"Rent" Dramaturg Sues Larson Estate

Lynn M. Thomson, the dramaturg who worked with Jonathan Larson on his musical "Rent," has filed suit against the dramatist-composer's estate, claiming authorship--in collaboration with Larson--of fully one third of the functioning script.

The suit, filed in Manhattan's U.S. District Court on Nov. 25, is asking for 16% of the revenues the estate reaps from the musical. According to a report in The Wall Street Journal, that amount, embracing ticket sales, the cast album, publishing agreements, and upcoming movie-sale rights, is expected to eventually reach $250 million.

The Larson estate, run by the late author's father, Allan S. Larson, issued a short statement, vowing to fight the suit and saying that Thomson "was never the co-author of the show." Jonathan Larson died unexpectedly of an aortic aneurysm in January on the night before the musical's first preview at the New York Theatre Workshop.

Alleged Contribution Is Large

According to the suit, Thomson was brought in to work on "Rent" by the New York Theatre Workshop after the theatre considered hiring a professional bookwriter to furnish the musical with a plot. Thomson was paid a flat fee of $2,000 by the theatre. The suit states that the theatre then "attempted to persuade the plaintiff to sign a proposed copyright release" which would prevent Thomson from claiming ownership of any part of the musical. Thomson didn't sign.

Thomson said she worked "full-time" on the show from May 1995 to April 1996. "That is really what I did during that time."

Thomson's overall claim on the musical, as sketched out by the suit, looks considerable. All told, she contends to have "developed the plot and theme, contributed extensively to the story, created many character elements, wrote a significant portion of the dialogue and song lyrics, and made other copyrightable contributions to the work."

Specific examples of Thomson's handiwork alluded to in the suit include: the co-creation of the show's opening song "Tune Up," as well as lyrics to "Rent" 's title tune; the transformation of the character Roger's first solo song from "Right Brain," a tune about writer's block, to "One Song: Glory," the current number about creative aspirations; the decision to not make the characters Maureen and Joanne HIV positive; and a significant role in the shaping of the character Joanne.

According to Thomson, Larson always intended to recognize her contribution. "This suit is based in part on the fact that Jonathan was always clear about acknowledging my contribution to the project," Thomson told Back Stage. "He was vocal about it."

Thomson said Larson mentioned her contribution at readings of the work and in discussions with colleagues. The suit cites "Rent" director Michael Greif as having said on the "Charlie Rose Show" that Thomson refashioned "about a third of the play." And playwright Craig Lucas-- who worked with Thomson during her tenure as dramaturg at Circle Repertory Company from 1991 to 1995--has said that Larson told him that she had "transformed the show."

Initially, there seems to have been a tacit admission of Thomson's role by the Larson estate. Thomson said she has been made two offers of compensation by the estate, both of which she rejected. The first, she claimed, would have awarded her only .004% of the estate's revenues.

"The issue was also one of censorship," Thomson elaborated. "The way the agreement would be worded explicitly and implicitly, was to say I didn't do what I did."

Thomson said her efforts to resolve the disagreement accounted for her filing suit nearly a year after the musical's opening. "I spent eight months trying to find a collaborative and peaceful solution to this," argued Thomson.

A Tricky Trade

Though a familiar trade in Europe, dramaturgy has become visible in the American theatre only in the past 15 years or so, following the rise of regional theatre and the play development process. Still, confusion about the dramaturg's function has led to suspicion among dramatists and other theatre professionals. This is attributable, in part, to the amorphous nature of the job. A dramaturg's duties will vary from theatre to theatre and job to job, and can range from research and scholarship, in the case of productions of classics, to extensive editing, when working with a playwright on a new text.

"What we do is so very wide-ranging that it's hard to pin it down," admits Jayme Koszyn, president of Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas, and a dramaturg at Boston's Huntington Theatre Company. "Lynn's case is an extreme example because: a) a lot of money is involved; and b) the dramatist has passed away."

Thomson said that part of the reason she has decided to speak out about the case is to eliminate some of the confusion surrounding dramaturgy and garner the trade some attention. "There are some very serious issues here," said Thomson. "The theatre world is based on lots of people working for little or no money. One of the issues is just compensation and the other is simply respect."

Echoes of Another Case

According to Thomson's lawyer, Russell Alexander Smith, the "Rent" case marks the first time a dramaturg has cited copyright law to claim a share of a play's royalties.

The case bears some resemblance to another lawsuit filed earlier this year, in which director Joe Mantello alleged that a Florida theatre company knowingly replicated his New York staging of the play "Love! Valour! Compassion!" Both cases broach the ticklish issue of exactly how much, if at all, a theatrical collaborator's contributions to a production constitute copyrightable property. And both suits are understandably alarming to dramatists.

Koszyn understands the fears. "Theatre is a collaborative process," she stated, "and the last thing that anybody would want is to have the atmosphere ruined by people worried about individual contribution. But for a very long time dramaturgs have been the one member of the creative team that has not been acknowledged."

"That doesn't mean at all that a dramaturg is a co-author," continued Koszyn. "Every case is different."

As for her case, Thomson asserted it was "the difference between asking questions and offering su