Artistic License Or Worse

Via twitter, I came upon news of a production of Little Shop of Horrors that was cancelled, due to having their rights to perform the play revoked.  This is because of certain liberties taken by the director (read his statement here).  The upshot is, that the director added some of his own written material, mixed in some dialogue from the original film, added some from the movie version and stirred in something from Rocky Horror (though its not clear what was added from Rocky: was it actual songs from, or a certain style, or something else entirely?).

The licencing agency was not only well within their rights to withdraw permission to perform the play, but was right to do so.  When the rights are obtained to perform a show, an agreement is entered into with the playwright/rights holder regarding what is to be performed.  By agreeing to this, and not adhering to it, the director broke the agreement.

I’ve been following the discussion on #2amt about this, and its been quite a discussion.  I have a lot to say, and I can’t quite distill it into a few 140 character posts.

I can’t see the overall discussion (re: adaptation) in terms of black and white. There are several conflicting opinions that I have, so I’m going to lay them all out.

Flexibility: One of the problems I have with licencing companies is that, unlike getting the rights for a play, licencing a musical means that you licence the book, the music and the arrangement of the music.  This means that, regardless of how the play is staged, the director is tied to the arrangement that was used previously.  Let’s say that I want to do, let’s say Godspell. Even though there is no time period specified in the book, the music is clearly steeped in the 1970s.  Perhaps I want to make a couple of slight changes to the arrangement  of the music, perhaps punch up the choral arrangement in All Good Gifts, technically I can’t do this.  I have to take the arrangement as is.  Technically, I understand this.  They licensing agency cannot be certain that my idea is any good.  And they also can’t be certain that I won’t take By My Side and make it a screaming rock number.  However, there isn’t a process in place to vet the ideas I might have.   Do I email Stephen Schwartz and try not to sound like an asshole as I explain to him what I think could be better about his music and ask him to do what I want with it?  Or do I risk making changes to the arrangement without telling anyone, assuming that chances are small that the licensing agency will ever find out, and risk having them revoke my rights to the play if they do?  Here I want to do the play, and make the statement I see in it, but I can’t do that exactly if the music remains rooted in the 70s.  There’s a version of Godspell with different arrangements that’s available, but its too synth heavy.  Say I want to take elements of both and mix them together?  I can’t do that either.  I’m tied to the arrangement offered.  This is something that has actually kept me from pursuing directing a musical, since I would want have a proper musical director take it and arrange it.  Do I find this annoying?  Yes.  But I do understand the reason for the limitations. I just wish there was an existing process for vetting a director’s ideas.

Shakespeare: So, with Shakespeare you can do whatever you want, right? Well, technically, yes.  But should you?  One of the reasons for not messing with the play you have licensed, is that there is a legal issue.  Not so with Shakespeare.  No one needs to license the work of Shakespeare.  You can cut it, you can set it anywhere. You can adapt it.  You can make it a musical. At what point do you deviate from the playwright’s intent?  Considering that even acting styles themselves have changed since Shakespeare’s time,  its impossible to say where that line is.  At what point have you deviated too much from the author’s vision?  A few years ago, I came to the following realization: you can do anything you want with Shakespeare, as long as your concept doesn’t get in the way of the story.  If your concept is so high that you’re finding it difficult to move around in the story logically, then your concept is getting in the way.  As long as the story can still flow, then you’ve kept the essence of the Bard’s intent.  But as for how he might feel if he saw some of the things that have been done with his plays…he’s probably just be happy and flattered that people are still doing them at all.

Here’s my thing: I’ve got to be honest and say that if it weren’t for the contractual obligations, I would probably treat licensed plays in the same way I look at Shakespeare.  If it weren’t for the fact that the play or musical is under copyright and the playwright and his/her estate is still receiving money from the play, then I would probably make all the changes I want to Godspell.  I’d adapt it as freely as I would Shakespeare.  Its about respect for the author and their vision while the play is under copyright. Once its in the Public Domain, its fair game.

And that’s my opinion(s) on the matter.

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