Judge takes Larson side in ‘Rent’ suit

NEW YORK — In a case that shined a rare spotlight on the shadowy role of the theatrical dramaturg, a federal judge ruled Wednesday that the late “Rent” playwright Jonathan Larson never considered dramaturg Lynn M. Thompson a co-author of the musical that would become the biggest Broadway smash of the decade.

Ruling in favor of the Larson estate, which rigorously contested Thompson’s claims of legal co-authorship, Manhattan federal district judge Lewis Kaplan found that Thompson is not entitled to the multimillion-dollar share of royalties she sought. Thompson vowed to appeal the verdict.

As Larson’s sister sobbed with relief, Kaplan told the crowded courtroom that he found no proof Larson ever intended, “despite all of his warm feelings and high regard for Ms. Thompson,” that the dramaturg be considered a “joint author.”

Larson’s intent, the judge said, was crucial to the case because copyright law holds that both sides of a co-authorship understand the agreement and its ramifications on profit-sharing, artistic control and authorial recognition.

Title page revealing

Kaplan cited various comments made and actions taken by Larson that indicate the composer considered himself the sole author of “Rent,” such as his name on the title page of various early “Rent” scripts and his refusal to hire a librettist to assist with the “Rent” storyline. Nine days before his Jan. 24, 1996, death from an aortic aneurysm at age 35, Larson wrote his “Rent” program biography listing himself as author and Thompson as dramaturg.

Thompson filed her lawsuit in November, seeking 16% of “Rent” royalties (which some estimates say could have put $250,000 a year in Thompson’s pockets) and claiming that her work with Larson during the summer and fall of 1995 not only helped shape the musical but met the legal criteria for co-authorship by contributing nearly half of the show’s storyline and character development.

Thompson’s attorneys later proposed a settlement of 2%, which they say was rejected by the Larson estate. Kaplan repeatedly beseeched the two sides to negotiate a settlement, but to no avail.

Thompson first teamed with Larson in May 1995 when she was hired as a dramaturg for “Rent” by the New York Theater Workshop, the Off Broadway theater where Larson was developing the project. Thompson was paid an initial fee of $2,000, and has since received weekly payments with an aggregate total of less than $10,000.

After Larson, with Thompson’s assistance, unveiled his re-tooled “Rent” in October of ’95 — which even the judge conceded was different from previous versions by as much as 50% — the New York Theater Workshop began rehearsals for the February ’96 Off Broadway opening. Larson died before the first preview, the show became an immediate hit and transferred to Broadway, where it has routinely grossed more than $500,000 a week since opening April 29, 1996.

If “Rent” unified critics and ticket-buyers, Thompson’s lawsuit split the theater world in a debate over the ill-defined role of the dramaturg. A sort of combination script doctor, editor, researcher, advice-giver and hand-holder, the dramaturg can offer a playwright valuable assistance and even collaboration — but just how valuable is open to wildly varying interpretations.

“Lynn Thompson was a wonderful dramaturg on ‘Rent,’ ” said Jeffrey Seller, a co-producer and backer of “Rent” since the show’s early development, “and Jonathan Larson was the playwright, lyricist and composer.”

In an interview with Daily Variety following Wednesday’s verdict, Seller dismissed Thompson’s claims as a last-ditch attempt to gain a greater share of the profits. “Everyone knows she wasn’t the playwright.”

But playwrights Tony Kushner, Craig Lucas and Lincoln Center Theater dramaturg Anne Cattaneo testified on Thompson’s behalf, with Kushner saying that he shares 15% of his author’s royalties from “Angels in America” with two dramaturgs. Even after the ruling, Thompson herself said she considers the attention a “step forward” for dramaturgs.

Ultimately, the philosophical debate proved of greater interest to the theater crowd than to the judge, who said the trial was “not a test case on the role and rights of the dramaturg in theater” but rather an evaluation of a specific agreement (or lack thereof) between Larson and Thompson.

“This case turns on the issue of the intent of Jonathan Larson,” Kaplan said.

Family speaks out

Allan S. Larson, the late playwright’s father and executor, had no doubts about his son’s intent. “This suit betrayed Jonathan,” he said after praising the judge’s verdict. He said the family fought the suit because a settlement would be interpreted as conceding that his son “stole” Thompson’s material. He added that “once the dust settles” the estate might reconsider making an additional payment to Thompson for her contributions.

The playwright’s tearful sister, Julie Larson McCollum, told reporters that the family “always wanted to acknowledge that Lynn helped Jonathan,” but made clear her feelings about Thompson’s claims. “We haven’t had a second to go off by ourselves and grieve for my brother,” she said, “because we’ve been distracted by this lawsuit. And that offends me greatly.”

But Thompson was unwavering in her views of both the case and her relationship with Larson. Asked by reporters after the verdict if she’d be more careful about getting future agreements in writing, Thompson said, “Jonathan never broke his word to me. Yes, in the future I will sign contracts, but I didn’t make a mistake in my trust of him.”

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