Musical with the Most Tony Nominations Shutters Early
On September 3, 2017, Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 will play its final performance on Broadway. The show began previews on October 18, 2016, ahead of an opening night of November 14, 2016. The musical had a long and glorious journey to Broadway, beginning at the small, Off-Off Broadway theatre Ars Nova, followed by two runs in pop-up venues, one in the meatpacking district, and one in midtown, both of which recreated the feeling of a Russian dinner theatre venue, with delicious Russian meals served with the performance. When the show built the momentum to go to Broadway, the creative team was not to be limited by the traditional constraints of a proscenium stage, but instead the Tony winning set designer Mimi Lien reconstructed the Imperial Theatre to have seating on the stage, and a stage in the middle of the orchestra section with seating all around. This innovation extended to all aspects of the show, which set to music a specific section of Leo Tolstoy’s epic novel War and Peace. With book, music, and lyrics by Dave Malloy, the show was a sleeper hit, garnering audience momentum with the casting of Josh Groban in the lead role of Pierre for the Broadway production. The show was nominated for 14 Tony Awards, more than any other show this season, including Best Musical, Best Book, Best Score, Best Orchestrations, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Featured Actor, Best Scenic Design, Best Costume Design, Best Lighting Design, Best Direction, and Best Choreography. In the end, however, the show won just two awards: Best Scenic Design and Best Lighting Design.
When Josh Groban completed his run on July 2, 2017, the producers decided to re-cast the lead role with Okieriete “Oak” Onaodowan, an original cast member from the musical Hamilton, in the role of Pierre. After a one-week interval in which the show’s creator, Dave Malloy, stepped in the role, which he had played in earlier productions of the show, Oak began his performances on July 11, 2017, with the intention to continue in the show until September 4, 2017. Oak was reported to have learned both the accordion and the piano to play this role, even for such a limited time. However, ticket sales plunged, and the producers were made palpably aware that Oak was not as big a name as Groban, and worse yet, a big name would be required for this show to sell enough tickets to stay open. Despite the countless merits of Natasha, Pierre, which hold true independent of the casting, it is ultimately casting that generally sways an audience to buy tickets. Therefore, when Broadway veteran Mandy Patinkin expressed interest in stepping into the show, the producers decided that Oak would leave early, and Patinkin would begin on August 15, 2017. While this was just three weeks earlier than planned, the press and social media immediately latched onto this decision as an outrage.
In the post-election mood of racial hypersensitivity, the move was framed as a racially charged decision, in that Patinkin, a white man, was set to replace Oak, a black man. This is a particular shame as unlike many other shows, Natasha, Pierre embraced diversity from the get-go, with the original role of Natasha portrayed by Denée Benton, a black woman, along with a cast that was approximately half non-white. One black cast member, Azudi Onyejekwe, wrote an open letter praising the show’s white creators for their “thorough, nuanced, pragmatic approach to diversity.” While the producers and Dave Malloy himself pleaded that race had nothing to do with the decision to welcome in Patinkin, the damage had been done, and Patinkin stepped away, distancing himself from the show. At that point, Oak had already determined to leave on August 15, 2017. As such, the producers were left scrambling and were forced to announce closure on September 3, 2017. In the meantime, the role of Pierre was played by Scott Stangland, followed by creator Dave Malloy closing out the run. Box office has remained high, if not sold out, for the final weeks of the prematurely shuttered run.