this mishandling. You deserve better, and are worth much more than this.
— Cynthia Erivo (@CynthiaEriVo) July 26, 2017
(Is it wrong to apologize even though you’ve nothing wrong? No. We apologize to others whenever we know they’re hurting and whenever they’ve experienced injustice. We say “I’m so sorry” when someone experiences a loss, don’t we?)
No word from the producers until two days after the controversy began — that would be today! — when Patinkin announced that he was dropping out. In a statement to the New York Times, he said, “My understanding of the show’s request that I step into the show is not as it has been portrayed and I 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. I am a huge fan of Oak and I will, therefore, not be appearing in the show.”
AND THEN producer Kagan issued an apology. Of sorts.
Why is this a bad apology?
- The word “apology” does not appear until the last sentence. It should come first.
- The first sentence is terrible: WE ONLY WANTED TO SAVE THE CAST’S JOBS! Come on. We aren’t stupid; we know a producer’s primary goal is to make money. That’s fine. But that sentence’s structure implies that the welfare of the actors came first, that the producers were acting out of profound nobility.
- You had the “wrong impression” that your lead would be delighted to “make room” for his replacement two weeks after stepping into the role? Your pants are smoking, mon ami. (At least admitting that you were clueless about how the theater community would respond is honest.)
- WE CARE DEEPLY ABOUT ACTORS OF COLOR! Not relevant. (Even though the cast is one of the more diverse ones on Broadway, which only makes this debacle sadder. Still, this “WE ARE INVESTED” yelp is out of place in an apology. It’s defensive. And in this case, you acted with racial insensitivity, and you have to own it.)
- As ever: Do not apologize to “everyone who felt hurt.” Apologize to everyone. You hurt everyone. You hurt your show, and you hurt innumerable actors and audience members, even if they’re not aware of this controversy. You did a hurtful thing.
And now you have Oak out, Patinkin out, and a show in deep shit. Dave Malloy, the show’s composer (and the original off-Broadway Pierre, who himself was booted for the cash cow that is Josh Groban) let out a social media cri de coeur.
He sounds utterly at sea, and I am sympathetic. Dude devoted years of his life to this project; I understand the need for ice cream and/or whiskey. (And “dear beloved brittain” is a reference to original cast member Brittain Ashford, who was booted for bigger name Ingrid Michaelson, in an earlier attempt to prolong the show’s post-Groban life.) There’s something authentic about Malloy’s grief — his tweets lack the glib polish of the producer’s statement. But the point remains: It’s easy to miss the “racial optics” when you’re white.
There’s clearly a need for more producers of color who could have said, “uh, guys, hold up” before this all went down. I know the economics of theater are scary, but might there not have been other options than kicking to the curb your rave-reviewed lead who’d had the part for all of 13 days? One idea: Take a loss until Oak’s contract expired, and line up a big star for afterward. Or hey, replace a different cast member, displaying awareness of the “optics.”
Maybe the show was doomed when Groban left, regardless. His fans are rabid and would pay to see him melonball a cantaloupe. Plus it’s a big theater. And tickets are crazy-expensive. And it’s a show that’s not to everyone’s taste. But the producers’ actions all but assured The Great Comet’s demise. No apology can fix that.