Today’s column will be focusing on theatrical rights.
The first rule in the theater, for anyone contemplating presenting a play: make sure you have the right to present the work.
That is so basic, you might think everyone would know it. And yet, time and again, there are producers who will ignore that rule, and will violate that rule.
A case in point. This year, Music Theatre International-one of the most important play-licensing firms in the world-filed legal action against a Virginia community theater. The complaint (filed in the Federal District Court in the Eastern District of Virginia) charged that Theaterpalooza Community Theater Productions Inc. has presented at least 16 illegal, unlicensed productions. Theaterpalooza offers musical-theatre classes for youths (who pay up to $600 in tuition), culminating in productions of musicals, open to the public (tickets cost $12-$15). MTI alleges that the theatre company, in recent years, has presented unlicensed productions of such MTI musicals as “Seussical,” “Little Shop of Horrors,” and “Matilda.” The suit seeks either actual damages (profits from productions) or maximum statutory damages, along with an injunction against further infringements, plus legal fees. I’ll let you know, in a future column, how that case is resolved. (The head of the theater company, while insisting that some of what’s appeared in the press is semi “fake news,” has acknowledged that they owe MTI money. I don’t want to say more about that particular case until it is resolved.)
It makes news whenever a case like this crops up. And cases do keep cropping up. Moreover, in discussions with theater lovers, producers, and playwrights-both in person and online-I’ve come to realize that there’s a lot of confusion when it comes to theatrical rights.
I’m remembering one case where a community-theater producer was accused of mounting an unauthorized production of a very famous recent Broadway musical. Her “defense” was that she had not presented the published/licensed script, but instead had revised it to create her own version; she honestly seemed unaware that you cannot revise or rewrite someone else’s copyrighted material and then simply claim it as your own; you’re infringing on the creator’s copyright. She believed, mistakenly, she could adapt or change, or revise anybody else’s script-simply because she’d been doing that for years.
Let’s see if we can clear up some confusion today.
* * *
For today’s column, I’d like to take an in-depth look at one instance I personally witnessed this year, of a theatrical production that was mounted without proper authorization. Drew Cohen, the head of MTI, was kind enough to speak with me at length about this particular case. And I’m going to use this case to help shed some light on the larger subject of theatrical rights. This took place at one of the world’s finest universities-the last place one might expect any such problems to occur. I’m not going to mention the names of the particular students involved. I’d like to give the students some benefit of the doubt; I’d like to imagine that some of the students may not have fully understood copyright law. And we don’t really need the students’ names to discuss the relevant issues here.
But Princeton University-for that’s where the following case took place–certainly should have known better! Students may plausibly plead some degree of ignorance concerning copyrights. But faculty advisors and administrators should certainly know what is permitted and what is not. And they should be teaching the students.
All right. Here’s the case….
* * *
The Princeton University Players’ Spring 2018 production was a gay adaptation of Jason Robert Brown’s powerful, intimate musical “The Last Five Years.” I attended the first of what were supposed to be six scheduled performances at Princeton’s Whitman Theatre, and they did a good job. A lot of talent on that stage.
The only problem with Princeton’s production-and it’s a huge problem-was that the Princeton University Players had never secured permission to mount a gay adaptation of “The Last Five Years.” None of the numerous changes they made to Brown’s musical had been authorized. And the very next morning, after the performance that I witnessed, Music Theatre International (MTI), which licenses Brown’s work, shut the production down; the remaining performances were canceled. MTI had to shut the production down. Violating federal copyright law is more serious than many people seem to realize. And the author’s rights must be respected.
And this wasn’t the first time, alas, that Princeton has had problems with the same sort of issues-making unauthorized changes to a playwright’s work. The students probably should know better. And the faculty members and administrators who oversee such student productions should definitely know better. It’s a matter of law, it’s a matter of ethics, and it’s a matter of showing respect for a writer-in this case, a major writer, one of the giants of modern musical theatre.
I see problems like this crop up, from time to time, one place or another. And it’s an international problem, too. When the U.S. State Department hired me to lecture abroad on theatre, they gave me carte blanche to talk about whatever I liked concerning theatre–but they encouraged me to touch on intellectual-property rights, because so many people don’t seem to understand or respect them. It bothers me whenever I see authors’ rights disrespected, anywhere.
On a more personal note, I might add-since this is my own column, not a news report–I just tend to expect more from Princeton. I’m a Princetonian myself. I always look forward to seeing shows at Princeton. It makes me happy just to set foot on that gorgeous campus. Over the years, I’ve seen talented Princeton undergraduates, like Stephen Bogardus and Jed Peterson, impress me in student productions, and then subsequently go on to distinguished careers in the theatre. (I’ve also been lucky enough to eventually work with both of those terrific actors, I might add.) I’m sure some of the current Princeton theatre students will likewise have fine professional careers. I can see their potential.
But it was embarrassing for me to see Princeton University get so many things so very wrong, concerning authors’ rights, this time.
* * *
For my column today, I want to start by talking about what happened at Princeton this Spring, and then use it to get into a larger discussion of the rights of creative artists to control their own work, which copyright laws are intended to protect. For anyone with an interest in the arts, this is important.
Too many people in the theatre world-whether we’re talking about schools, community theatres, or even, on occasion, professional productions–either do not understand copyright issues, or seem to feel they can just ignore the law and hope they won’t get caught. If college students don’t always know the law, teachers and administrators should be educating them. I can excuse missteps by students much more easily than I can excuse missteps by the faculty members and administrators guiding them. When I was a student, I certainly did not know all of the details of copyright law. (Sidebar. I’ve long been a trustee of the Princeton “Tiger”–a student-produced humor magazine; from meetings with assorted “Tiger” undergrads over the years, I know that students don’t always fully understand copyright issues; they need guidance.) If, in my youth, I auditioned to be in a play, I certainly never worried about whether the production was properly authorized; I just assumed that older, more knowledgeable overseers properly took care of all such matters, and if the production was moving forward, it must be OK. But that is not always the case.
* * *
First, let me tell you about the quality of the production of “The Last Five Years” that I saw at Princeton, adapted and directed by a student Now, I happen to like this particular musical very much; it’s one of my favorites among modern musicals. I enjoyed seeing the original production Off-Broadway. I not only got the cast album (released by Sh-K-Boom/Ghostlight Records), I even bought the “Vocal Selections” songbook (published by Hal Leonard). (If you want to sing the score around the piano with me, I’m ready!) The score is rich and varied, the story is insightfully told; “The Last Five Years” never fails to get to me. (This past winter, I saw a terrific production up in Vermont, as I mentioned in a previous column.)
The Princeton production I witnessed was the first production of this musical that I’d ever seen in which the two characters were presented as a gay male couple. The musical was written to tell the story of a heterosexual couple’s experiences, over a span of five years. (The story is simultaneously told from two points of view. We see one character’s experiences from the beginning to the end of their relationship; we see the other character’s experiences in reverse order-from the end of their relationship, going back to their first meeting. The musical makes demands of audience members, who have to pay careful attention; I like that.) The Princeton production, I might add, was double-cast; at half of the performances, the plan was to have audiences see a gay male couple; at the other performances, audiences were to see a lesbian couple. At the performance I attended, we were shown a gay male couple’s experiences. (The characters became two guys–Jamie” and “Sammy,” rather than “Jamie” and “Cathy” as in the original script.)
And there was much to savor in this ingeniously told tale of two people falling in and out of love. The actors told the story clearly, with dash and vigor, and passion. The six-piece orchestra played excellently, although sometimes a bit too loudly for the singers.
And there were some nice directing touches–like having the ever-ambitious “Jamie” force his card upon audience members, while chatting them up–showing us how driven to succeed he was. (I was glad to get his card..) That was certainly fun, and surprising. I was generally impressed with the blocking. There were moments when the student director made a choice, in staging the show, that I would not have thought of-and that worked better than what I would have thought of! For someone so young-he’s a junior in college–I was happily impressed with his work.
There were also some minor missteps. You should avoid moving scenery while someone is singing (as happened once); it’s a distraction and pulls focus from the singer. The performance of the “Schmuel Song” should have had more of a Yiddish flavor to fully work. The revised version of “Shiksa Goddess” didn’t land quite as well as the original; the song simply makes more sense if sung to a gal. And if you’re going to show two people in bed, ostensibly after sex, at least one them should be bare-chested; having both lovers in undershirts and shorts seemed prudish.
And there were moments when the adapter’s transformation of an originally heterosexual love story into a gay love story felt just a little awkward, not ideally realized. (If a song like “The Next Ten Minutes” originally has “Cathy” singing to “Jamie” that she wants to be his wife and have his child, you can’t have a male sing the exact same words; but if you’re going to alter words, you’d better be as artistically gifted as Brown; and few are.) And some nuances got lost in the transformation.
The score includes moments aching with beauty, and Brown’s arrangements are first-rate. The show is true-to-life in many ways. The student director/adaptor–in creating this gay adaptation–had a good point to make, that love is love, whether you’re gay or straight. As a gay man, I think that’s a point worth making. I’m sympathetic to the general idea of there being a gay version of “The Last Five Years,” so long as–and this is an absolutely critical “so long as”–the changes to the material have the approval of the playwright. A play belongs to its creator. You can license it-obtain the rights to do a production-but you cannot make changes without authorization.
* * *
Even before the performance started, there were a few things that raised red flags for me.
I was bothered by the fact that program for the play did not have the standard statement indicating the show had been licensed from MTI. I wondered if the show had been properly licensed and if the revisions had been authorized. A copyrighted play cannot be presented or revised without permission. And it’s always proper to credit the firm from whom you’ve licensed the show.
I was also bothered by the fact that in all of the advance publicity I saw for the show, I only saw Jason Robert Brown credited on one occasion-the Princeton University Players’ original announcement of their whole season. Brown is, of course, the sole creator of “The Last Five Years”-book, lyrics, music, arrangements. The musical is, in its way, a work of genius, and there aren’t many people operating on Brown’s level who can create a whole show by themselves, without collaborators. By rights, Brown deserved to be credited in every announcement of the production. It is simply standard procedure, if you’re presenting a play, to give the correct title of the play and the name of the author (or authors).
But in most of Princeton’s online listings-if, say, you wanted to secure a ticket or simply see what events were receiving the approval of Princeton’s Office of the Dean of Undergraduate Students–the production was simply billed as “An Educational Exploration of The Last Five Years” or “A Queer Educational Exploration of the Last Five Years” with no author credited. So, in these listings, the title of the play was altered, and no credit was given to Brown. Those are two author’s-rights violations, right there. I daresay that some people reading the words “A Queer Educational Exploration of the Last Five Years” might not have even understood that students were presenting an adaptation of Brown’s musical “The Last Five Years.” The words “A Queer Educational Exploration of the Last Five Years” are ambiguous; to me, that sounds like students could be presenting some kind of historical overview, from a queer perspective, of the most recent five years (i.e., the years 2013-2018).
Princeton University needs to teach its students that the title of a work must always be listed properly and the author of a work must always be properly credited (just as sources must be properly credited when a student writes an academic paper or a thesis).
In the program notes for the production, there was a line saying that “The Last Five Years” was “originally” written by Jason Robert Brown–as if the revised production we were seeing was written, at least in part, by someone else. That, too, is improper. “The Last Five Years” was written (not “originally written”) by Jason Robert Brown.
It cannot be presented with interpolated material by others; if any changes are made with Brown’s permission, they then belong solely to Brown; he has not acquired a co-author. That is simply the way it works, if you properly license a copyrighted show. Students need to learn proper professional protocol.
After the performance, I spoke informally with students involved in the production, expressing my concerns. I see a lot of college and conservatory productions. (In these pages, in the past, I’ve mentioned enjoying productions at such colleges and conservatories as Hofstra, Wagner, Pace, Juilliard, AMDA, etc.) I always enjoy talking a bit, if the opportunity to arises, with theatre students. I think of them as kindred spirits. (And often-times, we’ve met before; the theatre community is small, and sometimes students have auditioned for me or acted or recorded for me, or I’ve seen them perform in other shows.) I asked some of the Princeton students if they’d sought and obtained permission to make so many changes to “The Last Five Years.” No one seemed to want to really talk about whether they had the rights to present the revised version of the show that they’d presented.
They were happy, of course-and justifiably so–to have done good work. And they had done good work, and the audience had clearly enjoyed their production. I’m sure I must have seemed like something of a wet blanket, telling them that if they were performing their reinterpretation of “The Last Five Years” without permission, they were violating the playwright’s rights-and that if they’d done that, they needed to apologize and try to make things right with Jason Robert Brown and MTI. I mentioned to them that in another student theatrical production I’d recently seen at Princeton-an excellent departmental production of “Next to Normal”-students had also changed the gender of a character (the psychiatrist), and I wondered if students realized that you cannot make such changes without permission.
Perhaps the students wondered why I was even raising these issues. Perhaps they felt that if they already had the approval of Princeton University, their production had to be OK. Their gay adaptation of “The Last Five Years,” the program suggested, had received support from 10 alumni donors. In addition, the program noted: “Support for this project has been provided in part by Princeton University’s Lewis Center for the Arts and the LGBT Center.” And the venerable Princeton University Players-like all student organizations-operates under the oversight of the Office of the Dean of Undergraduate Students, which has a responsibility to see that licensing requirements are met.
I told the students they needed to respect Jason Robert Brown. The students voiced their great admiration for Brown. And they were obviously sincere about that. They told me they were particularly excited about the fact that Jason Robert Brown-in person!–would be coming to teach at Princeton in the Fall! They hoped they could study with him; they were sure they could learn a lot from him.
Well, yes! I’m sure that Princeton students (or any students) could learn a lot from JRB; for my money, Jason Robert Brown-who’s helped give us such intriguing works as “Parade,” “13,” Honeymoon in Vegas,” “Bridges of Madison County,” and “Songs for a New World,” in addition to “The Last Five Years”-is the most talented musical-theatre writer of his generation. He’s a serious artist. He can be subtle and profound; he can be big and bright and brassy. He has much to offer anyone with an interest in theatre. And to me, if you admire an artist, you have to treat him with respect.
Well, maybe that night, after such a good performance, the students only wanted to hear me tell them all, “Congrats! You did great work.” Maybe that’s all any of us really want to hear after a performance: “You were terrific!” I “get” that. I know that feeling. And I saw some terrific work on that Princeton stage. I didn’t enjoy being the old-fogey, lecturing about rights and responsibilities to undergrads who probably only wanted to be told, “Ya done good!”
But theatre people of any age-including these talented students at Princeton-also need to “get” that authors have rights. And if they’re not being taught that properly at Princeton, I felt a need to say something.
When I got home that night, I posted on Facebook about having enjoyed the gay adaptation of “The Last Five Years” at Princeton. Jason Robert Brown read my post, and commented. It turned out that the Princeton students-much as I’d suspected–had not gotten permission to change his work. The next day, MTI cancelled the production.
I’m sure this was a painful lesson for talented students who’d invested a lot of time in rehearsing the play; I’m sure they must have been disappointed. And I do feel for them. However, it’s a lesson that needs to be learned.
A theatre company has certain fundamental responsibilities. And it is irresponsible to announce that you will be presenting a show–much less scheduling auditions and rehearsals, and performances–if you have not secured all rights for your proposed production. From the start, the Princeton University Players’ production was conceived to be a gay adaptation. Students who auditioned, several months before the Spring production opened, knew they were auditioning to be in a gay adaptation. The Princeton University Players sought-and received-support from Princeton’s LGBT Center precisely because they were doing a gay reworking of “The Last Five Years.”
But Princeton had never secured the rights to do such a production. I have sympathy for the Princeton students. And some of these talented students will no doubt be making their marks in professional theatre in years to come.
But I have more sympathy for Jason Robert Brown. The rights of the author are paramount. And Brown was not even consulted. I wonder how Princeton University ever allowed things to get to that point. Adults should be properly guiding the students. Well, Jason Robert Brown will be a visiting professor at Princeton in the Fall; he can help educate the theater kids!
* * *
Drew Cohen, the President and CEO of MTI-one of the world’s pre-eminent theatrical licensing agencies–took time from his busy schedule to discuss with me the situation at Princeton, as well as the larger issues of the obligations involved in producing a play. And I’m grateful he made the time to talk with me; MTI is a huge force in the theatre world, and Cohen has international responsibilities. MTI provides authorized scripts and musical materials to over 70,000 professional, community and school theatres in the US and in over 60 countries worldwide. The firm, its web site proudly notes, “is particularly dedicated to educational theatre.” MTI maintains its global headquarters in New York City with additional offices in London and Melbourne.
Now, as a loyal Princetonian, I generally want to give Princeton the benefit of the doubt. I’d like to imagine that perhaps Princeton simply did not realize that you cannot make changes to a show without permission. But Drew Cohen quickly disabused me of that misconception..
Cohen stressed that all MTI licensing agreements explicitly state, concerning the possibility of making changes to any play: “Under federal law, you may not make any changes, including but not limited to the following: (a.) You may not add new music, dialogue, lyrics or anything to the text included with the rented material; (b. ) You may not delete, in whole or in part, any material in the existing play; (c.) You may not make changes of any kind, including but not limited to changes of music, lyrics or dialogue or change in the period, characters or characterizations in the presently existing play; (d.) You agree that any proposed change, addition, omission, interpolation, or alteration in the book, music, or lyrics of the play shall first be submitted in writing to MTI so that the written consent of the Authors, if granted, may be obtained by MTI; (e.) You may not make any copies of the materials provided or physically alter, amend, or change them without MTI’s prior written permission. Should permission be granted, any and all materials created or amended remain the property of the copyright owners and must be returned to MTI.”
Whew! That’s about as clear and emphatic as any contract could possibly be. Cohen further impressed upon me: “All of our licenses state that no changes can be made to the text or music of the show as written. We enforce that strictly. And the producer/director needs to uphold the intention of the author as well….. But sometimes the mentality of a director or a producer seems to be: `It’s better to just do whatever you want to do and apologize afterwards, than to ask if you can make the changes you want to make and be told `No.'” (And I suspect some people at Princeton were trying to do just that.)
Cohen continued: “If you make unauthorized changes to a show, there are legal consequences. It’s not just a violation of a contract, it’s an infringement on authors’ rights. Under the law there are statutory damages–financial consequences. In addition, if–for example–a school makes unauthorized changes, we might require that the school publicly apologize for changing the show; we might make the school contact the patrons who saw the show to explain that the school did not have permission to alter the work. The school might end up on MTI’s `Naughty List.’
“MTI’s mission is to promote musical theatre around the world. We consider it an unpleasant task when we have to deal with rogue producers and directors. Those occasions are thankfully few and far between. We don’t see this as a pervasive problem. People generally adhere to the word of the contract and use good judgment. We license tens of thousands of productions every year. There’s only a small handful of these instances that arise. They’re the rare exceptions.”
What would Cohen say to a director or producer who felt-as people at Princeton presumably did-that they were just trying to be creative, perhaps hoping to make a good show even better?
“That’s great that you want to be creative–but then write your own show! You wouldn’t alter a Picasso. Don’t alter the musical you’re licensing! Once you change the show, it’s no longer that show. An anyone who’ worked on a play or musical knows, if you change one element of a show, it affects many other elements. If you pull one thread, you wind up pulling many. If you change the gender or the sexual orientation of a character, it triggers other aspects of the shows to not work properly or not make sense–a lyric or a rhyme may be affected.”
And Cohen noted, this was not the first time that MTI has had a problem with Princeton. He recalled that around 2002, “the Princeton University Players were doing `West Side Story.’ They changed names and characters, to make it more like the Bloods and Crips. They cut music.” He was not happy about that.
And when MTI said that Princeton had no right to make such changes, Cohen recalled, Princeton’s first reaction was not to apologize but rather to try to push back, to claim that Princeton had every right to make such supposedly “minor” changes, that the music it had cut was needlessly “repetitive” and “superfluous.”
Cohen dryly observed that he doubted that Leonard Bernstein or the Bernstein estate would have considered any of Bernstein’s music for “West Side Story” “superfluous.” (I can only add that “West Side Story” is one of the all-time great shows in the musical-theatre canon; you don’t tamper with it. My lifelong friend, the late Jack Gottlieb, who was Bernstein’s right-hand man, intimate friend, and an executor of his estate, would never have sanctioned cutting even one measure of that glorious score.) Eventually, Cohen recalled, Princeton did apologize. They promised to make sure that such unauthorized changes would never happen again.
Cohen added: “Princeton agreed to give copyright training to all organizations on campus. That was 15 years ago. It’s probably time for Princeton to do that again.”
I’m sure he’s right!
* * *
I don’t know if the Princeton students even realized they were disrespecting Jason Robert Brown-much less violating federal copyright law. The first-rate student conductor/pianist for the Princeton University Players’ production of “The Last Five Years” wrote admiringly in the program: “I aspire to be like Jason Brown in everything I do.”
The student director wrote in the program notes how enthralled he’d been when he first discovered “The Last Five Years.” He watched the film adaptation of the musical with two of his closest friends, and was blown away. He wrote that he and his friends “spent many days afterwards discussing the in’s and out’s of a show that was unlike anything we had ever seen before….” His love for Jason Robert Brown’s work is obvious.
As a student at Princeton-the director wrote in the program notes-he came to feel that “queer men and women are constantly stereotyped within plays…” And he concluded that “the best way to show the real side of queer relationships was to display them through the lens of a heterosexual relationship.” He set about reworking “The Last Five Years” so that he could present it, at alternate performances, as telling the stories of relationships between two gay men and two lesbians. He wrote that in watching his production, whether you’re gay or straight, “you will see that we are all the same. We all love, we all laugh, and we all suffer, no matter who we are.” Those are all laudable goals. If he hoped to persuade audience members that love is the same, whether one is gay or straight, I think his heart’s in the right place. But a play belongs to its creator. If Jason Robert Brown did not want his play altered, the director could have selected another play to present. (He does good work; I’d have gladly entrusted him with any of my plays.) Or he could have written a play of his own, or could have asked a fellow student to write something.
According to Drew Cohen, Princeton never asked MTI if they could make any changes to “The Last Five Years.” And that saddens me. What if they’d asked if they could make changes and had managed to persuade Jason Robert Brown to say yes and provide input? The students would have benefited from his input. If Brown had said no, the student director could have picked something else. The Princeton University Players have been around for decades. The student leaders of the organization-if not all of the members–should surely know these things.
Drew Cohen encourages people contemplating a production of any show in their catalogue to always ask MTI what changes might be permissible. “We offer licensees of any play a mechanism by which they may be able to make some changes-if they request changes in writing and we then grant permission in writing. Sometimes people make requests that are practical and may be easy for us to agree to. Perhaps a theatre wants to do a show with a smaller cast and have some actors `double’ roles. Or perhaps a theatre wants to change a word that their community might find unacceptable. Those are the sorts of requests we may routinely agree to. But each case is different. If you want to know if you can make changes, you have to ask.” He elaborated: “Sometimes a licensee may think that something in a script should be changed, but the authors of the show feel it shouldn’t be changed; the authors have the final say. A Cherry Hill, New Jersey high school, for example, was doing the musical `Ragtime.’ Some members of the community felt the script should be changed to eliminate the `N-word.’ The school made a request, asking if they could delete the `N-word’ from the script. But the authors of `Ragtime’ said no; if the school wanted to do the show, it had to be performed as written. The authors felt the word was essential to show the hatred and anger of characters in the musical. The school held hearings, to see if the community wanted to perform the show as written, with the `N-word’ or cancel it. They decided to perform the show as written, and used that as a teachable moment.”
Changing the gender of a character is a bigger deal than some directors may realize, Cohen noted; it simply must not be done, unless you can obtain specific written permission. Cohen summed up the rules concerning gender this way: “If you’re doing a production of `Annie,’ you can’t make your main character `Danny’ instead of `Annie.’ If you’re doing a production of `Oliver,’ you can’t turn `Oliver’ into `Olivia.'” If you want to have a female actor play a male character–without changing the gender of the character–that’s permissible. If a high school, for example, wanted to do a production of “Newsies,” with many female students playing “newsboys”-not “newsgirls”-maintaining the integrity of the original script, that would be fine. In many schools, more girls than boys do go out for plays; Cohen suspects that in some schools, many of the newsboys in “Newsies” may indeed wind up being played by girls. And that will be fine, he says, so long as the script and score are not changed.
* * *
The thing that is puzzling to me about Princeton’s production of “The Last Five Years,” is this: Why didn’t Princeton ask MTI if they could make the many changes to “The Last Five Years” that the student director/adaptor made? Did a faculty advisor give that student a “green light” to proceed, while knowing that rights to make the proposed changes had not been obtained?
To me that’s a huge deal. I wouldn’t want a faculty member sanctioning plagiarism by his students. And faculty members shouldn’t permit theatre students to infringe on copyrights.
I wish I could offer you Princeton’s point of view. But I sure have not had much luck in learning it. I really don’t know how this production came to pass, or who approved of it, or if the students, faculty, and administrators all fully understand copyright issues. The student leadership of the Princeton University Players declined to make any comment for the record. And I respect the students’ decision. Ultimately, I think that Princeton University as institution-not just some undergraduates–has to take responsibility for any production mounted in a University facility.
Thomas Dunne, Princeton University’s Deputy Dean of Undergraduate Students, Emailed me to say that Princeton takes seriously its responsibilities towards licensing. He noted that he meets each year with the board of the Princeton University Players to review contracts for the next season. He said he was surprised to learn of situation with “The Last Five Years.” He said he’d reached out to MTI and agreed to cancel the remaining performances. He offered to speak further with me about the situation if I was interested.
I wrote him back that I would indeed like to speak further with him about the situation, because many questions remained unanswered, but I got no response from him. I wrote again, reminding him of his offer to speak further; I noted that I’d be writing about this issue for my column in “TheaterScene,” and would welcome any comments, either on-the-record or off-the-record, by phone or by Email. But once again, I got no response.
* * *
Perhaps some of the people at Princeton figured that no one would be likely to even notice what Princeton theatre students were doing. But Drew Cohen stressed to me that theatre-lovers are forever discussing online what they’ve seen or look forward to seeing; that simply goes with the territory. (Two days before I saw the Princeton production of “The Last Five Years,” I posted on my Facebook page that I was looking forward to seeing it; Jason Robert Brown commented that he’d be interested in hearing how the students did. So the show was a topic for discussion, even before I saw it.)
Thanks to the Internet, word tends to get around very quickly about what is being done in theatres everywhere-even in college theatres. Cohen told me, for example, that students at Towson University mounted a production of “Rent” with an unauthorized changed ending; in their revision of “Rent,” the character of “Mimi” died at the end. Cohen reflected: “Theatre is sort of self-monitoring. Fans of musical theatre are so passionate that when they see that a show has been changed, they’ll quickly say that something is not right here. They may comment in online blogs or on chat boards.” And thus, the unauthorized changes to “Rent” very quickly came to the attention of MTI, which licenses “Rent.” Cohen added that the director of the Towson University production of “Rent” seemed to imagine she had the right to change the ending of the show-but to him that simply indicated her naivete or ignorance of the law.
And when I mentioned “The Last Five Years” on Facebook, a friend on the West Coast wrote me that he planned to see a forthcoming scheduled gay/lesbian version of “The Last Five Years” at California’s Ocean Beach Playhouse. I have no idea if that production was authorized-or even if it actually came to pass. But, thanks to the Internet, I learned of that production, and received a link to it – http://sandiego.carpediem.cd/events/6409726-the-last-five-years-mondays-gay-couple-at-ob-playhouse-theatre-company/ – from an online acquaintance 3,000 miles away.
Another online friend asked me if I’d be seeing “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” at the 2018 Princeton Festival. He, too, sent me a link so I could read about the production – https://princetonfestival.org/event/2018-musical/ – , noting that one of the actors – according to the Princeton Festival’s page describing the production – had been a “co-star of Chip Deffaa’s `Theatre Boys’ at NYC’s 13th Street Rep.” The only problem was, that actor has never co-starred in any show of mine. (Perhaps someone never thought I’d see that page. But theatre buffs share news, and news often spreads quickly.)
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Drew Cohen acknowledges that sometimes directors may make unauthorized changes with the best of intentions. “Sometimes they’re trying to make the stage version of a shows more closely resemble a film version that they’ve seen-but what works best on screen isn’t always what works best on stage.” (I’ve certainly witnessed instances of that. I saw an otherwise excellent production of “West Side Story” at Connecticut’s Thomaston Operas House in which the director repositioned songs to make his production follow the movie.) Sometimes directors will cut songs they don’t like, or interpolate songs from other shows that they do like; such alterations are not allowed. I’m reminded of the regional production of “The Music Man” in which the director tried to cut the song “My White Knight” because she thought the words “My White Knight” sounded racist. And I won’t ever forget the wonderfully spirited high-school production of “Godspell” I witnessed in Poughkeepsie-one of my nieces was in that production-into which they somehow interpolated two songs from “Hedwig and the Angry Inch.”
Cohen observed that problems of unauthorized changes can sometimes even occur on the highly professional level. “There have been some very high-level productions where an artistic director has proceeded to change the material-even though someone at that level should know better.” He cited the case of the prominent Texas regional production of “Hands on a Hardbody” in which the director not only made numerous unauthorized changes, the director was sure the show’s creators would applaud his “improvements.” Amanda Green, one of the show’s creators, caught the production and was appalled. It was shut down.
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Cohen also pointed out: “Some authors are actually very open to people making changes to their work, so long as the licensees request permission in advance. MTI and the authors will always look more favorably, of course, on producers who make requests for permission to make changes, than on situations where someone simply takes matters into their own hands without asking.” And that’s what was so bothersome about the situation at Princeton: no one asked.
As a playwright, I tend to be lenient in giving directors permission to make modifications to my shows. When one senior citizens’ center, in New Jersey, licensed my show “George M. Cohan: In his Own Words” from Samuel French Inc., they asked me if they could simplify some lines and reassign some lines, because some of their actors-who were in their 80’s and 90’s-might have trouble memorizing long chunks of dialogue. I gave the director complete freedom. I enjoyed seeing the show. Many lines were shortened for the convenience of the actors. But the cast-led by an 86-year-old playing Cohan, and a 92-year-old playing his father-did a beautiful job. And I could not have been happier. The director had modified the material to fit the capabilities of the actors-all the while carefully preserving my intentions.
I was similarly satisfied when Marci Elyn Schein directed my Cohan show for kids as young as eight and nine, up in Katonah, New York. Again, she simplified some lines and reassigned others, so the show could be handled by very young kids-and, again, my intentions were respected throughout. It was fascinating for me seeing the same characters played in one production by performers in their 80’s and 90’s, and in another production by performers just eight and nine years old (one of whom, young Alex Craven, was such a brilliant child actor, I quickly cast him in another show of mine being presented at the New York International Fringe Festival).
Of course, I had no respect for one director who-when I went to see her production of one of my shows-had added a completely new scene (which she’d created without telling me). No, you can’t do that! I thought that was the worst thing that could happen until I ran into one unscrupulous producer, in upstate New York, who asked for a perusal copy of one of my shows. He then simply went ahead and did a production–without getting any permission or signing any contract, or paying any licensing fee-just hoping that no one would notice. My agent, doing an Internet search, discovered the unauthorized production and made sure the producer/director paid the appropriate fees. At first, the producer lamely tried to argue that his theatre company, operating on a not-for-profit basis, was not making any money from mounting my show and should thus be exempt from paying royalties. And while I have, sometimes, happily agreed to waive fees for someone who wanted to present my work as a charity fund-raiser, this producer was so shady, we made sure he paid every penny.
The funniest request I ever got for a change in a script came from an ultra-religious actor who was co-starring in a production of my show “Irving Berlin’s America” up in the Catskills. The actor’s character was supposed to utter a line referencing sex-symbol Mae West.
This actor considered Mae West to be an ungodly person and did not want to mention her name; he asked if the reference to her could be cut from the script. I told him we could have the other actor reference Mae West instead of him, so that the ultra-religious actor did not have to personally utter the “sinful” name of Mae West.
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Drew Cohen notes that the producer/director needs to respect the “intentions” of an author. Sometimes this can be a bit tricky. I once took my good friend Victoria Leacock Hoffman to see a production of Jonathan Larson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning musical “Rent” in Elmsford, New York. She had been Larson’s girlfriend and biggest champion; she knew “Rent” inside out. She’s not only watched the musical hundreds of times, she’s directed it. And she was horrified to discover that in this particular production, almost all of the physical contact between characters-hugging, kissing, touching-had been eliminated. When two guys sang of wanting to cover each other with kisses, the director did not have them touch, much less kiss; the bizarre
staging had them sing the song “I’ll Cover You” while standing far apart from one another. Afterwards, she really let the cast have it! Not a word of the libretto had been altered, but Jonathan Larson’s intentions most certainly had not been respected. This was a show about love, she stressed, as we visited with company members backstage–and to eliminate nearly all of the hugging, kissing, touching that the show required was to gut it of meaning.
Larson, incidentally, originally wanted to include in the score of “Rent” an excerpt of a Bruce Springsteen song he liked, but he could not get permission to do so. (Had Springsteen given consent, Springsteen would have received income from every performance of “Rent.”)
Sometimes unscrupulous producers simply make use of other people’s copyrighted music and hope no one will notice. I remember one little show about the French singer, Edith Piaf. (She’s been the subject of assorted shows.) The producer never bothered clearing the rights for the songs. Maybe the producer figured that Piaf was French; no one from France was likely to pay attention to what some small-time producer was doing in a little theatre in the U.S. But song catalogues can change hands. Over the years, the famed rock `n’ roll songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller had acquired a number of songs written by others-including some songs made famous by Edith Piaf. Leiber and Stoller told me they caught the Piaf show in New York, were surprised to discover that it included material they owned, which was being used without permission. They made sure, they told me, that the producer-who insisted it had all been an innocent mistake, some kind of oversight-paid up. And paid more than he would have paid had he done things properly. The producer, incidentally, later made the same “mistake” with another show, “forgetting” to pay for rights until he was called on it. Some producers never learn!
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Some creative artists are more zealous than others in maintaining control over their work. None were more zealous than the late master songwriter Irving Berlin. I remember when the prominent New York supper club, Michael’s Pub, decided to present a show celebrating the life and career of Berlin, who was then nearing one hundred years of age. Gil Weist, who owned Michael’s Pub, wanted me to write an advance piece for the New York Post, to publicize the gig. I told him I’d write such a piece, if he really wanted it, but noted it might well prompt Berlin to shut down the show. Weist wanted the piece. Berlin read my article in the Post, got on the phone and demanded that Weist cancel the show. Berlin threatened legal action. Weist, who was one tough cookie, acquiesced immediately. Weist thought Berlin was eccentric and cranky. And maybe Berlin was. But Berlin was within his rights.
I might add, Irving Berlin also stopped the 92nd Street “Y” from projecting his copyrighted lyrics onto a screen so audience members could sing along. He stopped the BBC from doing a made-for-television biopic. He would not allow authors to quote his lyrics in books. He would not allow his songs to be used in commercials, ever. He maintained careful control all of his life-and he lived to be 101-over how his copyrighted songs were used. He was well up in his 90s when he denied Stephen Spielberg permission to use one of his songs in a movie, saying, “I’ve got plans for it.”
Cy Coleman, by contrast, was delighted if anyone wanted to do a cabaret show celebrating him; he was glad they were keeping his music alive. But I once saw a fine young singer’s spirits crushed; he’d spent his savings (about $5,000.00) preparing his first-ever cabaret show, consisting of songs of Andrew Lloyd Webber. But on the night he was to open at the club Don’t Tell Mama, he was served with a cease-and-desist order. Weber’s attorney seemed to feel the fellow’s cabaret act might be unwanted competition with Weber’s stage musicals. The young singer had no idea he was supposed to get written permission for such a show. (Clubs like Don’t Tell Mama pay for licenses from ASCAP and BMI that enable singers to do shows featuring assorted songs by any ASCAP or BMI songwriters; so if a singer wants to do a show that mixes, say, songs by Berlin with songs by Weber, and by Sondheim, etc., he can do so. But if he wants to do a show consisting entirely of copyrighted songs by one writer, he needs permission.)
Erich Michael Gillett did one of the best salutes to Sondheim I’ve ever seen. I caught the show at Don’t Tell Mama and gave it a great review in the New York Post. Gillett, an excellent singer, told me that Sondheim had personally given him his blessings, that he was doing the show with Sondheim’s verbal OK. But he had not gotten a written OK.
And Sondheim’s lawyer informed him he had to stop presenting the show. A pity, because Gillett’s one of the good guys, and that was a good show. But Sondheim was within his rights.
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I can certainly understand why creative artists want to maintain control over their work. They are pouring their hearts and souls into their work.
And it can be, alas, far too easy for others to steal their work, or alter it. You can find bootlegged copies of many scripts and scores and songs online. You can even find unauthorized “karaoke”-style tracks for many popular musicals-produced without permission and without any royalties being paid to the creators of the shows.
And yes, it bothers me if Princeton-or any other entity-presents a production of a show without respecting the author’s rights. That’s simply bad form.
Come on, Princeton! What were you guys thinking?
– CHIP DEFFAA