“First, let’s define what we mean by ‘changes’.”
This statement came up not once but twice in my conversation with Bruce Lumpkin, artistic director of Houston’s Theatre Under The Stars and director of their current production of the musical Hands on a Hardbody. The comment arose when I asked Lumpkin specific questions about my communications with Hardbody creators Amanda Green and Doug Wright. Green, who attended the show’s opening at TUTS, detailed a fairly extensive list of alterations to the musical, none of which had been discussed with the authors or their licensing house prior to production.
[I should note from the outset that I was first made aware of the authors’ concerns by Bruce Lazarus, executive director of Samuel French, which licenses the show. He reached out to me because of my prior writing on the subject of authors’ rights and because we know each other from my one-year tenure in 2012-13 on the Samuel French advisory committee (two meetings; $500 total honorarium). I say this by way of full disclosure.]
Having attended the opening night of Hardbody at Lumpkin’s invitation, Green described to me her experience in watching the show. “They started the opening number and I noticed that some people were singing solos other than what we’d assigned. As we neared the middle of the opening number, I thought, ‘what happened to the middle section?’” She said that musical material for Norma, the religious woman in the story, “was gone.”
When the second song began, Green recalls being surprised, saying, “I thought, ‘so we did put this number second after all’ before realizing that we hadn’t done that.” As the act continued, Green said, “I kept waiting for ‘If I Had A Truck’ and it didn’t come.” She went on to detail a litany of ways in which the show in Houston differed from the final Broadway show, including reassigning vocal material to different characters within songs, and especially the shifting of songs from one act to another, which had the effect of removing some characters from the story earlier than before. She also said that interstitial music between scenes had been removed and replaced with new material. Having heard Green’s point by point recounting of act one changes, I suggested we could dispense with the same for act two.
When I asked Lumpkin about the nature of changes to the show. His response was, “I didn’t change lyrics, I didn’t change songs, I didn’t change dialogue. I only changed their order.” In response to my query as to why he felt he could make such shifts, Lumpkin cited having seen the show twice on Broadway and having seen the running order of songs as printed in the program each time differing, in addition to yet other song rundowns on inserts to the program.
“I thought that perhaps maybe I could put together a different order thinking that perhaps if they don’t like it I’ll put it back,” said Lumpkin. “There was no new vision for the show. It was just a matter of the order of the songs in the show. I knew there was a possibility they wouldn’t like it. I was totally upfront.”
Had he notified the authors or the licensing house in advance? “I guess I didn’t. I didn’t think changing the order with them coming [to the opening]. It wasn’t like cutting a number.” He continued, “I’ve done a lot of this before. I did this with Stephen Schwartz and Charles Strouse on Rags and they worked with me. But in that case it was about cutting some subplots and characters. When we did Godspell, I told Stephen Schwartz that the song order was kind of arbitrary and he let me work with it.”
I asked Lumpkin whether he would have made any changes to Hardbody, which he said he did over three days only after rehearsals had begun, if none of the authors had accepted his invitation to the opening. “Probably not,” he replied. “I wasn’t trying to reinvent the wheel. The only struggle they had was the order.” When I asked how he knew of the author’s “struggle,” he once again cited the various song lists he’d seen when attending the show on Broadway.
Lumpkin also suggested that there was some discrepancy between the score and the text he received, saying such things were common with licensed works. When I asked, “Did you ask for clarification from the source?” he responded, “No, I don’t think I’ve ever done that. I take their source material and we figure it out on our own.”
Noting that I was asking a pointed question, I inquired, “Having signed a license agreement for the show, did you believe you had the legal and ethical right to make the changes you did?” Lumpkin declined to answer. But as we concluded our talk, he said that he knows how the authors feel, saying that he too had done original shows.
“I didn’t think that moving four numbers was a big deal. We’ve changed it back and I don’t think anyone in the audience knows the difference. Except me.”
However, Green had pointed out that opening night was also a press night. “He can say it can be turned back,” observed Green, “but it was already being reviewed that night.” And she clearly differs as to the extent of the changes.
Describing her post-show conversation with Lumpkin in Houston, Green says, “When it was over, I was flabbergasted. I had been planning to go to the cast party, but I couldn’t. Bruce came over to me and said, ‘I know you’re mad and I know you hate it, but you know it works better’.” Green continued: “He was pressuring me to make a decision and say I liked it. So I left.”
Green says she asked why Lumpkin hadn’t asked for permission and described his reply as, “He said he wanted to surprise us. He said the show wasn’t working at all.”
Describing her conversation with Doug Wright and their collaborator Trey Anastasio subsequent to seeing the show, Green said, “We wanted to have our show as written. We’d spent years building and honing it and had very specific character-driven moments. People didn’t just say things. We carefully crafted the show. We were taken aback and dismayed by his [Lumpkin’s] lack of respect and regard for copyright laws and our material.”
In response to a series of e-mailed questions about the changes as reported by Green, Doug Wright wrote, “I was stunned, especially because the changes were so egregious.” But because he hadn’t seen them firsthand, I asked him what he hoped directors and artistic directors might learn from the liberties taken with Hardbody at the outset of the short (June 12 to 22) TUTS run.
“Most playwrights welcome the rigorous, insightful interpretive choices that good directors routinely bring to their work,” Wright responded. “But authorial choices are ours, and ours alone. When I write for the movies, I do it with the knowledge that my words may be rearranged, changed, or even stricken; the studio pays me a small fortune, and in exchange, they hold the copyright to my work. In the theater, I’m paid next to nothing for a play…but I get something even more philosophically and artistically valuable: ownership of my own writing. I live with the assurance that my scripts won’t be altered in any way without my blessing. That’s the one reward the theater can truly offer writers. It should never be taken away.”
As it happens, TUTS is doing another Samuel French property later this summer, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. When I asked Lumpkin about a change that French’s Lazarus said had been proposed to the licensed script, he responded, “When they did the second national company [of Whorehouse], they put in the song “Lonely at the Top” which isn’t in the script now, but which was also added to the first national tour. It wasn’t a change. I talked to Pete Masterson about putting it back in the show and he said it was a great idea. I called Carol Hall and she said, ‘that’s a terrible idea’ and so we aren’t doing it.”
Hall’s account, via e-mail, differs significantly from Lumpkin’s matter-of-fact version.
“‘Lonely At the Top’ was a song inserted into the show, written especially for a much beloved TV star (Larry Hovis) who was from Houston and was playing Melvin P. Thorpe in the Houston company. It was never in the Broadway production and was not meant for any other, only the one with Larry Hovis.
“In a telephone conversation a number of months ago, on another matter, Bruce Lumpkin asked how I would feel if the song were used in the up-coming TUTS production of the show. I told him I had never liked the song particularly, since it was never really necessary, and had only been put into the show because the authors had at the time wanted to accommodate Hovis, who had a large TV fan base. I told him I did not want the song to be in the show.
“Recently I heard a rumor that the song, in fact, was going to be in his production, so I called him to remind him he didn’t have permission to use it. Literally, in the first five minutes of the phone call, he became very upset, began to shout and claimed that I had told him he could “do whatever [he] wanted” with it. He was extremely arrogant and disrespectful and reasonable conversation was impossible, so much so that I eventually just hung up, something I’ve never done in any professional situation before.”
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Having not seen the production of Hands on a Hardbody in Houston, let alone having watched it with script and score in hand, I can’t adjudicate independently how the show there on opening night differed from the written version. When I asked Lumpkin why he thought the authors were asserting that sweeping changes had been made, he simply said it hadn’t happened. But there’s no question in any account that the show was altered by Lumpkin without any permission given by the authors, or even sought by TUTS. Despite his repeated statements to me about how wonderful the show is and how well it’s playing with his audiences, to my mind, protestations that reordering a musical does not rise to the level of “changes” strike me as semantic disingenuousness.
Given my prior writing, I won’t restate my conviction about authors’ rights, which align very closely with those expressed by Wright. While I have been challenged by theatre artists from other countries over my fealty to the concept of authorial primacy in many types of theatre, while artists in this country have suggested that I am hiding behind unfairly restrictive copyright law, I have been trained from the beginning of my career to honor and respect authors’ words (and music), and I remain unswayed by other arguments.
I also do not believe it should be incumbent upon authors and their representatives to endlessly travel the country insuring that their works have not been altered without authorization; it is impractical if not impossible. In fairness to Lumpkin, he wasn’t exactly trying to slip his changes by with the hope that no one would notice; he wouldn’t have invited the authors if that was the case. But even if his goals were as well-meaning and admiring as he claims, he didn’t take any initiative to confer with the authors about his intent, and showed his revision to audiences and the press before the authors could even consider his take on their show. That the author of another show asserts Lumpkin’s aggressive stance on a requested and denied change starts to suggest a troubling pattern at TUTS. It will certainly bring the company under greater scrutiny, but it should also serve as notice to other theatres and other directors that authors don’t take changes to their work lying down and that their rights will be asserted.
I have to ask: why risk conflict, why face extra expense, when communication and collaboration might yield the desired result? And let’s face it: I was able to get in touch with Green and Wright within three hours time. A professional theatre company is certainly capable of doing the same.
* * *
Addendum: June 20, 12:15 pm Subsequent to this post being published at approximately 10:30 am, the Dramatists Guild issued a statement (read it in its entirety on the Guild site) recounting accepted professional practices regarding scripts, saying that the statement would be sent directly to Bruce Lumpkin at TUTS. It reads, in part:
Fortunately, most professional theaters respect authorship and the standards of the theater industry (and their own contractual obligations) by either asking for permission to make changes upfront or staging the work as written. They don’t want to run afoul of the licensing agents, nor do they want to bear the extra financial burden of having to stop performances and restage a production, or to endure the costs of litigation. Nor, we imagine, do they want to earn the enmity of playwrights everywhere, who have made ownership and control of their work the core value of their professional lives.
But there are some theaters that take a different tack in this regard. Those theaters engage in the practice of rewriting shows they present without authorial approval, in direct violation of the theater’s contractual obligations and industry standards. The Dramatists Guild of America, a national association representing the interests of over 7000 playwrights, composers and lyricists worldwide, vehemently and unequivocally objects to such illegal practices.
When we become aware of such a theater, we keep apprised of the theater’s ongoing activities and report on it to our membership and their representatives. We hope that writers, agents and publishers will consider this information when deciding whether or not to issue licenses for any works they represent.
Addendum: June 20, 3:15 pm The Dramatists Guild provided me with a copy of a letter they have sent to Theatre Under The Stars, detailing the unapproved changes made to Hands on a Hardbody. Following the listing of infractions, the letter, signed by Ralph Sevush, Executive Director, Business Affairs, continues:
When caught in blatant breach of this contract, it has been reported that you still have only partially restored the play for its few final performances, with the cast having little time to rehearse the changes, and are still including some unauthorized alterations.
And you have done all this begrudgingly and unapologetically, with a history of having done so before…
Addendum: June 20, 3:35 pm: Samuel French Inc. has now sent a cease and desist letter to Theatre Under The Stars. In the letter, Lori Thimsen, Director of Licensing Compliance at French, states:
As a result of your breach of contract, Samuel French hereby revokes Theatre Under The Stars’ license to produce Hands on a Hardbody. Accordingly, demand is made that you immediately cease and desist from the advertising, promotion, presentation and performance of any production of Hands on a Hardbody, cancel all remaining performances and confirm your compliance with this demand in writing to the undersigned no later than close of business today, Friday, June 20, 2014.
Four performances remain in the scheduled 10 performance run, one tonight, two on Saturday and one on Sunday.
Addendum: June 20, 8:15 pm: Theatre Under The Stars released a statement to BroadwayWorld.com which reads as follows:
TUTS has found itself in a last minute contractual dispute that prevents the continued performances of HANDS ON A HARDBODY. We regret this unexpected occurrence and we thank you for your support of TUTS and our Underground series.