The Melee over "Parade" and other shows
Who's Got the Right(s)?
By ANTHONY CHASE
Everybody in the theater world knows that unless the play is old enough to be “in the public domain,” scripts and musical scores are the property of their creators. Theaters that want to perform copy-written material are obliged to obtain licenses and to pay royalties. It doesn’t matter who you are: professional, semi-professional, amateur, community theater, or high school. It doesn’t matter if you’re performing for charity. It doesn’t matter if admission is free. It doesn’t matter if you call it a “dress rehearsal” or a “preview.” If you invite an audience, you need permission in the form of a signed contract, and you need to pay.
This year, the community got a heavy dose of how dicey this can be when two different entities claimed to have rights to license stage adaptations of Harper Lee’s novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. The current Broadway producers, backed by the Harper Lee estate, successfully shuttered multiple productions of an earlier version in any city that violated the terms of the original contract, which stated that no performance could take place within twenty-five miles of a major city. The Kavinoky Theatre was caught in the cross-fire and had to cancel their production, ten days before opening. They had a contract in hand!
Behind the scenes, local issues over rights had already been brewing. Subversive Theatre Collective had been caught performing shows without a license by both the Dramatists Play Service and Samuel French catalogs; sources confirm the company was actually sued by Samuel French, one of the world’s oldest and largest publishers of plays, over failure to pay royalties going back years. Several years ago, the same group staged an entirely illegal stage adaptation of Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs. (It appears that Subversive is now paying for their licenses).
I recall other infractions. A dicey stage version of Paddy Chayefsky television play, Marty, done at New Phoenix comes to mind.
Torn Space Theater practically put their contract up a flagpole and shot off flares to let the public know that their stage adaptation of John Cassavetes’ The Killing of a Chinese Bookie was legal and entirely authorized.
Sometimes, groups flirt with what is legal. The world seems to close an indulgent eye to the copywritten material that rotates in and out of entertainments performed by some of Buffalo’s most beloved divas. We ask no questions about unauthorized “Actors Nights” or “Fendrick Fund Performances” or discounted “Dress Rehearsal Previews.”
In today’s climate, however, when the internet makes information more available and communication more immediate, everyone is under closer scrutiny.
American Repertory Theatre of WNY found that out the hard way when the rumor mill started the churn. Inquiring minds wondered whether they had obtained full production or merely concert rights for “Jesus Christ Superstar” last season; then their web site did not indicate permission for their holiday presentation of Meet Me in St. Louis; then they announced Cabaret for next season, when Second Generation Theatre already had a contract, which led people to wonder how both companies could have the rights. That led to investigation, and the discovery that Jason Robert Brown’s Parade was not listed as a licensed production on the Music Theatre International website.
The melee escalated rather quickly and included communication with composer Georgia Stitt who is married to Jason Robert Brown, but also serves as chair of the Copyright Advocacy Committee of the Dramatists Guild. On Facebook, without naming names, Doug Weyand, Theatre Alliance of Buffalo President, admonished members of casts who perform in shows that they know are illegal:
Actors - If you are involved with a production and you find out that the production is being performed without the theater/production company having obtained the rights to the show, it is YOUR responsibility to refuse to continue to perform until the theater/production company PROVES to you that the matter is settled. How do they prove it: by providing you with a copy of the signed (finalized) rights agreement.
Why should you do this? Let's start with this: YOUR personal reputations as artists are somewhat at stake. You become known as an actor who doesn't really care about professional standards, practices and behaviors. It says that you tacitly approve of the situation and really only care that you get to be on stage, no matter the cost. You lose all credibility.
Want another reason? Trust has been broken. How do you trust that the theater/production company has been honest with you in past productions or will be honest with you in future productions? If they offer a "temporary solution" to the problem, how do you know that they're not bending the rules or flat-out lying about it? You don't. It is up to YOU to take a stand. It is up to YOU to take your craft seriously. Be the artist that you say you are.
While Weyand referred to no specific company, it didn’t take Sherlock Holmes to deduce that the post was sparked by questions about American Repertory Theatre of WNY (ART).
I contacted American Repertory Theatre of WNY executive director Matthew LaChiusa who was quite taken aback by the breadth and vigor of the reaction.
“Do we have a target on our backs?” he asked incredulously.
He then quickly conceded that ART has not been doing everything by the book.
“We are up to date now,” insists LaChiusa, “but it is true that we did not have a contract with MTI when we started rehearsal. In fact, we were not even sure we were going to be able to open until Tuesday before we opened so we kept delaying. We had casting problems; that is why I am in the show. We had production problems and sound problems.”
Then LaChiusa admits the deepest problem of all.
“The real reason we got ourselves into this situation is that after changing venues something like seven times in recent months, we are having money problems,” he says. “We are living hand to mouth.”
In these circumstances, the company procrastinated about getting the requisite permissions.
David Kimple, Director of Licensing at Samuel French says that their rule is that “Companies are contractually required to execute their licenses with payment prior to announcement. If you see an announcement and the show is not on the now playing map, you’re welcome to poke us so we can review our records and ensure matters are handled properly.”
All companies have rules similar to this. Some require a deposit. Others want payment in full.
In the cases of Cabaret and Parade it seems that somebody tipped off the publishers.
When ART got the call from MTI, LaChiusa shamefacedly admitted negligence, completed the contract, and paid the bill.
“We have no money. I had to put it on my credit card,” admits LaChiusa. “This was especially embarrassing because my brother had told Jason Robert Brown that we were doing his show. He had told my brother to wish us well!”
LaChiusa’s brother is celebrated musical theater composer Michael John LaChiusa.
“I do hope,” adds LaChiusa, “given the circumstances, that the theater community can be a little understanding and forgiving. We took some missteps, but we are now up to date and in good standing [with Parade].”
While everyone can sympathize with the hand-to-mouth nature of modest theatrical production, no one is condoning the practice of announcing before securing rights, and when required, paying a deposit, or the bill in full, as stipulated by the terms of the contract.
A story has been circulating that LaChiusa told MTI that he would cancel Friday and Saturday performances until the paperwork was complete, when in fact, shows were never schedule on those days, and ART performed illegally on Thursday. He insists that this is untrue.
“We were legal for Thursday night’s show,” he says. “I have the contract and credit card receipt in hand. This Friday and Saturday were previously cancelled because Brandon Williamson is not available. We've always paid for royalties at ART. We got into a mess this time because we are struggling financially, and we were having problems during rehearsals. "
It should be emphasized, and LaChiusa is aware, that the time to decide whether or not to apply for rights is not after the show had been announced and cast, much less after it has gone into rehearsal.
There has been continued fallout for ART. To begin, after the Weyand post on Facebook, LaChiusa was confronted by members of the cast, inquiring to know if they were legit.
Husband and wife Jordan and Melissa Levin are starring in the show as Leo and Lucille Frank. This is a prominent return to the stage for them after a hiatus to start a family. They wrote to playwright and Dramatists Guild Council Member Donna Hoke, Doug Weyand, and to me:
Hello to you all,
I’m writing out of concern based on social media posts and word of mouth regarding this whole rights situation involving ART’s current production of PARADE. Jordan and I were very eager to be involved in this project with Matt Refermat and this wonderful ensemble of actors - and when it was brought to ART all of us were told by Matthew LaChiusa that we were fully licensed under MTI. At this point, we are truly concerned that we were (and are being) lied to. Obviously, Jordan and I would never have agreed to perform in an illegal production, and would greatly appreciate some counsel on how to move forward, based on any information you may have that we clearly have not been given. We contacted Matt LaChiusa and requested proof, and I am attaching what he sent in hopes that one or all of you may be able to determine its legitimacy. We have great respect for each of you and for the professional Buffalo theatre community as a whole, as well as the writers of PARADE and would never perform with the knowledge that rights were not secured legally.
Thank you in advance for your guidance in this very upsetting situation.
With sincere appreciation,
Melissa and Jordan Levin
The Levins clearly felt misled. Doug Weyand responded about the documentation provided by Matthew LaChiusa.
From my perspective, this looks legitimate and that their rights are set as of two days ago. Granted, the show was already open when they settled them, but it seems finalized now. (To be clear, this isn't a rights contract. It's the acceptance letter from having submitted a signed contract for approval.)
Weyand elaborated on his social media post, which had instigated the inquiry:
To clarify about my social media post: I never once thought that you, Jordan or any cast member was in-the-wrong. I was simply trying to convey that if casts of any show where this situation arose were definitively aware that rights haven't been obtained, they should stand up, speak out and defend their artistry by demanding that the problem be fixed before continuing. I believe your cast members had no idea of what was going on.
It's also why I kept my post non-specific to productions/theaters because this isn't about one show. It has happened repeatedly at different theaters.
Your integrity as artists (or as people) was never in question. I have nothing but respect and admiration for you.
Thanks for sharing this.
Doug Weyand Marketing/Production Coordinator, MusicalFare Theatre President, Theatre Alliance of Buffalo
The fallout, however, continues.
Word is that playwright Caitlin Saylor Stephens, whose play, Joley was supposed to be up next at ART, just informed the company that she was declining their scheduled production. I would say that she had “pulled the rights,” but rights were never granted. According to Stephens, she has not heard from the company since last spring, and her requests for a contract were repeatedly ignored.
Problems came to Stephens’ attention when she was contacted by Donna Hoke, who also serves as theater writer for Buffalo Spree. Hoke wanted to write a preview article about the play.
“When I can, I like to promote new plays by living playwrights," says Hoke. "I'd reached out a week ago to interview her, and she happened to get back to me in the middle of this brouhaha. She said she'd never signed a contract, had not heard from ART since spring of 2018, and 'as far as I know, there is no production of my play, Joley, at ART.
After hearing the show was still being advertised as going up in May, Stephens said, “I got bad vibes from this company. They went ahead and issued a press release prior to contract. And then they didn’t respond to my emails for months. I got a considerable amount of pushback from them re my standard contract requests. Then radio silence.”
The playwright had no idea that her play was still being advertised.
Regarding other questions that have been circulating, LaChiusa explains that the idiosyncratic wording in the Parade program, “Rights Granted through MTI” was done by artistic director Candice Kogut without his consultation. I have not yet been able to contact Kogut, who some say has left her position as ART's artistic director. LaChiusa says, "The company had 'amateur rights,' not 'concert rights' for Jesus Christ Superstar, and that Meet Me in St. Louis began with a version they pulled off the internet and adapted themselves. That method, while not an uncommon practice in Buffalo, would not be legit.
“As for Cabaret,” adds LaChiusa, “we announced before we had a contract. Now we have announced our intention to do Bat Boy. We don’t have a contract for that yet either. We just hope nobody else beats us to it!”
Strictly speaking, ART should not have announced Bat Boy without a contract. There is also no evidence of rights for Merrily We Roll Along, which has been announced as ART's spring musical.
“The pattern has been established,” Hoke observes, “at least for this season. That's three shows [ART] announced without rights. Meet Me in St. Louis has come and gone; Parade he got caught in the middle; and now Caitlin has pulled her show because rights weren't secured. And Merrily We Roll Along is not listed as a licensed production on the MTI website."
The story continues to develop, and the conversation is certain to continue for a long time. In the final analysis, we are seeing that it is becoming less and less possible to skirt the rules without consequence.
[This article has been revised to reflect that Marty was produced "at" not "by" the New Phoenix Theatre].