Legit, TV learn to live with legal cost of bios

TV and legit have at least one thing in common these days: They love biographies. Bio plays, however, tend to be as much fiction as fact, and since copyright is sometimes involved, the legal process can get expensive.

The Shubert Org enhanced the New York Theater Workshop’s production of Claudia Shear’s “Dirty Blonde,” opening May 1 on Broadway, and a lot of that money went to clearing rights to Mae West one-liners, songs and other material.

“It enhanced the production expense considerably,” said Gerald Schoenfeld. The Shubert chairman said it cost about $25,000 “just to ascertain the identity of the owners of these rights. It takes a long time and is a very expensive process to find the copyright owners. None of this material is current.”

When the show is up and running, a fixed weekly amount will be paid to certain copyright holders — for example, those pertaining to songs and lines appropriated from movies.

Rights holders paid

Holders of underlying rights — those linked to passages from West’s books, her name and likeness — take a percentage of the gross receipts. “If the grosses are high, there will be a lot more to be paid,” Schoenfeld said.

Securing the rights to songs for the more contempo subject of a rock impresario proved less challenging for Susan Dietz, a producer of Robert Greenfield’s “Bill Graham Presents,” which opens at Beverly Hills’ Canon Theater on April 30. Ina Miebach, a former attorney for rockers such as the Who and Jefferson Airplane, proved invaluable to this theatrical enterprise.

“There’s been real interest from the artists and the people who worked with Bill Graham on this project,” said Dietz. “Otherwise, getting these clearances would be extremely daunting.”

The one-person show, starring Ron Silver, features music by the Who, Rolling Stones, Big Brother and the Holding Company, Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Santana and Jefferson Airplane, among others. “It’s not upfront money,” Dietz said of rights to the 35 songs. “Rather, it’s 4% of the gross (on the show).”

Tricky waters

“Dirty Blonde” and “Bill Graham Presents” are only two of many current bio plays. Schoenfeld strongly recommended errors and omission insurance to protect authors against copyright infringement, although circumstances vary radically, depending on the work.

Without the benefit of deep pockets or personal connections, some authors find a way around the legal quagmire.

Austin Pendleton, for instance, said that his new play “Orson’s Shadow,” about a meeting between Orson Welles and Laurence Olivier, contains material not under copyright. “It can be found in at least four biographies,” he explained. The Steppenwolf production of “Orson’s Shadow” plays the Williams-town fest from June 15-25, then opens at the Westport Festival on June 26, closing July 8.

“Orson’s Shadow” also includes the character of Joan Plowright, who is, of course, very much among the living. “I’m still working on the play, and plan to send her a copy,” Pendleton said of Olivier’s third wife. “She’s treated very sympathetically, and again, the situations in which Plowright appears have been written about in a number of biographies.”

Stein’s ‘Blood’ preems

The WPA Theater’s April 16 world premiere of “Blood on the Dining Room Floor,” based on Gertrude Stein’s text with new music and libretto by Jonathan Sheffer, uses material in the public domain.

“I did a copyright search in the Library of Congress,” Sheffer said of Stein’s account of real-life events. He also “borrowed” a sentence or two from the “Alice B. Toklas Cookbook” and other works, “but nothing that constituted the need for grand rights,” Sheffer added.

The Contemporary American Theater Festival in Shepherdstown, W.V., is at the epicenter of the bio play craze. World premieres in July include Joyce Carol Oates’ “Miss Golden Dreams,” based on the life of Marilyn Monroe, and Catherine Filloux’s “Mary and Myra,” about a little-known episode involving Mary Todd Lincoln, who was committed to an insane asylum by her son, Robert.

Plath play problems

Potentially more problematic from a copyright viewpoint is Wendy MacLeod’s tentatively titled “A Marriage of Minds,” about Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, which Contemporary has commissioned for a production next summer.

At this point in the play’s development, Contemporary producing director Ed Herendeen is not sure if Mac-Leod will even retain the names Plath and Hughes. “Wendy is very sensitive to the rights questions, and is not using any direct quotes,” said Herendeen.

In the Adobe Theater’s current production of “Down the Drain,” based on the Susan Smith story, playwright Stanton Wood changed the lead character’s name to Annie Wilson. Wood claimed, however, that his reason had “less to do with a legal question than an exploration of the events,” some of which, he said, were “exaggerated.”

Smith has little or no legal claim to her own life story. She is now serving life imprisonment for the murder of her two children.

(Phil Gallo in Los Angeles contributed to this article.)

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