NY Supreme Court Finds Broadway Publicist Liable in Rebecca Scandal; Producers Push Forward

News   NY Supreme Court Finds Broadway Publicist Liable in Rebecca Scandal; Producers Push Forward
 
A New York Supreme Court justice ruled in favor of embattled Broadway producer Ben Sprecher May 12, finding publicist Marc Thibodeau in breach of contract for sending anonymous emails that scared off a potential investor on the Broadway musical Rebecca.

Ben Sprecher
Ben Sprecher

In 2008, Sprecher and fellow producer Louise Forlenza announced plans to bring the dark pop musical based on the haunting Daphne du Maurier novel to Broadway in 2010. Two years later, a new 2012 Broadway target was set after producers believed a key piece of financing to be finally locked in place.

The musical's Broadway plans were soon mired in reports that a major overseas investor named Paul Abrams, whom producers had never met, had died. With the production just weeks from rehearsal, Sprecher and his team identified a new, unnamed "Angel investor" to fill in the financial gap that opened up following Abrams' mysterious death. The production appeared to be saved, with rehearsals only delayed by two weeks.

In a plot twist out of a showbiz mystery novel – and just a day before rehearsals were to begin – producers came forward with an abrupt announcement that this "Angel investor" (later named in court as Laurence Runsdorf) had been scared off after receiving "an extremely malicious e-mail, filled with lies and innuendo."

In another turn, it was discovered that Abrams was a fabrication of Long Island businessman Mark C. Hotton, who had been enlisted by producers to help secure funding for a personal fee. Hotton defrauded producers by fabricating the name of the now-"dead" investor who pledged the final $4.5 million to get Rebecca to Broadway.

That wasn't the only bombshell to rock the production. Four months later, producers identified Thibodeau, the longtime Broadway publicist hired to work on Rebecca, as the anonymous tipster whose emails pointed Runsdorf to reports of fraud involving Rebecca's previous investors. The developments swiftly derailed the musical that was capitalized between $12 million and $14 million.

In July 2013, Hotton pleaded guilty to two counts of fraud, one involving Rebecca and another separate plot to defraud a Connecticut real estate company.

Sprecher and his fellow producers continued civil suit against Thibodeau, claiming that he sent "disturbing and malicious emails" to Runsdorf and his attorneys – actions which ultimately caused the musical to stall after the investor was scared off. Thibodeau maintained that he was a well-intentioned "whistle-blower."

In a May 12, 2015, ruling, Justice Jeffrey K. Oing determined that Thibodeau's actions were in violation of his contract with Rebecca (named in the lawsuit as Rebecca Broadway LP). It is now up to a jury to determine the amount of damages Thibodeau caused.

In a statement released following the court's decision, Thibodeau said, "I had signed a letter of agreement in May, 2012 stating that I would go on salary and contract as of September 10, 2012, neither of which happened."

The court ruled that the letter of agreement was binding. A trial date to determine damages has not been set.

Sprecher's lawyer, Erik S. Groothuis, told Playbill.com that the jury will also consider claims against Thibodeau for defamation and intentional interference. The court denied Thibodeau's motion to dismiss both claims.

Reached by phone shortly after Oing's decision was announced, Sprecher told Playbill.com that he remained dedicated to bringing Rebecca to Broadway. "We are actively trying to put the final pieces together for the capitalization of the show." Sprecher and his fellow producers are now aiming for a spring 2016 Broadway arrival for Rebecca.

Sets and costumes for the production have been in storage since 2012. The entire physical production, including set and props are stored with Augliera Moving and Storage in Connecticut, while the show's costumes are stored in California.

Sprecher and his lawyer said the amount of damages they are seeking from Thibodeau have not been determined, but legal fees and the cost of storing the physical production for three years would factor into the sum. "The damages are somewhere in the neighborhood of the initial production cost versus what it cost now," Sprecher said.

The complete creative team and several cast members, who were prepared to go into rehearsal in 2012, remain attached to the production. Per Sprecher, Broadway vets Karen Mason, Nick Wyman and James Barbour are among the actors who remain committed to the musical should it finally get its Broadway bow.

Thibodeau, a 30-year veteran Broadway press agent, maintained that his actions were well-intended in a statement released to the press. "My actions were those of a classic whistle-blower except that I wish I had had the courage to come forward with what I had discovered, and not hide behind anonymity. All I can say is that I was fearful of injecting myself into the story – as a publicist, you never want that to happen – and I was afraid of what Mr. Sprecher’s reaction would be. Of course both things ended up happening, in a much worse way than if I had just had the strength to stand up as me.

He continued, "I will always firmly believe that Mr. Sprecher and Ms. Forlenza came to know that Paul Abrams was not real well before the show collapsed  – I pointed them to actual evidence of that in the fake investment papers that they had been in possession of for 8 months.  Yet in their own written statement to the press and investors announcing the cancellation of the show, they continued to perpetuate the reality of Abrams. The fact is they were still doing business with Hotton right up until the end, trying to secure a $1.1 million bridge loan put together by him that was essential to closing the gap caused by the Abrams fraud. But as the FBI announced in October of 2012, that loan was as unreal as Mr. Abrams himself.

"For the creators, the actors, and the investors of the show, I do hope their dream of seeing Rebecca on Broadway is eventually realized," Thibodeau said. "For me though, it has been one long nightmare that I hope is finally nearing the end."

For the determined Sprecher, the saga continues. In addition to reclaiming financing for the production, Sprecher and his producing team must renew the rights to Rebecca from VBW, the Austrian company that holds live stage rights to the property, on a monthly basis to keep the project on track to Broadway.

"All I can do is keep trying," Sprecher said.

*

Rebecca features original book and lyrics by Michael Kunze, music by Sylvester Levay, English book adaptation by two-time Tony Award winner Christopher Hampton (Sunset Boulevard), English lyrics by Hampton and Kunze, and direction by Tony Award-winner Michael Blakemore (Kiss Me, Kate; City of Angeles; Noises Off) and Francesca Zambello (The Little Mermaid). Musical staging is by multiple Tony-nominated director-choreographer Graciela Daniele (Ragtime). Scenic design is by Peter J. Davidson, costumes by Jane Greenwood, lighting by Mark McCullough, special effects by Gregory Meeh and projections by Sven Ortel.

Rebecca had its world premiere in 2006 by Vereinigte Buhnen Wien at the Raimund Theater in Vienna, where it played for more than three years. It has been seen across the globe, with productions in South Korea, Japan, Hungary, Finland, Germany and Switzerland.

The <i>Rebecca</i> marquee at Broadway's Broadhurst Theatre in late summer 2012.
The Rebecca marquee at Broadway's Broadhurst Theatre in late summer 2012.
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