Mandy Patinkin has decided to drop out of Broadway’s “Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812” just days after he was announced to join the cast, and before he even set foot on stage — leaving the show struggling to remain open without a big-name star, and its producers apologizing for inciting the social media storm that prompted Patinkin’s departure.
Patinkin has something of a reputation for exiting projects unexpectedly (“Chicago Hope,” “Criminal Minds”). This time, the decision came after an outcry arose over the fact that his casting seemed to shortchange the work of the actor Okieriete Onaodowan (“Hamilton”), whose own run in the show was cut short in order to make room for Patinkin to play the role of Pierre.
“My understanding of the show’s request that I step into the show is not as it has been portrayed,” Patinkin said over a series of tweets, “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 [as Onaodowan is known along Broadway] and I will, therefore, not be appearing in the show.”
The quickie addition of Patinkin to the cast, spurred by producers’ concerns over the financial stability of the production following the departure of headliner Josh Groban, was perceived as a slight to Onaodowan, whose nine-week run in the musical was abruptly cut short. Patinkin, a Tony winner for “Evita” and considered one of Broadway’s biggest names, would certainly have been a much more potent box office draw than Onaodowan, best known for his standout performance as two supporting characters in “Hamilton.” But in a Broadway community acutely tuned to issues of diversity, the move was read as an expression of disrespect for an African-American actor in favor of a white actor.
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The ensuing, vocal criticism prompted the show’s producers — led by first-time lead producers Howard and Janet Kagan — to issue a statement of apology. “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,” they said in a statement. “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.”
The controversial recasting came as producers struggled to keep the show on the boards after the departure of Groban, whose name of marquee regularly fueled grosses of more than $1 million per week. The addition of musician Ingrid Michaelson helped the production stay afloat, but as the show’s creator and sometime star Dave Malloy noted on Twitter, the production’s prospects after Michaelson’s exit look grim. “The show was in desperate shape; sales after Ingrid leaving Aug. 13 were catastrophically low,” he said. “Show would have closed.”
Onaodowan, for his part, offered comment on his exit on social media. Although producers had said he might return after Patinkin’s three-week stint in the show, Onaodowan said his last performance would be Aug. 13.
With Patinkin out and no box office star on the docket, the lifespan of “Great Comet” is seemingly jeopardized. “I am not sure that the show has a future now,” Malloy said in a tweet.