Race, Money and Broadway: How ‘Great Comet’ Burned Out

0
27



Source link

About two dozen people involved with “Great Comet” — creators, performers, producers and investors, many of whom would speak only anonymously to protect their ability to continue working in an industry with long memories and few jobs — described a bewildering sequence of events.

Some blamed the lead producer, Howard Kagan, a hard-charging hedge fund veteran, for failing to rein in costs or to plan effectively. Others faulted Okieriete Onaodowan, a “Hamilton” alumnus who succeeded Mr. Groban, for not helping to tamp down the outcry that erupted when the producers tried to replace him with the “Homeland” star Mandy Patinkin.

But the finger-pointing may obscure a more fundamental issue. The musical itself, an electro-pop opera adapted from a section of “War and Peace” and set in 19th-century Russia, was a long shot to thrive on Broadway, where 63 percent of tickets are purchased by tourists, who tend to favor established hits, adaptations of movies and shows that feature celebrities.

Photo

Josh Groban, left, and Okieriete Onaodowan backstage at the Imperial Theater.

Credit
Nicole Craine for The New York Times

The cast, crew and investors are frustrated, and rueful. “This show was something special,” said Joey Cassata, a drummer making his Broadway debut in the musical, “and to have it crash down in a ball of flames — it’s a crime.”

Getting There

It began on the high seas.

Dave Malloy, an aspiring composer making ends meet as a cruise ship pianist, made the fortuitous decision to while away some hours by reading “War and Peace.” A musical was born.

The initial production, in 2012, was at an 87-seat Off Broadway theater, Ars Nova, refashioned to resemble a Russian supper club. The actors, many of them also playing instruments, performed on bar tops while the audience, seated at cafe tables, was plied with vodka and pierogies.

Mr. Kagan, an Ars Nova board member, loved the musical, and in collaboration with his wife and co-producer, Janet Kagan, sustained it through years of wandering — a production in a tent in the meatpacking district, another in Midtown, and then a more conventional staging at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass.

To get it to Broadway, they recruited Mr. Groban, the top-selling recording artist, who had described a 2013 production of the show as “one of my most favorite theatrical experiences ever.” He would play Pierre, an awkward aristocrat with an unhappy marriage and a propensity for philosophizing.

To preserve the Russian milieu and intimate feel, the Imperial’s marble lobby was reconfigured to resemble a Cold War bunker, and two staircases were built so performers could bound up and down, instruments in hand, into the mezzanine.

Then, just as the Broadway production was beginning previews, an unseemly — and, to many, preventable — dispute erupted, as Mr. Kagan went to war with Ars Nova over that nonprofit theater’s insistence that he honor a signed promise to describe the show in the Playbill as “the Ars Nova production.” He argued that the provision was no longer binding; Ars Nova filed suit; Mr. Kagan backed down.

The controversy seemed to have no impact on ticket sales. Reviews were largely positive. Mr. Groban was universally praised and extended his contract by 10 weeks. The show grossed more than $1 million most weeks — excellent, if not record-breaking.

Video

Josh Groban Sings ‘Dust and Ashes’

Mr. Groban performs a song from the Broadway musical “Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812,” at the Imperial Theater.


By NATASHA, PIERRE AND THE GREAT COMET OF 1812 on Publish Date December 13, 2016.


.

But Mr. Groban was never going to stay indefinitely — he owed his label another album and also felt a need to resume touring — and in February, five months before his departure, the production announced that it had chosen Mr. Onaodowan to succeed him.

Mr. Onaodowan, known by the nickname Oak, was championed by Rachel Chavkin, the “Great Comet” director, who had directed him in a 2014 production of “The Royale” in San Diego. He was also in the original cast of the hottest musical on Broadway, “Hamilton,” playing Hercules Mulligan and James Madison.

The role of Pierre requires not only acting and singing but also playing the piano and the accordion, and multiple crew and cast members said they thought Mr. Onaodowan was not mastering the score quickly enough. When rehearsals began in earnest, they said, he seemed resistant to direction from Ms. Chavkin. He sought to rethink Pierre’s moves and motivations, when she wanted him to accept choices made with previous Pierres.

The producers postponed Mr. Onaodowan’s start date by a week. By the time of his first performance, on July 11, the creative team had cut a portion of Pierre’s piano and accordion playing, transferring those duties to musicians.

Mr. Onaodowan described his time with the show as “a very difficult experience.”

“They led me to believe I was going to be doing less than I was,” he said, “and then, over time, I was given more and more material with not enough time to prepare.”

In separate interviews, neither Ms. Chavkin nor Mr. Onaodowan would talk about their interactions.

“I think he’s unbelievably moving in the show — it’s a beautiful performance,” Ms. Chavkin said during his run, which ended on Aug. 13.

He, too, was proud of his work: “The performance you saw is a result of our collaboration.”

Plan B

Just as Mr. Onaodowan was beginning his tenure as Pierre, the production was quietly exploring an alternative: Mr. Patinkin.

“We didn’t win the Tony for best musical,” Mr. Kagan said, “and it became clear we would not survive without a celebrity.”

Photo

Howard Kagan, the lead producer of “Great Comet,” and Rachel Chavkin, the musical’s director.

Credit
From left: Benjamin Norman for The New York Times; Richard Perry, via The New York Times

The producers had once hoped that the show would become enough of a hit to continue without a star. But projected sales in the late summer and early fall were below the running costs, so, without telling Mr. Onaodowan, the creative team began going through the score with Mr. Patinkin.

Mr. Patinkin seemed like a sure bet. He is Broadway royalty (he won a Tony in 1980 for “Evita”) and a TV star. He is close with Ms. Chavkin and a fan of “Great Comet,” which he saw both Off and on Broadway. And it had been 17 years since he had appeared in a Broadway musical, so his return would be an event.

Substituting a cast member for financial reasons is not unusual on Broadway, and “Great Comet” had already done it once, replacing one of its longest-serving and most admired performers, Brittain Ashford, with a pop singer, Ingrid Michaelson, for the summer. That plan seemed to succeed.

But replacing Mr. Onaodowan with Mr. Patinkin turned into a fiasco.

Mr. Onaodowan, after his delayed start, was scheduled to be onstage for eight weeks, through Labor Day, but Mr. Patinkin, because of the “Homeland” shooting schedule, was available only during the last three of those same weeks.

The producers thought it was worth the disruption and the cost. They believed that even in a brief run, Mr. Patinkin would generate publicity — the day after the announcement, he was interviewed on “Today” — and that his endorsement would signal the show’s appeal to ticketbuyers leery of offbeat theater.

They also thought he could be persuaded to extend his run, juggling “Great Comet” and “Homeland” after Labor Day. So they told Mr. Onaodowan to take off his final three weeks, with pay.

Advance ticket sales bumped up. But with that came the backlash.

Mr. Onaodowan is Nigerian-American; Mr. Patinkin is white, and Broadway, like much of the entertainment industry, is facing scrutiny over its commitment to diversity.

News of the casting change, not yet announced by the production, appeared on BroadwayBlack.com, which said the step raised “questions about how Black actors are valued and supported within Broadway.”

Photo

Earlier days: The “Great Comet” at Ars Nova.

Credit
Ben Arons

Rafael Casal, an actor acquainted with Mr. Onaodowan, questioned the strategy in a series of tweets, and then a number of black performers, including the Tony winner Cynthia Erivo and the Tony nominee Adrienne Warren, chimed in with sympathy for Mr. Onaodowan.

The production team was stunned. The “Great Comet” cast is unusually multiethnic; one of the two leads, Denée Benton, who plays Natasha, is an African-American actress who had repeatedly praised the show for being willing to cast her to play a Russian countess, and the show had just been honored by Actors’ Equity for its diversity.

And Mr. Kagan had a history of star casting: In 2015, he had briefly boosted ticket sales to the musical “On the Town” by bringing in Misty Copeland, the African-American ballet star, to substitute for Megan Fairchild, who is white.

The “Great Comet” reaction was intense. The phrase “make room for Mandy,” which was used by Mr. Kagan, became a hashtag-inspiring irritant. On the morning of July 28, the pavement in front of the theater was scrawled with chalk graffiti supporting Mr. Onaodowan.

Amid the storm, Mr. Malloy, the composer, tried to provide context for the casting decision by acknowledging on Twitter that “Great Comet” had been struggling financially, contributing to a sudden sense that the show was in trouble.

Numerous attempts to calm the situation fell short.

Mr. Kagan said publicly that Mr. Onaodowan would be welcome to return in the fall, but Mr. Onaodowan said that invitation had never been directly extended. “I received a phone call, was told I was not doing the show and was not invited back,” he said. “How would you feel if that happened?”

Mr. Patinkin withdrew, praising Mr. Onaodowan and saying he had not fully understood the situation; he has declined to speak further about the matter.

Mr. Onaodowan said that it was not his obligation to stanch a controversy that he did not create.

“If people feel strongly and passionately about something, I’ll let them speak strongly and passionately — I’m not going to tell them not to,” he said. He said he did not believe race was a factor in the show’s decision to replace him, but “there’s a fundamental issue with representation that’s bigger than the show.”

Photo

The ensemble member Courtney Bassett, rear center, joining fans for a selfie.

Credit
Sam Hodgson for The New York Times

Some cast members nonetheless tried to persuade Mr. Onaodowan to say something that might save the show. They met privately with him, Ms. Erivo and others; publicists traded a draft apology from Mr. Kagan and a draft response from Mr. Onaodowan; there was discussion about holding postperformance discussions on diversity issues.

The efforts failed. Actors who had been talking with the producers about joining “Great Comet,” including a TV star training with the music team in Los Angeles, backed out.

“Agents didn’t want their talent hooked up with a show that had controversy associated with it,” said Megan Kingery, a co-producer. “And while I wish they felt differently, I don’t blame them.”

On Aug. 8, cast members were summoned to a meeting. Few were surprised, but many were saddened, when Janet Kagan announced that the show would close on Labor Day weekend. Howard Kagan did not attend.

The Aftermath

A reckoning is still likely: A group of co-producers and investors, mystified by how the show could go under, are planning to pursue an audit of the production.

They say that Mr. Kagan, who so far has returned 15 percent of the capitalization to investors, was unusually reluctant to share financial information, and that the weekly running costs are unclear. (He said they now average a little over $700,000 a week.)

Mr. Kagan said he understood the frustration but defended his financial oversight and contingency planning: “This wasn’t a failure on the cost side, it was a failure on the revenue side, and we were actively addressing that when we were stopped in our tracks.”

Several of the actors and activists who voiced concern about the casting change have declined to be interviewed about the closing, but Andrew Shade, the editorial director of BroadwayBlack.com, said: “I do believe that we have to be mindful of what we say, and how we use our platforms. But the outrage did not close the show. It was the ticket sales.”

Whatever the cause, the experience has been a rough education for many of the performers. “I learned a lot, seeing how much weight money has,” said Gelsey Bell, who made her Broadway debut in the show but who spends much of her life making experimental music and new opera.

Cast members decided they needed to do something positive. They set up lighting in a theater lobby, sat on a camelback sofa and recorded a one-minute video paying tribute to the production’s diversity.

“I hope people don’t remember ‘The Great Comet’ as this whole ridiculous drama, because that wasn’t the reality of what ‘The Great Comet’ was about,” Josh Canfield, a member of the show’s ensemble, said later.

Ms. Chavkin, the musical’s director, was philosophical.

“This show was a reach from the beginning,” she said. “I find myself brokenhearted, but at the same time, I’m like, ‘God, we almost ran a year, and we were the freaks at the ball!’”

Correction: August 29, 2017

An earlier version of this article misspelled the surname of a co-producer. She is Megan Kingery, not Gingery.

Continue reading the main story

Source link

Leave a Reply