"Whose Production is it Anyway?" : Violating Copyright in Theatre

Tom Briggs

During my 30 years in New York City I had the opportunity to see the original Broadway productions of many plays and musicals.  I have also had the unsettling experience of seeing many of those productions replicated elsewhere, without any credit given to the original director, choreographer or designers whose work has been copied. This creative plagiarism seems to have grown exponentially with increasingly easy access to bootleg videos of Broadway shows and the proliferation of YouTube.

The first time I recall a spotlight being thrown on this practice was when a theater appropriated Gerald Gutierrez’s 1992, two-piano revival of The Most Happy Fella.  I believe Gutierrez was paid off to calm down.  A theater in Florida got in hot water four years later when it was determined that their production of Love! Valor! Compassion! recreated portions of director Joe Montello’s original production.  That case was also settled out of court (Montello received payment) so no legal precedent was established in either case.  Ten years later, two separate productions of Urinetown ran afoul of the original creators, with neither case stirring up much dust.  Copyright protection for writers and others has been established by law and legal precedent.  Such protection for stage direction, however, has not been forthcoming.  

The somewhat cantankerous relationship between the Dramatists Guild, which represents playwrights, and the Society of Directors and Choreographers, representing directors, has not helped matters.  The Guild holds strong to it conviction that copyright begins and ends with the script itself and that a director’s interpretation of it should not be protected.  Admittedly, direction is an ephemeral contribution to a play and exactly how you’d go about copyrighting it, I don’t know.  I do know, however, that the direction is an integral creative element of any production.  A script is dramatic literature until a director lifts it from the page and brings it to three-dimensional life on the stage.

Parenthetically, I once had an experience along these lines.  I staged an off-Broadway, non-profit production of a lesser-known musical.  I didn’t think anything of it when a well-known producer and director came to see the show, other than how nice it was that they wanted to see it.  I was horrified, not to say pissed off, when, the following season, they presented the musical employing my very specific concept in an extremely high profile, attention-and-awards-grabbing production.  Of course anyone might have come up with my concept.  I only wish that particular director had thought of it before taking in my production.  It just didn’t feel right.

A shot from Stage Center's unauthorized copied design of Cabaret in 2015

A shot from Stage Center's unauthorized copied design of Cabaret in 2015

Scripts include stage directions and, in some cases, set schematics, and you are welcome to use them.  Some authors include a great many stage directions in their original scripts, whether or not directors observe them.  Some authors don’t, and the stage directions are often inserted by the stage manager as the script is being prepared for publication.  I have prepared the librettos for several musicals, spending countless hours in Broadway theaters meticulously noting everything that happens on the stage and translating it into the script.  When asked about having their work incorporated into the script, the directors I know are largely sanguine on the issue.  They think it best to give subsequent directors every tool possible to mount a successful production; bad productions will curtail the life of a property.  But there is something weighing heavier on my mind as a director than legal precedents and the ethical question of ripping off someone else’s production.

Where’s the fun in ripping off someone else’s production?  Where’s the creativity and discovery and collaboration that makes theater so exciting?  If you want me to recreate so-and-so’s production of such-and-such, you’re going to have to pay me a hell of a lot more.  This is not to say that a director should ignore all that has come before.  When you do Hello, Dolly!, it’s fair game to bring her down the grand staircase into Harmonia Gardens.  How else would she enter?  Of course there will be a white line on the floor for A Chorus Line and the dancehall girls will hang over the bar for “Big Spender” in Sweet Charity.  Laura and her Gentleman Caller will probably sit on the floor for their impromptu tête-à-tête in The Glass Menagerie.  There are such iconic moments in many plays and musicals and audiences are expecting them.  

Fiddler On the Roof is the only property I know of where you are required to recreate the original production.  The materials include a bible of the staging for every number in the musical and schematics of the scenic design.  Original director-choreographer, Jerome Robbins, must be duly acknowledged in all advertising.  Of course unless you have Boris Aronson’s original set, you can’t follow the bible word for word.  I found it very helpful when I did the show years ago, believing that Robbins’ choreographic concepts could not be bettered, at least not by me.  The creativity came in adapting the thrilling staging for our physical production, and in telling that compelling story.  

I am continually surprised by how many community theaters have taken to copying other productions.  Being further under the radar than professional, regional theaters, they are able to get away with it more easily.  When I attend a production and recognize the sets, choreography and blocking, chances are I’ve seen it before.  I’ve seen the staging from a YouTube video recreated in a production.  I wonder if those directors and choreographers really feel right about it.  I’d be embarrassed to repurpose some else’s work without giving them credit, so here’s a thought: ask permission.

“Dear Mr. Montello: I am directing a production of Love! Valor! Compassion!  I can’t imagine doing anything different with it that would improve upon your brilliant original production.  Therefore I seek your permission to recreate that production as best I can recall it.  You will receive credit on all advertising and in the program.  We don’t have any money.”

Who knows?  Maybe Joe’s a nice guy (he actually is) and will think, “Well at least they asked.  Why not?  I’m flattered.”  Even if the production sucks, only those within 25 miles of where it’s being presented will know so he doesn’t have much to lose.  I have often been in the position of having to grant or deny permission to make certain changes to a script and always hope to accommodate the request.  

Most people like being helpful if they can be.  Of course when you ask, you have to be willing to take “no” for an answer.  That “no” in this context means the challenge is on for you to develop and deploy your own vision for the material.  If that kind of exploration and discovery and invention doesn’t thrill you, chances are you’re not a director after all.