MTI Responds to University's RENT Script-Changing Violation

by JasonC on April 28, 2011

in In the News,Rent

MTI wishes to address an important copyright issue surrounding a recent production of RENT at Maryland's Towson University in which director Diane Smith-Sadak cut lines from the show creating an alternate ending.

BroadwayWorld.com reported on the controversy this morning, after being made aware of the issue from the activity it generated on their message boards.  Much of the discussion revolved around remarks made by Smith-Sadak in an article entitled “Rent's Script Edits Violate Copyright” on Towson's news site, The Towerlight, in which she attempted to defend her breach of contract, often using erroneous facts about MTI and the business of theatrical licensing in general.  In situations such as these, it is MTI's job to educate the public about our role as protectors of our author's and/or their estate's intellectual property.  MTI's President, Drew Cohen responded to Smith-Sadak's comments, explaining what is allowed and not allowed when organizations sign a contract to perform an MTI musical:

I recently read Diane Smith-Sadak’s Letter to the Editor regarding her production of RENT at Towson University and, specifically, her disappointment (outrage?) at not being allowed to alter Jonathan Larson’s Pulitzer-Prize winning script. Upon reading her letter, I was a bit disheartened that somehow MTI’s efforts to explain clearly the conditions under which a producer may present any of the musicals that we license had been unsuccessful, even in this one single case. However, readers’ responses to Ms. Smith-Sadak’s letter made clear to me that this was indeed an aberration, not just in terms of it being a rare example of an altered show, but also in terms of Ms. Smith-Sadak’s stated position representing a vocal minority rather than the general consensus. What a relief.

Given the general population’s understanding of the basic rules of licensing, I can dispense with justifying these rules based on the fundamentals of Copyright Law, which prohibited Ms. Smith-Sadek’s changes, and I can forego the discussion of basic contract law, which requires Towson (and its employees/agents) to abide by the stated terms of the performance license that they were granted by MTI (e.g., no changes to the material are permitted). But even if we (or most of us) agree that Ms. Smith-Sadak’s actions were inappropriate, I do feel compelled to address a few of her statements.

“This whole giant mess comes down to the bottom line of dollars and cents.” Well, no. In fact, I do not see any connection between this “mess” and money. Whether or not Towson’s production presented RENT as written by Jonathan Larson or RENT with a different ending authored by Ms. Smith-Sadak, Towson would be paying MTI for the right to produce the show. As many of you know, most of those royalties go directly to the show’s rights holders, i.e., the Larson Family. MTI’s insistence that Towson abide by the rules of our performance license (and copyright law) had nothing to do with money. If Ms. Smith-Sadak had decided to produce RENT without a license and without paying for the rights, perhaps then her “dollars and cents” argument would not be completely baseless. There is certainly an element of commerce in the business of licensing shows. Here, however, that element did not come into play. Here, our goal was simply to prevent someone from representing their production as being RENT, when everyone agrees it was not RENT.

“What would [Jonathan Larson] think of what has happened to this production, being in the hands of corporations and attorneys?” I did not know Jonathan Larson, and I would guess that Ms. Smith-Sadak did not know him either. However, I do know Jonathan’s family and over the past several years, I have become friends with his father, Al Larson. Al, his wife, Nan, and Jonathan’s sister, Julie, all have devoted themselves to preserving, perpetuating and protecting the memory of Jonathan, as well as his work. Having worked with hundreds of authors and their representatives, I can describe the passion of their dedication as extraordinary. For Ms. Smith-Sadak to accuse them, even indirectly, of leaving the responsibility of protecting RENT “in the hands of corporations and attorneys” is inaccurate, insulting, and just plain wrong. Ms. Smith-Sadak may not be happy that she was caught breaking the rules, but for her to wave her finger at others, particularly the Larson family as underlying rights holders, is unacceptable.

It is worth noting that the Larson family has shown themselves to be quite open-minded with regard to the issue of modifying Jonathan’s work in instances where they were in fact asked about the changes in advance. Most significantly, they authorized the creation of RENT SCHOOL EDITION, which is designed for high school productions of the show. While the heart and soul of the show remain firmly intact, the School Edition eliminates some of the profanity in the script and one song (Contact). This was done so that the show would be more “produceable” by high school students across the country, so that they could use the show to discuss the issues raised by the show in their communities. Significantly, the School Edition represents an approved version of the show, expressly authorized by– and indeed created by– the show’s lawful rights holders. As I understand it, Ms. Smith-Sadak never requested permission from MTI or the rights holders to make her changes to the material.

“But when fear dominates – fear of reprimand, fear of shut downs which cause loss of box office revenue – the artistic process and perhaps the product – suffers.” This statement is both arrogant and presumptuous. I can only read from this that Ms. Smith-Sadak believes that her product (i.e., the changed version of RENT) was better than RENT as written by Jonathan Larson. How else could she mean that the product is suffering? While opinions of course vary, all I can suggest is that she take it up with the Pulitzer Committee. Or the Tony Committee. Or the millions of fans of RENT whose love for the show has prompted producers to bring RENT back to New York City this summer. We all have thought about different endings for stories we love. What if Ilsa didn’t get on the plane and leave Rick behind? What if Roy Hobbs had struck out (as he did in the underlying book)? What if Rosebud was Charlie Kane’s dog? What if Elaine didn’t get on the bus with Benjamin? We can certainly imagine a different ending, but we know we cannot present those alternate endings without permission of the rights holders.

This was not about commerce or fear or delegating responsibility to lawyers. This was about one person deciding that she could write a better show than the one that was licensed and opting to present it in violation of the performance license. Respectfully, that is simply not allowed.

Drew Cohen
President
Music Theatre International

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    { 16 comments }

    Kenneth McDade April 28, 2011 at 10:49 pm

    Dear Drew Cohen,

    Bravo! I am not a fan of RENT, but I do believe that the author’s work must be preserved and it sounds like Ms. Smith-Sadak has exceeded the bounds of the contract and her ego. I think she should write her own musical and see how it does, instead of changing someone elses work. Thank you for guarding the art work of the authors and creator of the work.

    Sincerely,
    KMcDade

    Kitty April 29, 2011 at 1:22 am

    Well said. Cannot believe that anyone would try to re-write the ending of a show, knowing full well they are in breach of contract. Bizarre!

    Sandy April 29, 2011 at 12:08 pm

    Significant script changes are routine in amateur and college productions. The only difference: most directors don’t get caught.

    Delores Nelson April 29, 2011 at 1:11 pm

    I find it particularly sad that Ms. Smith-Sadak has put her students in such an awkward position. As an arts educator, one would think she’d know better.

    Matthew April 29, 2011 at 3:50 pm

    Not knowing just what was done, I wonder if someone could clear something up for me. My understanding has always been that cutting a line is accepted, but not changing a line, and that taking out minor musical numbers due to time is ok, and that stage directions are considered suggestions. Am I incorrect in any or all of these assumptions? Because in the community shows I’ve been a part of they seem to be common practice.

    Renee April 29, 2011 at 5:01 pm

    It seems that producer/director arrogance is what allows these individuals to disrespect a playwright’s work and simply make changes to the work. It all boils down to pride, arrongance and sometimes even, entitlement. Have respect for these creative and talented playwrights! If you sign a contract, honor it. If you don’t like or respect the material as written….go write your own and let me know how that works out for you.

    Christie Jeter April 30, 2011 at 7:46 am

    Straight up, Drew and Jason! Many thanks for addressing this issue and reporting it. Changing the ending to “Rent” is a direct hit to the author (who can no longer defend himself). I hope the students, teachers, and audience members who have witnessed this production, understand the gravity of this purposeful and overt BAD choice.
    Keep up the good work defending and supporting these artists and their work. Ms. Smith-Sadak has fired a “loud and proud” shot over the bow. I think I’m not alone is hoping you fire back. “Tick, Tick… Boom!”

    Noah April 30, 2011 at 2:54 pm

    I do really like that MTI tries to educate. I know when I was first starting up I didn’t understand how it all works. Continued education is important. How dis she change the ending that is what I wanna know?

    Noah April 30, 2011 at 2:54 pm

    I do really like that MTI tries to educate. I know when I was first starting up I didn’t understand how it all works. Continued education is important. How did she change the ending that is what I wanna know?

    John May 3, 2011 at 9:39 am

    @Matthew
    Technically, no. The MTI contract does specifically stipulate that you may not cut lines or numbers without approval. I think the company, for the most part, understands when time restrictions force productions to make minor adjustments, but even those should get approval because technically they are indeed in breach of their contract. More seriously, what Ms. Smith-Sadak did was drop lines that directly implied the ending of the show. Had they been less plot-central, I’m betting this issue would not have come up.

    @Noah
    She essentially cut Mimi’s entire last scene (seeing Angel, waking up to Roger’s song, etc.) so when the cast came out for the finale, Ms. Smith-Sadak was aiming to force the audience to decide what Mimi and Angel being there meant (if Mimi was dead or not, basically).

    This is one of those situations where I can appreciate that Ms. Smith-Sadak wanted to take the show’s ending in a different direction, possibly a very cool idea, but she should have realized that the show she then put on was no longer RENT and she should have applied for permission to bill it as such.

    Kent Joseph May 5, 2011 at 6:16 pm

    I wish MTI would stop some of the professional productions that tamper with their shows too. Such as the much heralded production of My Fair Lady that changed the ending so that Eliza ends up with Henry Higgins. What about all the liberties taken with Pirates of Penzance (also protected by MTI) by countless professional groups? At what point does artistic freedom become copyright infringement? And why do professional theatres appear to be exempt? Mikado set in a business boardroom? Romeo, from Romeo & Juliet being played by a woman AS a women.? And my personal favorite; Streetcar Named Desire set in Tennessee with Blanche being gang-raped in the back of a pickup truck. These have all happened! I would appreciate being educated in this matter.

    Kevin Cornelius May 6, 2011 at 2:01 pm

    Unfortunately, I don’t think this instance is as uncommon as you think. I am constantly shocked by local directors in the SF Bay Area who think they have the write to cut sections of songs, rewrite and cut sections of dialogue, insert or remove songs, change the sex of characters– the list goes on and on. I’ve heard excuses for such behavior ranging from “This scene is just too long,” “We prefer this other song by the same composer from another show,” “As the director, I have the write to create my own artistic vision,” to “This scene was meant to cover a scene shift and is not necessary to the plot,” etc. I run the only program in the area that I know of that does not violate the licensing contract by videotaping productions. Most local groups not only create a video, but sell it to the cast and their families. I have to constantly respond to angry parents who are outraged that we do not videotape our shows when all the other local groups do. I wish there was a way for MTI to watch more closely for contract violations. It makes it very difficult for those of us who honor our contracts when so many local producers do not.

    Kevin Cornelius May 6, 2011 at 4:37 pm

    My apologies– “right” not ” “write”!

    Diane Smith May 8, 2011 at 8:48 pm

    What a time to be a theatre director/Artistic Director in Baltimore with the name -Diane Smith. PLEASE LET IT BE KNOWN that the ‘Rent’ Diane Smith-Sadak IS NOT the same DIane Smith who is Artistic Director for Children’s Playhouse of MD and Beth Tfiloh High School. This Diane Smith honors contracts and understands what a performance license means.

    Drew Cohen, MTI May 23, 2011 at 10:42 pm

    @Kent Joseph. An important distinction that exists among several of shows that you use as examples is the fact that some of them are still protected under copyright law and others are not; that is, their protection has expired and they are now in the public domain. This means that anyone can do whatever they want with the works–change the ending, the characters’ names…whatever–as long as in doing so, they don’t infringe upon something else that is still copyright protected. For example, in producing Pirates of Penzance (the original Gilbert & Sullivan piece is in the public domain), one could add some Beethoven if he wanted to do so, or change the ending. But one could not, without permission of the movie studio, add lines from Pirates of the Caribbean. The new version could then be protected as a new work. Think of the many Disney films that are based on very old stories: Beauty and the Beast; Snow White, Cinderella. Those source stories are in the public domain and Disney brilliantly adapted them with new material, original scores and animation and made them their own. Similarly, the creators of WEST SIDE STORY updated Romeo & Juliet and created one of Broadway’s greatest musicals. That’s all fine and, of course, legal.

    What happened here was not okay. RENT is protected under copyright law and the director made changes to the script without permission. The violated not only the copyright statutes, but the contract between MTI and the University, a definite no-no. None of the groups are exempt from the rules or above the law. It sounds from your examples like most works were in the public domain; in other cases, a producer can go through the process of obtaining permission to make changes. Both of these are acceptable options. But changing a protected work without permission is inappropriate, unlawful and in my opinion, disrespectful to the creators of the work. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts. -Drew.

    Kent Joseph June 3, 2011 at 3:40 pm

    In all deference to your replies to my original comment, Drew; I pointed out two rather strong (and personably reprehensible) examples of shows that are NOT in the public domain (My Fair Lady and A Streetcar Named Desire). I can not believe that they got permission, but if they did it was because of the size of the theatre institution and the money that these productions generated for the liscensing company and heirs to the estates of Misters Lerner, Lowe, and Williams. I’m sure the authors themselves, if living, would be less than thrilled about the “artistic choices” listed above. But even for shows that are public domain, I still find the changes that directors are making, although not illegal, are still wrong on many other levels. Don’t we owe it to playwrights such as Shakespeare, and librettist such as Gilbert to honor their work, and not DIShonor it with these flights of fancy.

    And what about Seussical and Seussical Jr.? These shows are protected by MTI, yet there have been a plethura of regional, community, and school productions that take more than judicious cuts to the script, whilst actually adding dialogue and little “bits.” I truly hope that your company has not approved of these changes, but are, rather, so overwhelmed with the number of productions as to not have the resources to check on most of them.

    I applaud the work of all authors, the large and the small, and the efforts of companies, such as MTI Enterprises, Inc., in protecting them, which must be a monumental task, obviuosly fraught with missed oportunities to do so. Is there a method in which a theatre goer could report to companies, such as yours, when the blatant disregard for the author’s work is occuring?

    As a person who has acted, directed, written for, and enjoyed theatre since his first production of Hansel & Gretel at the Lyric Opera of Chicago over 40 years ago, I would like to see these directors taken to task more often. Thanks for this forum for expression-Kent

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