Entertainment

How Political Correctness Doomed a Broadway Show

The outrage over a casting choice lacked all logic and context — and now look what happened

When the Broadway musical “Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812” had to replace former “Hamilton” cast member Okieriete “Oak” Onaodowan, the producers turned to Tony Award-winning actor Mandy Patinkin. The problem some people had with this casting decision? Onaodowan is black. Patinkin is white.

Patinkin was to join the play for a limited run from August 15 to September 3 to keep the production running after Onoadowan’s departure. But given the backlash from the theater community as well as social media outrage, Patinkin backed out of the play. “I hear what members of the community have said, and I agree with them. I am a huge fan of Oak and I will, therefore, not be appearing in the show,” the “Homeland” actor tweeted when he bowed out officially on Friday.

Show creator Dave Malloy tweeted an apology to those outraged, saying,”We regret our mistake deeply, and wish to express our apologies to everyone who felt hurt and betrayed by these actions.” Malloy had also explained that the bringing in of Patinkin was an effort to boost profits with star power, as ticket sales were “catastrophically low” after August 13, the date that Onaodowan is set to leave the production.

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But what’s most fascinating about this entire story is this: The musical is based on a portion of the Leo Tolstoy book “War and Peace,” which has an entirely white cast of characters. Onoadowan had even previously replaced Josh Groban, who is white, in his role of Pierre. No one complained then. Not only that, but in the book Pierre is described as “an outcast. The awkward, illegitimate son of a dazzlingly wealthy Count, he was educated abroad but returns to Russia now [that] his father’s health is in decline.”

The casting of a white actor and then a black actor — and then finishing with a white actor — suggests the producers were doing exactly what should satisfy social justice warriors: They weren’t thinking about race. They were hiring the best actors for the job. Why should the role be an exclusively black role after a black actor does a run as the character?

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Most people are familiar with the #OscarsSoWhite debate of the past few years, a legitimate observation that the Academy Awards historically have been almost exclusively rewarding Caucasian performers. That situation is clearly improving, but the theater has always faced a tricky balancing act between available talent and available roles in plays and musicals.

Unlike cinema, however, Broadway productions have a fairly non-representational audience. Industry research published by Quartz last year showed that a full 83 percent of domestic theatergoers are white — while 4.9 percent are Hispanic, 4.8 percent are black, and 3.9 percent are Asian. Almost exactly paralleling that, 84 percent of actors in Broadway plays are white — 74 percent in musicals — while only 11 percent of plays and 17 percent of musicals have black performers.

Related: Attacks on Trump at the Tony Awards Fall Flat

The fact of the matter is, too many people who have never actually attended a play or musical are happy to gripe from the sidelines, whatever the imagined slight or offense. And that’s what torpedoed Patinkin’s chance of playing Pierre in “Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812” — even though the original actor was white in the production and even though the original character in the novel the musical’s based upon is white.

Related: Social Justice Warriors Are Trying to Censor This Show

These are the times we live in, when people look at a tiny facet, a sliver, of a far larger story and make snap, knee-jerk decisions about whether it aligns with their sense of fairness and justice or not. As American humorist Mark Twain once wrote, “Never let truth get in the way of a good story.” Perhaps he was ahead of his time.

Dave Taylor, based in Boulder, Colorado, has been writing about consumer electronics, technology and pop culture for many years and runs the popular site AskDaveTaylor.com.

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