Sondheim not happy ~ theatre notes

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Sondheim not happy

There's a jaw-dropping story in today's Sydney Morning Herald concerning a Sydney production of Stephen Sondheim's Company. The musical, directed by Gale Edwards, is produced by Kookaburra - according to its website, "Australia's First and Only National Musical Theatre Company". It seems that Sondheim threatened to withdraw the rights to the show after an executive decision to cut Company by 20 minutes. According to the SMH:

Legendary composer and producer Stephen Sondheim ... threatened to pull the plug on the Sydney show after key songs, scenes and dialogue were removed in a last-minute hatchet job to his script in Wednesday night's performance of Company at the Theatre Royal....

The man who sparked the initial controversy, Kookaburra's founder and chief executive, Peter Cousens, reversed an earlier denial and admitted he ordered the cuts to the Wednesday night performance after the cast member Christie Whelan, who plays the role of April, called in sick. "I was trying to put a very positive spin on the fact that all was well [and] that nothing had gone on at the theatre that was a problem for the public to be made aware of," Cousens said yesterday. "This is always my attitude as audiences are not interested in problems."

Quite apart from the fact that it's, er, dodgy to violate an artist's moral rights, Cousens obviously forgot that audiences are interested in the actual show. It seems the SMH heard about it from disgruntled Sondheim fans upset by the disembowelled version. And that the cast and director weren't happy, either. Bizarre.

14 comments:

nicholas said...

I agree Alison... Having met the company and seen the show, I am utterly dismayed by this story...

Geoffrey said...

(Sung to the tune of 'Kookaburra sits in the old gum tree')

Kookaburra shits in its own gum tree,
cutting songs and scenes from "Comp-any",
laugh everybody, laugh everybody,
dull our lives must be!

Anonymous said...

According to the Australian Copyright Council
http://www.copyright.org.au/publications/infosheets.htm#M
information on Moral Rights
“Simply altering a work, or treating it in a way the creator is not happy with, will not necessarily infringe the
creator’s moral rights: there is also a requirement that the treatment of the work prejudices the creator’s honour
or reputation. To date, there have been no cases in Australia to clarify what this might mean. However, it is
likely that Australian courts would require some evidence of objective damage to the creator’s reputation, rather
than simply of hurt feelings, before they would find that the creator’s right of integrity had been infringed."

Alison Croggon said...

Interesting. Thanks, Anon. It seems to me that Sondheim could argue that presenting a mutilated and inferior version of his work damages his artistic reputation. Though of course talking artistic judgment in a court of law is nightmare territory.

I would be surprised if there were not something in the contract (there certainly is in my publishing contracts, which are pretty standard) about presenting the work as written by the author, with any changes to be mutually agreed, so any legal stuff would probably be a contractual matter. Only guessing here, of course.

Anonymous said...

certainly, most contracts (particularly for musical works) stipulate that cuts, changes and alterations to the score must not be made unless by arrangement with the authorised agent, publisher or if the work is not published or represented by a publisher, the creator. The performances are by arrangement with Hal Leonard Austrlaia, who presumably would be involved in this but have said nothing, nor seem to have been consulted by the SMH as to the situation.

Bobby said...

I think Hal Leonard are probably saying a hell of a lot actually... just not to any of us.

Bardassa said...

Accoring to the SMH article Music Theatre International, the controller of stage rights for Sondheim, might get involved and instruct their Australian agent Hal Leonard to forbid any further stagings unless the work is performed according to the score. Years ago I remember Gough and Margaret Whitlam doing the recitations in concerts of the Sitwell/Walton Facade. They were so awful the the publisher stepped in forbade any further performances unless the reciters were 'dissmissed' (pun intended)

Alison Croggon said...

!!!!!!

Our history is so much more interesting than I know. Margaret is certainly not quite Edith.

Anonymous said...

Interesting follow-up article in The Aussie today (Tuesday 24th). Apparently Hal Leonard/MTI have let Kookaburra off with a slap on the wrist and a charity performance as their hail mary. Interestingly, another cast member fell ill and, due to the same lack of understudies, more performances were cancelled.

For me, an avowed Sondheim devotee (I firmly believe he is a genius of the Western theatrical canon), of course I support his legal/moral rights as an artist (I'm just glad he didn't see my high school student production of 'Anyone Can Whistle', with which we fiddled considerably). However sometimes I feel like a letter-of-the-law approach to material still under copyright can be a barrier to the kind of experimentation that could really explode music theatre into fascinating innovative territory. I still vividly remember a production of 'Sweeney Todd' in London in which the cast was also the orchestra. Johanna and Anthony sang a duet whilst both playing cellos - an incredible sensual image both visually and aurally. You'd be hard pressed to find that here, where music theatre is still largely the domain of privately (and I might add generously) funded, largely tasteless suburban am-dram companies.

Clearly Edwards and Kookaburra are desperately trying to raise the profile of music theatre in Australia - a country with a mystifying lack of support for it despite an enormous talent base and a history of innovation.

Their modification of Sondheim, though, had nothing to do with artistic boundary-pushing. They just couldn't afford understudies. Not surprising really. Hard to live up to the showbiz mantra in the harsh financial climate of the Australian arts industry. The show must go on; but it's gonna cost you.

Ben.

Alison Croggon said...

Copyright is a fiendishly complicated issue. As an artist who makes my living from it, I'm all for it! But legal limitations sit very uncomfortably with artistic freedom, especially in the current rash of scandals of plagiarism, most of which - like the fuss about Ian McEwan - seem to me to betray a deep misunderstanding of how art works.

And the fact remains that things like the extensions on copyright being sought in Congress at present aren't at all about benefiting artists, and everything about corporate greed. And I'm with you on all your observations here. (Yes, Sondheim is a genius, and too right on the music theatre thing).

Bardassa said...

The ones who will come off worst in this is Kookaburra. Pity it all had to happen just as they were getting underway.

PS I saw the Whitlams do Facade, it must have been the mid 1980s. I was ready to throw my shoes at them.

Jonathan Shaw said...

The night I saw Company I became slightly wary about Kookaburra when the program notes on Sondheim gave the impression he hadn't written anything for something like 20 years, and then advertised their next show as 'a new musical', mentioning only in the small print that it was first produced in the 90s. I wondered aloud when the third blooper would arrive -- and within a week this story broke, on a grander scale of course, but the same cavalier approach.

Alison Croggon said...

"Cavalier" certainly seems the word. It occurs to me that the idea of theatre as abstract product here overrides every other consideration; a pressing danger in commercial theatre and no doubt other kinds, but it's always struck me as self-defeating. People aren't buying socks or fridges...

Casey B said...

"I still vividly remember a production of 'Sweeney Todd' in London in which the cast was also the orchestra. Johanna and Anthony sang a duet whilst both playing cellos - an incredible sensual image both visually and aurally."

Sondheim praised that version to the high heavens when asked about it a couple of weeks ago - well, the NY staging of it, I think, but still.