According to various reports, Thomson claims she was paid only $2000, even though she wrote a third of the musical's book and re-wrote many of the show's lyrics, giving the piece a more uplifting, energetic spirit. Jonathan Larson has sole authorship credit on Rent, which the New York Post said has netted more than $250 million. Thomson wants 16 percent of that -- or $40 million.
Production spokesperson Richard Kornberg said: "As an investor in Rent, I'm thrilled that the New York production has reportedly grossed $250 million so far. I am now a wealthy person. Yes, the show paid back its investors in August, but in 15 years, A Chorus Line made a profit of $33 million. Seriously, though, the Post's inaccurate figure -- and the rest of the suit -- is as baseless as Lynn Thomson's claim."
Another investor noted that s/he had received three payments from the show so far, leading the investor to guestimate the show's profit range at a mere $500,000 to $1 million.
"I'm not trying to take anything away from Jonathan," Thomson was quoted as saying. "He was a class act, and the best creative relationship I ever had was with him. I can't tell you how devastating all this has been. If he were alive today, he'd be laying gold bricks at my door." Thomson, who has lectured at NYU, claims that lawyers for Larson's estate acknowledged in a May 1996 letter Jonathan's intent to compensate Thomson for her contribution. They allegedly offered to buy her claim to the copyright for $100,000. It was only after she refused, she says, that they changed their tune and minimized her involvement in shaping the piece.
"Everyone else that was involved at her level is receiving large compensation," said Thomson's lawyer, Russell Smith. "Lynn Thomson can't even pay her rent with the amount of money she received."
A statement released by the Larson's attorney, Jay Harris, reads: "Lynn Thomson as 'dramaturg' for Rent helped its author, Jonathan Larson, to shape and polish Rent after the initial workshop production of the show at New York Theatre Workshop. She was never a co-author of the show. She served the show as an editor would serve a novelist. Ms. Thomson had written employment agreements with both New York Theatre Workshop and, after Jonathan Larson's death, with the present producers. She was paid a fee by both and continues to receive a royalty. Ms. Thomson is claiming to be a co-author of Rent, a claim which the family emphatically rejects. The Larson family feels strongly that if Jonathan were alive to describe the relationship and his intentions, this lawsuit, which will be vigorously contested, could never have been brought."
Jay Harris, attorney for the Larson estate, told Playbill On-Line that Thomson worked on Rent after Jonathan Larson's death, for which she was paid $10,000 and continues to get a $50 per week royalty for the run of the show. Harris scoffed at the $250 million profit figure. "The show's been open six months and has done about $13 million in ticket sales. If the show is grossing $500,000 a week," Harris said, "the most it could gross in a year is about $26 million. And that's gross, not what the Larson family gets."
Asked to comment further on the Thomson case, Harris said, "My client has not yet been served. Apparently there are exhibits, but I have not seen them." Harris did add that cases like this usually take a year to two years to come to trial, and that the Larson family would contest the suit rather than settle out of court.
Even though New York Theatre Workshop has not been named in the Thomson suit, managing director Nancy Diekmann has been advised by her council, Elliot Brown, not to comment. She did tell Playbill On-Line that Thomson was hired prior to Larson's death, and that dramaturgs generally help with research and provide "another pair of eyes" on a production.
An attorney not connected with the case told Playbill On-Line that he'd seen Rent's director, Michael Grief, comment at length about how important Thomson's contribution to the show was when he and others from Rent appeared on PBS' "The Charlie Rose Show." "His comments would appear to contradict the minimization of her involvement by counsel for the Larson family," said the lawyer. "On the other hand, my inclination is to believe that she probably signed away any rights she had when she was hired by Larson and/or NYTW. If she did not, it means the agreement under which she worked was faulty. The implication for the use of dramaturgs in the future is not really as grave as someone suggested to you. In reality, it should be no different than anyone else with whom a playwright, composer or lyricist collaborates artistically, but who is not considered a partner." One inside source, who noted that Thomson "signed away everything for a weekly royalty," told Playbill On-Line that if Thomson were to win this suit, it would strike a death-blow to non-profit theatres, "because they'd never be able to hire a dramaturg again. You make a legitimate deal, and then if the show's a success they come back and say, `no, I want more money.' What theatre, and what playwright -- especially what LIVING playwright -- would trust a dramaturg?"
Rent won the 1996 Tony Award as Best Musical, and the Pulitzer Prize as outstanding American drama, and still plays with its original cast at the Nederlander Theatre on West 41st St.
-- By David Lefkowitz