Hey, gang! Boy oh boy, that Minnesota Fringe Festival is coming up soon! (This coming Thursday, by my reckoning.) I hope you didn't come here for some kind of fast-paced blitzkrieg through all of the Fringe stuff swirling about as we head into the 24th year of this wacky thing. Minnesota Playlist is going to be hitting you hard and fast with Fringe coverage in the days to come, so I thought we'd all treasure this quiet moment together before the 11-day storm breaks and we are all subsumed by all things Fringe. There's something else I want to write about this week; and, besides, I will be sharing plenty of my drunken, rambling observations from around Fringe next week, as I am oft want to do at that time of year. In the meantime, if you're Jonesing for a weird performance festival fix, why not check out the LALA Festival at RedEye, which is taking place just before the big windup to the Fringe gates swinging wide open?
And if you're looking for other local news, check this out: The Guthrie and Ten Thousand Things have both been named as winners of the Actors' Equity Rosetta LeNoire Award. It's in recognition for their commitment to diversity in casting, and that's going to feel super-relevant as we head into the main thrust of this week's News and Notes, so strap in, and let's go!
Crashing the Comet
Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 was always going to have a weird time on Broadway. A sung-through musical based on a short section of Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace doesn't exactly scream "Broadway razzmatazz!" The show went through a long, circuitous route from its initial development that resulted in a Spanish language version premiering in Ecuador and a lawsuit from the non-profit company that originally commissioned it before it landed on Broadway last year. The show pulled down 12 Tony nominations, but only managed to win two (both for design), despite generally enthusiastic reviews. This is usually where the story of a Broadway show comes to an end. Without nabbing the coveted "Best Musical" award, your typical Broadway show's life cycle starts to wind down the moment the janitorial staff comes out to clean up after the awards ceremony lets out.
But, this is where the miracle of casting comes in. The producers of the show put singing megastar Josh Groban in one of the lead roles, which was pretty much a license to print money. If they had put up a show that was nothing more than Groban reciting the entire US tax code in operetta format, the devoted throngs would have still left the theater weeping. (Of course, we all know that "Title 26, Subtitle B, Chapter 13, Subchapter B: Generation-Skipping Transfers" is a powerfully poignant piece of work.) With Groban in the lead, The Great Comet continued to pull in sales of over $1.2 million a week, regularly outperforming big-name hits like The Book of Mormon, The Phantom of the Opera, Chicago, and Cats.
Unfortunately, every license to print money expires at some point. Groban left the show earlier this month, and ticket sales immediately plummeted by almost $500,000 a week. But the producers weren't done spinning miracles out of casting. Okieriete Onaodowan, from the original cast of Hamilton (Remember that show? Whatever happened with that?), came on board as Groban's replacement, and ticket sales stabilized at just under $1 million per week. Now, that's still a respectable number (thankfully, still beating the piss out of Miss Saigon). A lot of people would be thrilled that their strange little musical based on a notoriously dense Russian novel was still standing up there as one of the better-selling shows on Broadway; but the producers were looking for something more.
Onaodowan's original contract was always set to end in early September; but the producers suddenly announced that he would be graciously, voluntarily stepping aside in mid-August to allow Mandy Patinkin to take over the role. It would be Patinkin's triumphant return to Broadway after 15 years away. For Broadway enthusiasts, it would be return of the legendary stage actor that originated Sunday in the Park With George; for everyone else, holy shit, it's Inigo Montoya on Broadway! You could practically hear the workers unpacking the money-printing machine and getting it oiled up.
And that's where everything went off the rails.
Almost immediately social media exploded. The producers seem to have forgotten one crucial thing when they hired someone from Hamilton: that show and its cast have a huge, loving, loyal following on the internet that continued to follow them, even after they moved on to other ventures. And the producers forgot one other very crucial thing: when an actor has a devoted following of people who are very excited by the fact that a person of color such as him could be achieving a leading man status, and then you cut said actor's run short by replacing him with an old white man, it doesn't exactly sing. The producers offered a series of mealy-mouthed explanations, and, while I do believe them when they say that race had nothing to do with their decision, boy it doesn't look good. It sure didn't help that the producers acted like Patinkin, completely infatuated with The Great Comet, just asked to be in the show completely out of the blue and that Onaodowan was just tickled pink to be handing it over to him. (Patinkin didn't and Onaodowan wasn't.)
So, they tried to squeeze some more dollars out of their show, and it blew up in their faces. Despite the producers issuing flummoxed apologies, Mandy Patinkin has decided that he's not going to step into the show after all, Okieriete Onaodowan has announced that he will not be returning to the show after the Patinkin-truncated date of August 13, ticket sales have fallen slightly, and people are speculating as to how long it will be before The Great Comet goes broke.
And now, the predictable backlash against the backlash is in full swing. Conservatives who would never have stepped foot in that theater anyway are clucking away incessantly about "PC-gone haywire social justice warrior whiners! I liked it when Mandy Patinkin was on Homeland before that show stopped being so blatantly racist!" I also came upon an article entitled "Mandy Patinkin’s Broadway Departure Proves, Once Again, That American Theater Has a Problem with Jews", which is just… wow.
All of this happened in the space of three days.
And now a show, which actually has a pretty diverse cast, especially for Broadway, might be staring down the barrel of oblivion.
OK, I need everybody to stop yelling at each other for a moment. I know we live in an age where it's incredibly easy to vent your rage at a moment's notice, and, god, doesn't it just feel so wonderful to feel something so pure as white-hot anger?! But this has gotten out of hand really fast. So, for the last word on this, I want to leave you with a piece from Azudi Onyejekwe, who is in the ensemble of The Great Comet, and who just wants everybody to step back and take a more nuanced approach to the situation. Please just read it, and try not to yell.
From stage to screen to reality
Are you an actor trying to make it in Hollywood? Have you headed out to California with stars in your eyes and belief that someone's going to discover all that hidden talent you have bubbling and gurgling inside you? Well, you better get some Pepto-Bismol for all that bubbling and gurgling, because the rules have changed, kid. If you wanna hit it big on the big screen, GQ is here to tell you that you better make sure you've got enough Twitter followers first.
But why mess around with all that? Don't run away to the movies. I promise that theater isn't dying this time! In fact, here's an article from Slate exhorting great stage actors to stay on the stage, lest their talents be wasted by the narrow-minded casting of Hollywood.
Didn't we all have a good time watching the bizarre rise and fall of Anthony Scaramucci this week? Say, did you ever wonder why all the foul-mouthed loudmouths from the real estate world that Trump keeps trying to squeeze into his inner circle act like such entitled jerks? National Review thinks its because they've seen Glengarry Glen Ross too many times. It sounds like a reasonable explanation to me. Repeated exposure to David Mamet is bound to have some nasty side effects.