When Frank Sinatra told Frank Loesser he was singing new lyrics in “Guys and Dolls,” Loesser got into a physical altercation with Sinatra to keep his song intact. They didn’t speak for years.
If he were still alive, how would he have responded to director Gerald Gutierrez filing to take out a copyright on his revival of Loesser’s “The Most Happy Fella”? “My husband would have shot Mr. Gutierrez by now. He’d be dead, no question about it,” said his widow, Jo Loesser. Loesser and Harold Orenstein, attorney for the Frank Loesser Literary and Musical Trust, have been fighting Gutierrez’s copyright application on innovations he claims he added to the 40-year-old show.
Although Gutierrez used the filing to gain a settlement from a Chicago production that employed some of the staging of Gutierrez’s earlier version, Loesser and Orenstein feel their petition to nullify his copyright should nullify Gutierrez’s claim.
A letter they received from the Copyright Office stated in part, “The copyright law protects the expression of an author fixed in any tangible form. With regard to stage directions, this expression will generally be in the form of literary authorship. Reference to ‘stage directions’ in an application, however, does not imply any protection for a manner, style or method of directing, or for the actions dictated by them. The authorship on the application in this case is ‘text of stage directions.’ We understand this to represent a claim in the text.”
Gutierrez’s attorney, Ronald Schechtman, said the decision means little to his client’s claim and won’t be settled “until the court addresses the claim.” He said copyright covers choreography and pantomime, “and that’s the essence of directing, a combination of choreography and pantomime.”
Countered Orenstein: “They gave him a literary copyright in the text of the words. In their Chicago filing, they said that Gutierrez’s ‘material’ was infringed. That was cute wording, because, had they used the word direction, it might have been dismissed immediately.” Orenstein said they’re considering legal action against Gutierrez.
There are hard feelings on both sides. Loesser said Gutierrez’s copyright claim, filed quietly in 1991, was unfair and limits her chances to set up future productions.
Schechtman responded, “This play was dead on the vine. Gerry took it and gave it new life.”
Gutierrez, who didn’t copyright his Tony-winning work on “The Heiress,” next targets another revival, “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” as this controversy grows into a possible lawsuit.