There are times when watching progressives try to grapple with their own conceptual contradictions is like watching a blind man with Crisco on his hands trying to juggle chainsaws. Broadway theater, an aggressively leftist institution, is today presenting the following spectacle: A white actor has been shamed out of playing a white character in a Broadway show because it would have been hurtful to black actors.
Mandy Patinkin, a reliable box-office attraction on Broadway going back to the 1970s (Evita) and a star of television (Criminal Minds, Homeland) and film (The Princess Bride), was set to take over the lead male role in the musical Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812, replacing Josh Groban, whose popularity is widely credited with making the oddball show a success. Great Comet, with original songs and a story based on (a small slice of) War and Peace, wasn’t an obvious candidate for box-office glory, but Groban’s huge fan base filled the seats. “It wasn’t Leo Tolstoy who turned out the crowds,” notes New York Post theater columnist Michael Riedel, the definitive Broadway observer. “It was Josh Groban.” Post-Groban, advance ticket sales for late summer and fall were “catastrophically low,” the show’s composer, Dave Malloy, said.
Patinkin withdrew from the show, groveling. The producers who hired him also scraped and begged forgiveness, as did the composer. All did much agonizing about how they should have better understood the “optics.” Then Onaodowan himself quit, announcing that August 13 would bring his last performance.
So Great Comet, which now doesn’t have a big-name star in either lead role, is in even more severe danger of closing soon. “Ticket sales shouldn’t override a person doing his job?” Soon, everyone associated with The Great Comet will be out of a job if the show can’t find a way to boost ticket sales. Onaodowan, by the way, would have received full pay for the lead role after yielding to the bigger star. So no one would have suffered any economic loss in the event that Patinkin had taken the stage. A major social-justice win in this instance amounts to probably throwing a bunch of left-wing showbiz people of color out of work.
The brouhaha over The Great Comet is illustrative of the race hysteria of progressivism: Nothing makes progs feel more morally superior than detecting racism in everything — whether it’s promoting school choice, expressing cultural pride for symphonies, or manufacturing white Skittles. Having tuned their racism Geiger counter up to ever more sensitive levels, they realize that when it’s used against them, blameless acts of their own could also be seen as racist. And so they shriek and cower and beg forgiveness for . . . being falsely accused of racism. The funniest show on Broadway these days isn’t even on stage.
— Kyle Smith is National Review’s critic-at-large.