For Broadway fans, this year might be better known as the year of Oak, Mandy and the Great Controversy of 2017. For those of you who have no idea what I’m talking about, last month, Broadway’s Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 came under fire for some racial controversy when the current male lead, Okieriete Onaodawn, was asked to step down before his scheduled time to let Broadway legend, Mandy Pantikin take over. Social media got word that a black actor was being asked to step down for a white actor and all hell broke loose. Rants and fighting ensued, the show’s producers issued an apology, and Mandy decided to to pull out from the show. It wasn’t until this happened that Dave Malloy, the show’s creator, went on Twitter to explain the reasoning behind the casting change. Basically, Great Comet was on the brink of closing and needed a star to boost sales, which had been down ever since the departure of Josh Groban. The unnecessary outrage on social media led to ticket sales dipping even more, and to Mandy pulling out, leaving them, at the time, without a male lead and now, without a future after September.
I’m not going to go deep into racial aspect of this (though I do think it was exaggerated), but at the end of the day, when it comes to Broadway, money is the bottom line. So, why wasn’t this show making enough? It’s well-written, interactive, full of talented people, and received 12 Tony nominations. Why wasn’t that enough? I think the reason behind the lack of ticket sales is that there’s hardly anyone to sell tickets to. An electro-pop opera based on a 19th century Russian novel would be a “weird show”, as Dave Malloy said, to most people. Great Comet doesn’t have the familiarity of the good ole Disney shows or the long-running classics, like Phantom of the Opera and Chicago. It doesn’t draw tourists like Wicked does.
Most Broadway audiences are afraid to step outside of their comfort zone and try shows that are different and inventive. Some shows that are different, like Hamilton, will get lucky and escape this mentality. The very radical Great Comet was not so lucky. There is often a pattern when it comes to radical, inventive shows: these shows will often not do as well as the ones that are familiar and comfortable to people. Some examples include when The Music Man beat out the now classic, West Side Story back in 1958 for the Tony Award for Best Musical, whose themes of racial tensions and gang violence were pretty much unheard of on Broadway at the time. A more recent example would be the Off-Broadway show, Heathers, which never saw Broadway because, I believe, the 1980’s pop/rock dark comedy of murder and revenge was too much for some people.
So, what do we do to rectify the problem of weird shows that are deserving of praise getting swept under the rug? The answer is simple: go see more weird shows! The shows that are “weird” are not always going to survive as long as the Disney/Lloyd-Webber/Hamilton cultural juggernauts. Chances are, if you go see a “weird” show and start talking about it, other people will catch on. So if you have you’re looking for a Broadway show, take a chance and see a show that wouldn’t usually be on your radar. Many rewards are found outside of your comfort zone. And if you get a chance and have the money, go see Great Comet. They really need all the support they can get right now.
You only have until September 3rd to get tickets!
Musical Theater Quote of the Day: “We all have a little more homework to do.”-13