Whiff of controversy

Legit unions accuse two shows of plagiarism

Two regional productions of “Urinetown” have sparked controversy in Gotham, with legit unions publicly accusing the two shows in question of plagiarizing the work of the Broadway creative team without credit.

A Chicago incarnation, which ran at Chi’s Mercury Theater earlier this year, won strong reviews and even a Jefferson award for choreographer Brian Loeffler. But according to the original “Urinetown” creatives, it was a detailed duplication of their show, including choices in design, choreography, staging, costuming and time period that are not specified in the script.

Even the regional production’s favorable reviews noted, as Time Out Chicago did, that the show was “a virtual replication” of the Broadway incarnation, though no credit was given to the original team.

Broadway “Urinetown” helmer John Rando and choreographer John Carrafa checked out the Chicago show after Carrafa spotted a photo of it online and noticed its similarity to images from the Rialto version.

The other offending “Urinetown,” which recently shuttered at Carousel Dinner Theater in Akron, Ohio, was directed by Jennifer Cody, a thesp who appeared in the Broadway version. It, too, was a detailed copy of the Rialto production, according to Carrafa, who saw it.

Carousel had no comment, and Chicago producers did not respond to attempts to reach them.

The Society of Stage Directors & Choreographers and designers’ union United Scenic Artists (Local USA829) decided to make the battle public in order to call attention to what they see as an increasing concern for their members.

“There is something in this effort about nipping this in the bud,” says Cecilia A. Friederichs, organizing director and business rep for USA829.

The unions have sent letters to both productions demanding that they acknowledge the show’s original creatives and pay licensing fees for the use of the Broadway team’s intellectual property. (And, in the case of the Chi version, they’re seeking the return of the Jefferson award.)

But money isn’t the issue, say those involved in the action. “We don’t expect to make a penny off this,” Carrafa says. “We’re pissed because somebody stole our work.”

Letters were sent Nov. 13, with a 10-day deadline for response. If the unions continue to hear nothing from the theaters, they plan to file an action in federal district court.

* * *

William Morris is beefing up its roster of legit directors.

The agency has recently signed helmers Casey Nicholaw (“The Drowsy Chaperone”), Lonny Price (Roundabout’s upcoming revival “110 in the Shade”), Jeff Calhoun (“Big River”), Philip William McKinley (“The Boy From Oz”) and John Carrafa (“Good Vibrations”).

They join a list that includes John Doyle (“Company”), Matthew Bourne (“Mary Poppins”), Francesca Zambello (“The Little Mermaid”) and Des McAnuff (“Jersey Boys”).

There’s also Gisli Orn Gardarsson, the Icelandic director-performer whose 90-minute theatrical adaptation of Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” has begun overtures for a Gotham berth after earning strong reviews on the West End earlier this fall.

Jack Tantleff, co-head of WMA’s theater department, says the flurry of signings is prodded in part by his desire to promote WMA as “fertile creative ground” where legit projects originate.

Its annual fall theater party, he adds, is an example of the agency’s efforts to get together industry folk (regardless of what agency reps them) and see what emerges.

“The point of it is putting artists in the same room with producers, with other talent,” he says. “Ideas happen.”

* * *

New York U.’s Tisch School of the Arts has tapped its long, long list of graduates who have achieved legit prominence — including Billy Crystal, Alec Baldwin, Billy Crudup, Jesse L. Martin and Chandra Wilson — for a glam fund-raiser Dec. 4 that will honor Tisch alums Felicity Huffman, Tony Kushner and George C. Wolfe.

A large part of the money raised will go toward a new arts complex. Turns out Tisch has been churning out legit heavyweights with just a few black-box theaters at its disposal.

“All these young actors and designers at Tisch, they need a real theater,” says Margo Lion, the “Hairspray” producer who is an adjunct professor at Tisch.

The proposed new complex will have a bookstore and a coffee shop in addition to performance and rehearsal spaces. “It’ll be like the National in London,” she says.

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