Toon tuners take a write turn

B'way scribes revise rules on book deals

As more toons become tuners, the Broadway system has won a decisive round over the Hollywood method.

DreamWorks and Disney are ready to sign production contracts that would allow playwrights David Lindsay-Abaire, Doug Wright and David Henry Hwang to retain copyright to their books for the respective stage musicals “Shrek,” “The Little Mermaid” and “Tarzan.”

That means the trio of writers now has greater control over stock and amateur rights, which in the case of a hit musical can be a virtual lifetime annuity.

On the surface, the fact seems like non-news: Playwrights almost always retain copyright of their works.

But as more and more screenplays are being turned into plays, that tradition has been threatened. Does the book writer of a musical deserve the copyright when he’s adapted a work in which the original writer(s) didn’t get that same privilege?

The implications reach far beyond those three scribes. Legit agents and lawyers have been watching the negotiations for “Shrek,” “Mermaid” and “Tarzan” with extreme scrutiny. As one agent put it, “If Lindsay-Abaire and Wright caved, other producers would demand work-for-hire. It would be the beginning of the end for theater writers.”

On screenplays, writers are work-for-hire, with the studio holding the copyright. On two previous Disney film-to-stage projects “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Lion King,” book writers Linda Woolverton, Roger Allers and Irene Mecchi wrote under work-for-hire contracts; Disney retained the copyright.

None of those three is a member of the Dramatist Guild. The Guild has long forbidden its members to sign work-for-hire contracts and Lindsay-Abaire (“Fuddy Meers”), Wright (“I Am My Own Wife”) and Hwang (“M. Butterfly”) are all members of the guild.

“Everyone at DreamWorks animation, as well as the Disney representatives, deserves credit for approaching these theater deals as theater deals,” says guild prexy John Weidman.

“It wasn’t surprising that movie studios would want to bring the Hollywood work-for-hire model with them when they started producing in the theater,” says Weidman, who credits the three writers for their efforts to retain copyright. “It helps when you have prominent playwrights who are eager to do the work, but who are finally unwilling to do it as work-for-hire.”

In the golden age of Rodgers & Hammerstein and Lerner & Loewe, novels and straight dramatic plays were usually the source material.

Copyright ownership has long separated writing for the theater from writing for TV and movies. In theater, the writers’ words are sacred. Now the screen-to-stage rush has raised new questions.

In the film biz, writers are considered “schmucks with Underwoods,” as Jack Warner once dismissively described them. Among other things, work-for-hire contracts allow studios to replace scribes on a project, or alter their work without their permission.

The legit negotiations were especially touchy since all three stage projects are being adapted not only from movies but animated movies put out by powerhouse studios.

Historically, not even the Writers Guild of America West has had jurisdiction over Hollywood’s animated features, which are covered by an IATSE-affiliated cartoonists union. “It goes back to the days when animated features were storyboarded, and instead of a script, the studios brought in a few gag men,” says Patrick Verrone, secretary-treasurer of WGA West.

In essence, most book writers are adapters. Of the 20 tuners now playing Broadway, only “Avenue Q” and “Movin’ Out,” have totally original books, with “All Shook Up” and “Rent” based on, respectively, “Twelfth Night” and “La Boheme,” which are in the public domain.

The new DreamWorks and Disney deals signify the importance of the book writer. Musicals can survive a second-rate score but never a second-rate book; classic scores like Leonard Bernstein’s “Candide” and Stephen Sondheim’s “Merrily We Roll Along” have been compromised by problematic books.

The credits list a book writer first, followed by composer and lyricist. But to the outside world, it is still Kander & Ebb’s “Cabaret” and Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd,” assessments that leave out the huge contributions of Joe Masteroff and Hugh Wheeler. What’s important to the theater is that the movie companies producing on Broadway no longer share that attitude.

Songwriters, too

In addition to playwrights, the guild’s membership includes lyricists and composers. The issue of copyright, however, has been less of an issue for songwriters, since their work is rarely based on material from another medium. Even Alan Menken retained copyright on the new songs he wrote to supplement his film score for Disney’s stage version of “Beauty and the Beast.” Woolverton, however, was work-for-hire in adapting the “B&B” screenplay she wrote with about a dozen other scribes.

Representatives for DreamWorks and Disney confirmed reports on the aforementioned writers’ contracts, but did not offer comment.

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