Will 'Urinetown' Case Hamper Artistic Process?

About six years ago, Donna Lynne Champlin auditioned for a job as a standby in a Broadway musical. She didn't think much of the script, but she studied the seven pages she had been given and thought of ways to unearth the humor.

Whatever choices she made seemed to work: During her audition, Champlin said, the director, the choreographer, and the rest of the creative team couldn't stop laughing. She even saw the director taking notes. Nevertheless, Champlin didn't get the job. When the show opened, she went to see it.

"The woman playing my part was pretty much unfunny, except for those seven pages that I did," said Champlin, who chose not to name the musical to protect the people involved. "Everything I did in that audition room was up on that stage. Sometimes to take a risk, you end up giving it away."

The volatile issue of intellectual property in the theatre erupted again recently, when members of the creative team for the Broadway production of Urinetown accused their counterparts at two Midwestern theatres of plagiarizing their work. This touched off countercharges and claims from a third party — all of which have yet to be resolved.

The controversy has left some actors, such as Champlin, wondering what the legal wrangling might mean for a collaborative process that is the backbone of musical theatre — a process that other actors contend is suffering already, from petty backbiting to the reduction of out-of-town tryouts and New York workshop productions.

Furthermore, directors, choreographers, and designers routinely rely on actors' ideas to shape a nascent project; if each member of a creative team begins to codify, copyright, and profit from the visual signature of a show, how eagerly will actors contribute to the artistic process — particularly when there is no guarantee they will even have a role in the production, let alone share in its revenue?

"It is a litigious society," said Champlin, whose Broadway credits include Hollywood Arms and last season's revival of Sweeney Todd. "Things are very unfair in this business. Artistically we are going down a very slippery slope, and fast.... We're in a very precarious place."

Ryan Driscoll, who played Hermie in the Off-Broadway production of Summer of '42, said, "If we lose the sense of collaboration between actors and the creative team, where are we?"

Others, such as Broadway veteran Timothy Jerome, are more sanguine. "Theatre is much bigger than the litigation that nips away at its hem," said Jerome, who is appearing in Tarzan and has more than a dozen other Broadway credits on his résumé. "The way the artists put the pieces together, as flawed as it is, cannot be invaded by nonartistic elements, except where people are allowing themselves to be vulnerable — and only then [they are] suffering from paranoia."

One Big Hissing Match

The regional theatres in question — the Mercury in Chicago and the Carousel Dinner Theatre in Akron, Ohio — licensed the script and music of Urinetown but did not seek permission from the director, choreographer, or designers to use their ideas. During a news conference in mid-November, members of the Broadway team said "90 percent" of their work had been copied.

Officials from the Mercury and the Carousel have denied the charges, and the Carousel has filed a lawsuit against the Broadway team in U.S. District Court in Ohio, asking that the work done at the regional theatre be certified as original. The run of each regional show has ended; the Broadway version closed in early 2004.

One of the principals in the dispute is Jennifer Cody, who directed the Akron show and played Little Becky Two Shoes in the Broadway production. She could not be reached for comment, though her husband, Hunter Foster, defended her in a conversation with Playbill.com. (Foster played Bobby Strong in the Broadway version.)

"I didn't think it was copied," Foster told Playbill in early December. "I think they kept it in the spirit of the show" on Broadway.

Less than a week later, Joseph P. McDonnell, the director of the original production of Urinetown at the 1999 New York International Fringe Festival, told Playbill.com that Broadway director John Rando and choreographer John Carrafa had copied his work. Rando and Carrafa have denied McDonnell's assertion.

McDonnell told the website he wasn't necessarily staking his claim to seek credit or remuneration — though he said he has spoken with a lawyer. Instead, he said he wanted to defend the regional theatres' ability to stage credible productions of hit shows.

"I want to stand up for what is right," McDonnell told Playbill, "and I believe that these people in Chicago and Ohio are being treated unfairly."

Singular Consternation

The musical A Chorus Line is the ultimate example of performers feeling shortchanged by the compensation they received for making significant contributions to a successful show. In 1974, director and choreographer Michael Bennett invited 19 Broadway dancers to talk about their experiences. These war stories of the hoofer's life were taped and then incorporated (sometimes verbatim) into what would become a record-setting blockbuster.

The dancers agreed to sell their stories for $1, though Bennett (who died in 1987) arranged for many of them to receive royalties, in some cases as much as $10,000 a year, according to an October report in The New York Times. More than 30 years later, several of the Chorus Line veterans still regret the financial terms, particularly because they receive no subsidiary rights from other productions, such as the current Broadway revival.

"There never would have been A Chorus Line without Michael," Kelly Bishop, who played Sheila in the original production, told the Times. "But there never would have been A Chorus Line without us, either."

Nancy Anderson once spent four weeks in a workshop for a musical. Though her character was barely a sketch, she made certain choices about costumes, choreography, and vocal range that were incorporated into the final version that ran on Broadway without her. (Anderson, like Champlin and other actors interviewed for this story, would not specify the project she helped develop, because she wanted to mitigate what has already become a heated topic in New York theatre circles.)

Nevertheless, Anderson was compensated for her work under the Actors' Equity rules for workshops — a process that resulted directly from the Chorus Line experience and one that she believes is underutilized by producers. "They should honor the workshop process more," she said. "Shell out a

little money."

The Way It Works

The workshop guidelines say actors must get a salary of about $500 to $600 a week; if there is more than one workshop session, actors get a raise. Once a show goes into full production, actors are due a tiny piece of the weekly gross (typically, each performer gets a portion of 1 percent). As for subsidiary rights, actors divide 1.5 percent of net receipts.

There is no standard workshop contract; each is negotiated separately, which might be one reason producers are reluctant to go through the process. Staged readings, on the other hand, are incomparably cheaper: For those, actors receive only transportation costs, as long as the reading doesn't exceed the maximum time restriction for work and duration.

Actor Joy Lynn Matthews, who appeared on Broadway in Marie Christine and the most recent revival of The Music Man, said there were almost too many instances for her to name when her artistic choices made a lasting imprint on a show, including those that moved on without her.

"It would depress me to the point I'd have to lay in my bathtub and slit my wrists," she said.

However, Matthews did cite one example, a long-running New York show that she was in that went on to tour extensively. Of the creative team, she said, "They had taken every idea we [actors] gave them and then put it under their banner" — right down to the color of a costume.

But Matthews said she is neither bitter nor suicidal. "We [actors] know that, going in, that's the way the process works," she said. "My basic attitude is, if you're going to do brand-new projects, you better be aware that they're going to pick your brain.... If you're going to be bothered by that, then you shouldn't do new projects."

Cents and Sensibility

Anderson, whose Broadway credits include A Class Act and the revival of Wonderful Town, fears that the attention the Urinetown suit has received could stifle creativity and cooperation between actors and creative teams, an exchange that she said is already troubled.

"I believe the creative process in the musical theatre is less and less invited, because I think there's more and more of an attitude of 'I'm not getting paid for that,' 'I'm not doing backflips, because the last time I didn't get compensated for my injuries,' or 'The director is squashing my ideas.'

"If something like [the Urinetown suit] doesn't reach some sort of agreeable solution, the actors will get more and more belligerent," she continued. "If there's litigation that hampers that process, we're stomping on creativity that's already at a premium."

Jerome, however, said the artistic stakes are too high for actors to become preoccupied with what he calls "these post-success kerfuffles."

"Just go in and do the work," he said. "It's important work to be done, because you stand the chance of affecting the culture in rehearsal. You could be creating a cultural masterpiece. That chance is there every time.... You better give it everything you got, right then and there."

The collaborative process, he continued, "is such a precious gift to mankind. Just the fact that you can do that sort of work is way more important than the greed that follows success."