Dramaturg Lynn Thomson has filed a $40 million lawsuit against the estate of Rent composer Jonathan Larson, claiming she was underpaid for her doctoring and advice that helped turn the musical into a hit.
Though Thomson was paid the agreed-upon $2000, she says deserves more because she wrote a third of the musical's book and re-wrote many of the show's lyrics, reportedly giving the piece a more uplifting, energetic spirit.
The show's producers and Larson's estate have said Thomson's claim has no merit.
What do you think? Shouldn't dramaturgs who substantially help an author get credit and cash if the project becomes a hit -- even if s/he has signed a contract agreeing to a lesser amount?
Please e-mail your opinions to Playbill On-Line managing editor Robert Viagas at email@example.com. Answers will be posted as they come in.
Here are the responses so far:
Nikki Harmon (firstname.lastname@example.org):
I am both a playwright and dramaturg (member of Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas [LMDA] just the same as Ms. Thomson), and it frightens me that a playwright, whose DG contract says (if it had the normal wording of the Dramatists Guild) that every contribution made to his script he owns. That means that if an actor or dirctor or anyone, including the Dramaturg, adds business or lines, the playwright owns it. Period.
I, for one, after hearing all this, would never allow any theatre in NY or elsewhere to let a dramaturg within 10 paces of my script...and I'm a dramaturg! They are paid money to do a job. They take the money, and do it. Once they start looking at my money that's where it stops.
My father was a Radio/TV/Film writer for 45 years, and some of that time was put in as a story editor. Never, in all those years, did he ever go to arbitration with the WGA to get credit (and money) away from another writer. He always said, when his job was as an editor he was not the writer and he'd never take away another writer's money or credit.
Ms. Thomson's job was as a dramaturg. If her contribution was as large as she said it was, then she should be pushing to have her credit "as dramaturg" prominently displayed...and that's all. Period.
From Steven R Selikoff (email@example.com):
There are seven things that make a contract legal:
1. An offer must be made.
2. An offer must be accepted.
3. Both parties must give consideration (exchange of goods, services, or money, etc.)
4. Both parties must give genuine assent.
5. Both parties must be competent.
6. The contract must not not involve an illegal act.
7. The contract must be in proper form. (must be written down for over deals over $500)
If these guidelines are met, then Lynn Thomson has no case. It is safe to assume that conditions one, five, six, and seven were met since it is doubtful she was intoxicated or forced to sign the contract by the Larson estate. Numbers two and three are also fulfilled because she clearly accepted the offer at the given time and performed her services for an agreed upon sum. The issues then that she is trying to contend are numbers three and four. In the eyes of the law, however, the relative value of each party's consideration does not matter to the courts. In other words, if you make a deal with someone and later decide you didn't get enough in the deal, that result is not the court's concern. If one party makes a mistake, it does not affect the contract. The only clause is that if the Larson estate also wanted to cancel the contract, it could be done with both parties approval.
As one reader already pointed out, it would be like the Larson estate asking Lynn Thomson for their money back if the show had failed.
From Chris Nicholson:
Let me get this straight. It was only after Rent became a huge hit and the author was unable to testify that Ms. Thomson suddendly recalled that a third of the book was hers in addition to other "major" contributions? If that were true she should have demanded co-authorship credit long ago and avoided this ugly situation. Or even better, with her talent obviously running over, why doesn't she just avoid this litigation hassle and sit down and write her own mega-hit where she can keep all of the royalties?
From Stephen Miller:
A contract is a contract. She has no legal merit whatsoever. In fact, when she loses, she should be required to pay both sides' legal fees. Perhaps that would deter the "lawsuit-frenzy" that has invaded our country.
From Kurt Ahlberg:
I think that Ms. Thomson should just leave it be. Jonathan Larson was an incredible person and she should be happy that "Rent" is as big as a success as it is, as Larson would have wanted it to be. That's the way the theatre community works. She also will probably not have anything to do with the show, let alone the theatre, once she loses this case.
A contract's a contract. If she had true faith in her contributions, she would have ensured in her agreement with Larson that if/when the show became a hit, she'd receive a portion of the profits. She gives me the willies, and what makes it worse is that Larson isn't alive to discuss in detail whose contributions are whose.
From David J. Nett, Minneapolis, MN (actor):
A dramaturg is an invaluable contributor in the creation of any piece of theater. But a business contract is a business contract. At the time of "Rent"'s inception, she agreed to give her services for a certain amount of money. No one is obligated to give her more. If the show had flopped and lost money, no one would have demanded she give back her salary. If she were a real artist she would be proud of her contribution and put her contribution on a resume to help her get more work in her field. That's the way the rest of the theater world works.
From Brian O'Connell, New York City:
The suit is going to get HEAVY press and will color Miss Thomson's future career in the theatre and could possibly end it. She better be prepared to fully doucment and substantiate her claims, The point I find curious is that she waited seven months to pursue this. If I were on the jury, I would need a very believable and clear explanation for this seven month lapse. On the other hand, if her contributions are as major as she states, she certainly is entitled to proper compensation. Sixteen percent does seem too high, though. You are left wondering what the circumstances would have been had RENT not become such a mega-hit!
From Andrew Hwang:
Dramaturgs have thankless jobs and are almost left out of the entire picture. Nevertheless, these people are fully aware of the conditions of this situation and are bound by the mutual understanding of contract terms. Lynn Thomson only makes herself out to be a blood-thirsty greed who desperately wants to grab a piece of the glory *a posteriori*, after she was aware of how hugely successful and popular it became. Even though she *alleges* to be author of one-third of the book, there is no way she could fight for the Pulitzer Prize or Tony as well, so she goes straight for the jugular: $40 mil of the deceased composer's estate. If this lawsuit isn't dismissed as frivolous and a shameless attempt of extortion, then it will set a dangerous precedent for more of such to come. Ultimately, all dramaturgs will be hurt because it will give them a bad name and create a fundamental distrust among the theatre industry.
From Craig Woythaler:
She agreed on a $2000 remuneration, and that's what she should get. You cannot say that you deserve more, just because the show turned into a hit. That's like trying to bet on a football game after it is already over.
Editing scripts is a tricky issue. My boyfriend is an an aspiring screenwriter--he and his film buddies are constantly giving each other feedback and ideas....his latest script, which has gained interest in Los Angeles contained many re-writes by a screenwriter friend---in fact they exchanged scripts and did re-writes on each other's scripts.
I might be wrong---but I think this happens all the time in Hollywood, and probably on Broadway. This woman should have made up a contract or agreement if she wasn't just helping Jonathon out . . .
On the other hand, RENT has made SO much money and the Larson family has profited so much, you would think they could make a fair settlement with this woman--a struggling artist like the characters in RENT.
From: Suzanne Finnerty:
Today in our country it is far to easy and acceptable to sue.
A contract is a contract - If Ms. Thomson is as she says "co-author" she should have taken steps earlier to insure her position and changed her contract. I find it very difficult to believe her - because it seems that she just wants the money and the fact that Mr. Larson will not be able to defend himself.
We as Americans and as human beings need to start taking responsibility for our actions.
Ms. Thomson should have had her contract adjusted as soon as she felt she had become more than the dramaturg.
So no she should not be given any extra monies than already promised.
I do feel for Ms. Thompson, however . . . a contract was obviously agreed upon and signed by both parties. Doesn't that mean anything. The success of the show should have been a topic of discussion when first drawing the contract up, not several months after the show became a hit. Ms. Thompson very easily could have used her work on "RENT" to forward her career through much more admirable venues instead of souring her reputation with a lawsuit.
From Jonathan Cerullo:
My dear get a better lawyer . . .
From Herb Simpson (firstname.lastname@example.org), Rochester, NY:
Although I function as college professor and theater critic, I am trained as a dramaturg and sympathize with the notion that the dramaturg's contributions are largely ignored. HOWEVER, partial authorship is not a matter to decide upon months after all contractual arrangements are final; and suing a tragically dead man's estate will win Ms.Thomson few admirers. She'd better collect big, because I cannot imagine anyone's trusting her enough to want to hire her in the future.
More worrisome, the precedent may cause all future contracts for dramaturgs to be too restrictively written. If a theater organization cannot trust its advisors, if young, emerging talents need to be wary of sharing their ideas with a supportive teacher or coach, then lawyers will have to run the arts.