Cozily nestled in the bustling streets of Times Square, the Imperial Theater was a world unto itself as an eager audience was introduced to rapturous, 19th century Russia. Written by Leo Tolstoy, “War and Peace” (1869) took on a new life in the Broadway musical, “Natasha, Pierre, and The Great Comet of 1812.” The two hour and 30 minute long production illustrated the decadent affair between the young and wide-eyed Natasha Rostova (played by Denee Benton) and the handsome, though already married, Anatole (played by Lucas Steele) as she waited for her beloved fiance, Prince Andrey (played by Nicholas Belton), to return home from war.
Interestingly quirky and brilliant, “The Great Comet” was declared Broadway’s “next ‘Hamilton’”—both similar in their aim of depicting dense, historical novels as well as their ever-rising rate of success. 12 Tony nominations, the most of any production in 2017, were a confirmation of this success. Yet, the production came to a screeching halt with its final performance on September 3rd, with controversial casting marking the end of an incredibly successful four year run.The end ultimately began in late July, when a financial scare prompted the show’s creator, Dave Malloy, to replace the actor of Pierre, Okieriete “Oak” Onaodowan, an African American best known for playing a supporting role in Hamilton, with Mandy Patinkin, a well-known, white actor who had starred in the famous 1987 “The Princess Bride.”
Only a few weeks prior was Onaodowan chosen to replace the original actor, Josh Groban. Yet a month into the show’s run with Onaodowan, ticket sales dropped to $900,000 a week, which contrasted to the $1.2 million a week that Groban had brought when he played Pierre. In a panicked effort to boost publicity and ticket sales, Malloy called in Patinkin to step in the role, in the hopes that the revered name would help sell the show.
The announcement unleashed a wave of angry protests on social media, as many defended Onaodowan and bluntly pointed out the racism that was involved in the casting replacement. Soon afterwards, Patinkin declined the offer, possibly afraid that in accepting it, he would elicit an even more vehement response on social media. Subsequently, Onaodowan announced on Instagram that his last performance would be on August 13th and that he would not be returning due to the second-rate treatment he received as a black actor. With the debacle leaving neither Patinkin nor Onaodowan to play Pierre, Malloy was left to take on the responsibility to play Pierre for the last three weeks of its run.
Though racial discrimination is, unfortunately, not an uncommon occurrence in the entertainment industry, the producers’ decisions in this case proved to be an incongruous one; the show had received high praise for its diversity, especially with African American actress Denee Benton playing the lead role in a script that doesn’t necessarily warrant people of color to play the characters. Having had made great strides in giving minorities a larger platform, the decision to replace Onaodowan ultimately led the show to retrogress to a state where white people are evidently valued more.
But despite this debacle being an ingrained part of the show’s brief history, it should be made clear that the controversy should not define “The Great Comet”’s legacy. Even if it was not one that could be easily forgiven, nor forgotten, by many, the casting choice was a mistake. If one could disregard the controversy, even momentarily, it would be agreed upon that “The Great Comet” was an unforgettable Broadway masterpiece, having had done unprecedented things that delightfully deviated from the traditions in Broadway theater.
For one, its score is unlike any other, as it is difficult to pinpoint one specific genre. Critics have instead characterized the score as an “electro-pop opera,” and as it suggests, it was a mesh of electronic-dance music, folk music, opera and pop. This combination of old and modern genres livened the story with an interesting twist.
The stage poses as another one of the show’s groundbreaking elements. Instead of making the actors and audience two discrete entities with a traditional stage, the set is designed so that there are bits and pieces of stage around the room, intertwining the actors, audience, and band together. The ensemble covered every part of the theater, and they had no qualms with interacting with the audience, inviting them to be part of the story and making them the butt of a multitude of jokes.
Another facet that must not be overlooked was its grandiose lighting. Elaborate golden chandeliers and light bulbs, hung against the backdrop of sweeping red velvet curtains, embodied the formidable explosion of comets. The light playfully followed along to every song while casting a romantic aura over the room. Even the table stand lamps present in every row of seats played a part of the elaborate light repertoire.
From its breathtaking lighting, to the meticulously crafted costumes, to the myriad of exuberant dancing scenes that would erupt the theater into a delightful chaos, it is no doubt that “The Great Comet” excels in many categories. Yet, arguably the most memorable facet that Broadway will take away was the profound portrayal of its story. “The Great Comet” was able to take a trite plot line that has been used in a plethora of other stories over centuries of literature and allow the audience to see more than the superficiality of a treacherous affair between a beautiful princess and an alluring man.
Instead, we learn to recognize the grueling dilemma that young Natasha is burdened with and how one decision has the devastating capacity to ultimately to ruin her and her family. We see the great extent of the genuine compassion and worry that one can have for another human being in Natasha’s cousin and closest friend, Sonya (played by Ingrid Michaelson), as she emotionally dedicates herself to protecting Natasha from disgracing her name. We meet Pierre, an old, wealthy aristocrat who is unhappily married and cannot find a substantial reason to exist but still is able to muster compassion in his heart for a heartbroken friend.
“The Great Comet” culminates in a climactic ending: the falling of the comet itself. The show doesn’t make a contrived effort to present an emerging hero from a fog nor a glossy ending to a tumultuous affair. There is only complication and uncertainty. Pierre sings one last song—a haunting and poignant aria narrating the fall of the comet. But instead of panic or despair of the destruction that will soon befall them, he joyfully accepts the fate ahead. While listening to the aria, one may even draw a semblance between the show and the comet in one of its lyrics: both were unforgettable forces that travelled “with inexpressible speed through immeasurable space,” only for them to “suddenly have stopped… like an arrow piercing the earth.”
No doubt in mind, “The Great Comet” was nothing short of rapturous, exquisite, funny, and imbued with an enthralling decadence at its core. But the sincere and heartfelt moments were what allowed the show to rise up above most others to become a truly indelible mark in Broadway history. This is not to assert that this racial issue is far less important than its brilliant facets or that it can be forgotten or glossed over. But there is no denying that it is indeed a pity that this was to happen―a pity that the show ended and a pity that we are once again reminded that as a society, we are still far from reaching racial equality in the entertainment industry. But even despite the issue, one can only wish for “The Great Comet” to return to Broadway soon and to have learned from its mistakes. And hopefully, the rest of Broadway can learn too, the good, as well as the bad.