This is the most interesting theater-related story involving a canceled play that I’ve ever heard about.
Theatre Under The Stars and director Bruce Lumpkin kicked up a heap of dust with the company’s production of “Hands on a Hardbody,” which had to shut down early on June 20, after the show’s creators protested extensive unauthorized changes.
Everyone even remotely involved in theater should know that when they lease the rights to produce a play or musical, they must present it exactly as written and licensed. Any changes, large or small, must first be approved by the authors or their representatives.
“This is the most brazen violation we have had in a very long time,” said Bruce Lazarus, executive director of Samuel French Inc., which controls the show’s performance rights.
Based on a 1997 documentary and produced on Broadway in 2013, “Hands” depicts 10 Texans competing to win a new truck. Behind the scenes at TUTS, another competition apparently was playing out between the intentions of the show’s creators and those of Lumpkin, director of the production and artistic director of TUTS.
Amanda Green, who wrote the show’s lyrics and co-wrote its music, attended opening night on June 13, at TUTS’ invitation. Shortly after the performance began, and increasingly as it progressed, she became aware that songs had been moved to different places in the action, that solo sections had been reassigned to different characters, that some of the music was missing and new music had been added, among other changes.
“The director had used our script and score as puzzle pieces, to rearrange as he thought they should be put together,” Green said. “So many things, both big and small, had been changed around that it was not at all the show that we’d written.”
Green decided to skip the opening night party – but she says Lumpkin approached her after the performance, wanting to talk.
“He told me, ‘I know you’re angry, but you have to admit, it works better,’ ” Green said. “I asked him why he hadn’t contacted us and asked us about his ideas. He said, ‘Because I knew you would say no.’ He was trying to get me to say that I liked the show better his way. He also tried to say he’d made all these changes just the night before, but then I learned from other sources that he had come in on the first day of rehearsals with his version of the script and a CD of the songs in a new order.”
In a June 19 letter to Lumpkin, Ralph Sevush of the Dramatists Guild of America issued a reprimand on behalf of the guild’s 7,000 member playwrights, lyricists and composers, “expressing our collective outrage.” The letter reminded Lumpkin that TUTS’ agreement with Samuel French contained a “clear and standard prohibition” against changing the show without the authors’ permission.
Soon after the Dramatist Guild expressed of its displeasure, Samuel issued its cease-and-desist order. TUTS canceled remaining performances a couple of hours before the June 20 show was to start, offering ticket holders refunds or credits for other shows. As for the amount TUTS would lose because of the canceled shows, Breckinridge said “I don’t have that figure.”
See here for a Chron story about the cancellation. I can’t imagine this was good for TUTS’ bottom line. I have to say, at first I didn’t quite get what the big deal was. I guess I’d seen enough productions of plays that are in the public domain, like Shakespeares and “A Christmas Carol”, that it hadn’t occurred to me that there would be anything odd about tinkering with a script. I’ve also seen plenty of performances of contemporary shows by touring companies that included topical jokes and pandering local references. Those are done with the blessing of the copyright owner, which is the piece I’d been missing. The more I read about this, the more obvious it became to me that you just don’t change the story without the permission of the author or the author’s representatives, because if you do it’s not their work anymore. Not a hard concept to grasp, I know, I had just never thought about it before. Given how seriously this principle is taken, it’s kind of amazing anyone thought they could get away with it, especially with the author right there to see it for herself. Lesson learned, I suppose, though others needed to learn it, too. Congratulations for inserting yourself into the curriculum of every stage directing class from now until the end of time, TUTS. CultureMap, Art Attack, and Howard Sherman have more.