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.
When Groban left the show on the expiration of his contract on July 2, the boyish baritone was temporarily replaced by an unknown, Okieriete “Oak” Onaodowan, whom Patinkin would have replaced. Onaodowan is black. Patinkin isn’t. So an utterly routine fact of Broadway life — star replaces non-star — was dressed up in racial outrage. Social media seethed. The Daily News headline read “‘Great Comet’ actor Okieriete Onaodowan shoved aside for Mandy Patinkin, causing outcry.” One actor, Rafael Casal, tweeted, “Telling lead actors of color to #makeroom? Really? @greatcometbway #makeroom is the new code for ‘still not your turn.’” Actress Cynthia Erivo, who won a Tony in 2015 for The Color Purple, also took exception, tweeting, “This has been handled badly. Ticket sales shouldn’t override a person doing his job” and “Oak worked extremely hard for this. Which makes this occurrence distasteful and uncouth.”
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.
Diversity, on Broadway, has been promoted as a market necessity: A lot of people out there are black. We need black actors on stage so they will buy tickets. After a quarter of a century of color-blind casting — pretending that, say, blacks and whites saw each other as peers in 1906 Oklahoma — any Broadway theatergoer can tell you that the audience is still about as ethnically diverse as Provo. It’s more authentic to reflect the diversity of our society runs another argument. Maybe, but if the society depicted on stage happens to be the salons of 1812 Moscow, how much sense does that make? The female lead who played opposite Groban in The Great Comet, Denée Benton, is black, meaning this show has had at least one black lead actor for its entire run, and for a while starred black performers in both lead roles. Given the immense level of artifice that inheres in the theater, such “non-traditional casting” is hardly worth taking notice of anymore, but can it really be the case that casting actors who look like the characters they’re playing should generate shock and revulsion? Should non-non-traditional casting make us angry? The estate of the late Edward Albee stipulates that in all productions of his masterwork Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? white people should play the white characters, and this decision too was met with appalled disbelief. Yet the play, which takes place in the early 1960s, would have to be rewritten if black actors were playing George or Martha. No one on Broadway seems particularly eager to cast an all-white version of A Raisin in the Sun or The Color Purple, and there’s good reason to respect traditional casting of those plays too.
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.