The Playgoer: The Urinetown Dispute

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Monday, November 20, 2006

The Urinetown Dispute

The directorial and designer dispute over who owns the Urinetown staging...uh, trickles on.

Here's a Chicago perspective from the Trib's Chris Jones, whose lede nicely points up what might really be at stake here:

A bitter battle is brewing that may completely change the long-established ground-rules for producing -- or reproducing -- Broadway musicals all across the country. Companies such as the Theater Under the Stars in Houston or the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire have long been known for giving their loyal audiences a diet of recent Broadway hits at more reasonable prices and in their own back yard.

In the future, they may be deterred by the growing chill of potential lawsuits.


Jones' piece is the most thorough reporting on this episode so far, and it raises a lot of good points, including a substantive defense from the accused plagarists. So if you're at all interested in this story, read it.

My own perspective is that directors and designers do have a right to own their work, and hopefully the relevant unions can find a way for that to be at least licensed at a non-prohibitive expense.

But this kind of story must unsettle those whose business it is to sell Broadway shows around the country. Notice how we've now had many union disputes in this very arena, usually the result of desperate cost-cutting measures for cheaper road shows--e.g. the spate of non-equity tours. Even the "official" tours are increasingly scaled down. (For an example of this, see the current New York incarnation of "Les Miz," which is basically the touring show repackaged for a quick Broadway buck.)

In the Urinetown case, the issues may be different since these are just small local companies. But the central question still is over how a Broadway "property" like Urinetown (whatever its Fringe origins) continues to have a life post-B'way--for not only its creators, but all of its copyright-owners, including producers and publishers. And that life depends upon companies being able to advertise to their local audiences--to paraphrase the infamous Beatlemania--not Broadway but an incredible simulation.

Again, I hope the solution lies in working out affordable ways for the entire team to be included in royalty payments (when they have made especially significant/unique contributions.) But the other solution, of course, is for local companies to dare to be creative and reinvent the show!

Then again, as Jones points out...
And there's another rub. The writers of musicals don't want to see their work violated or changed -- indeed, licensing contracts typically prohibit the changing of gender, say, or the notes in the score or the lines in the script. Subsequent directors thus find themselves between a rock and a hard place -- in trouble with the writer or the composer if they change so much as a note or a lyric, and in trouble with the original directors and choreographers if they stick too closely to the original production.

By the way, this episode must be particularly awkward and/or painful for Urinetown's creators Kotis & Hollman since both were nurtured in the Chicago off-Loop improv and small theatre scene in the 1980s & 90s. In other words, they benefitted from the relative autonomy and isolation of that world from the professional theatre industry. Not that they ever infringed anyone's copyright, but they gotta know what it feels like to be the little guy in this situation.

And, finally, for the real inside baseball on this, see original Urinetown star Hunter Foster's defense of his wife, who happens to be the director of one of the "offending" revivals!

1 comment:

Damien said...

While I feel some sympathy for directors and choreographers on this point, there's a problem that I can't get past: When they work to develop a production in New York with writers and actors, aren't they trying to come up with the best possible way of doing things? I don't see how they can then turn around and say, "We'd like the show to have a long regional life, but we don't want anyone else to use any of the ideas that we so painstakingly came to, even if we came to them because they make the most sense for the show."

And what about an actor or actress who does a gesture-for-gesture imitation of the original performance (we've all seen that happen IN New York, let alone elsewhere)? Should a performance be copyrightable too, since there's certainly just as much pilfering in that creative category?

I can see directors, designers and choreographers having the right to an enforced credit like "based on the original direction/design/etc. by so-and-so". That's only fair. But once they start demanding payment as well, I don't see how it can have anything but a stifling effect, financially and creatively, on the life of a show outside of New York. Not to mention that figuring out how much of a show has to resemble the original production (a song? an act? one piece of staging or the whole thing?) in order to merit a royalty will be a nightmare.