Ticket sales for a Broadway play called Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 are in the dumps. According to the New York Times, the show made only slightly above $900,000 last week, down from $1.2 million a few weeks ago, when singer Josh Groban was leading the cast. And so the producers decided to bring back some star power, offering theater veteran Mandy Patinkin the starring role.
In order to do so, though, they had to push out Okieriete Onaodowan, an actor who is best known for his role in Hamilton. Unfortunately, Onaodowan is not widely known enough in the theater world to get tourists or New Yorkers to run to Ticketmaster to spend hundreds of dollars on Broadway tickets. But word of the move to oust him was enough to provoke outrage among many, both onstage and off. The gist of the outrage was this: How dare they fire a black actor and replace him with a white one?
Amid the uproar, Patinkin withdrew from the production, saying, “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.” Maybe the producers can get Denzel Washington to fill the role—can social justice warriors object if a better known black actor pushes out a lesser known one?—but the likelihood is that without finding a star with serious name recognition, the show will close in short order.
Not only will the show’s backers lose some potential profits but a lot of people who work on the show will lose their jobs—including, at least by the looks of the cast photos, some black people. Are their jobs less important than Onaodowan’s job? Does everyone need to sacrifice in order to make sure that Onaodowan keeps his role?
Conservatives (at least the ones who support a free-market economy) don’t tend to think of the economy as a fixed pie. There is no set number of jobs in the country or predetermined number of stores. It does not follow that when one restaurant opens, another one will have to close.
But there are certain segments of the economy where, in practice, this is true. Broadway is one of those places; there are a limited number of theaters that produce a limited number of plays and musicals—and thus a severely limited number of jobs in that field. You can blame our collective lack of taste or the high price of tickets, but regardless, it is awfully hard to keep a show in business these days.
On Broadway, one person’s gain is inevitably another one’s loss, and in that sense it mirrors another segment of our society: college admissions. There are a fixed number of spots at Ivy League universities and small elite liberal arts colleges, for example, and when you decide that an acceptance letter will go to one person, that means a similar letter cannot go to someone else.
Supporters of affirmative action or greater racial diversity on campus often suggest that it is merely a way to give more opportunities to people who might not otherwise have them. But in college admissions, these preferences have led to a de facto quota system, capping the number of highly-qualified Asian Americans who can be admitted in order to make sure that schools reach the correct number of less-qualified black or Hispanic students, for example.
We can decide that it is more important to have a rainbow of students on the cover of our admissions brochures or that we should have a largely unknown black actor over a famous white one on our Broadway playbills, but let’s not pretend that there aren’t consequences to those choices – including, in the case of Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812, potential unemployment for many more people in the theater world than just Okieriete Onaodowan.