Miscellaneous Mental Musings of an Emerging Artist
I have not read the script, seen a production, or even heard the score for the smash Broadway musical Urinetown…which, on some level, makes me a bad theatergoer and even moreso a bad Neo-Futurist. But additionally, it means I can’t speak with any authority as to what is happening in this lawsuit.
I think there are some interesting questions being raised here, and I’d really like to read more closely into what the NY production is accusing the Chicago production of doing. The suit claims that the Chicago production had the right to use the script and music, but overstepped their bounds by “stealing” directorial decisions and design elements.
I’d like to know how slippery this slope is, and a key to that is going to be in what kind of scriptwriter Greg Kotis is–was his book as sparse as Shakespeare, whose primary stage directions were Enters and Exits, or was he the type to write small novels in his stage directions, a la Tennessee Williams? Beyond that, how much of what was designed/directed in rehearsals ended up being incorporated into the final draft of the book, if anything?
I’m of a mind that any new production of an established work should stand on its own; that the cast and crew should always strive to give the art a distinctive stamp that best incorporates the voices of all involved. It’s nice, for example, if people consider that Legendary Actor X’s performance in The Iceman Cometh is the Definitive version of Hickey…but that doesn’t mean that Contemporary Actor Y should be up onstage doing his Legendary Actor X impersonation. The effort should not be to slavishly emulate the triumphs of productions past1, it should be to surpass that triumph and mark one’s own work as the new Definitive. If you’re not striving to clear the bar that was previously raised–even if you don’t necessarily intend to jump it in the same manner–then what are you even doing on the field?
But that said, there is such a thing as too much innovation. Part of what happens in a show’s initial run is you discover some things that simply work, that may in fact be the best of all possible ways to stage something. Attempting to stage something in an abstract or otherwise opposite direction than the first production has potential to be daring and fresh, true, but it also has significant potential to be masturbatory and altogether against the purposes of the work. Rebellion is not its own reward. It has to mean something. And if the new production is forced to rebel for no other reason than to avoid being done the same way as a previous production, then that seems to be an unfair obstacle2, such to the point maybe you shouldn’t ever bother doing a second production of anything.
Which brings me back to the tale of two Urinetowns. How much is purported to have been stolen? How much of the accusation has merit? Did the sets look exactly the same in Chicago that they did in New York, down to minute details and nail placement? Are the chorus members wearing the exact same hats? Or is it as petty as Chicago being accused of aiming a follow-spot at the lead actor during his big song in the middle of the show? (And is it only my opinion that such a thing is petty?) How much similarity does it take before one is producing theatrical plagiarism, and how much of it should simply be considered an intrinsic part of the work? Where does one draw the line? Should a civil court even be allowed to decide that, or is it possible for the artistic community to resolve this internally? What happens the next time somebody somewhere tries to put up Urinetown?
And most importantly, will this mean that I never get a chance to see it?
1 I’m talking to you, Gus Van Sant.
2 Earlier this year, somebody at the Reader raked a young theater company over hot glass for “daring” to put up a production of Orphans, which Steppenwolf produced to apparent orgasmic rapture…in 1985. There may have been several genuine problems with this new production and company, but the critic in question seemed to believe that one should not ever remount a play that another company performed well for as long as there are people still alive who saw the previous production. This is, of course, Dumb.