Who wrote what in Rent? That's the question the courts are trying to answer.
So nebulous is the relatively new concept of a helper/researcher on theatre productions, there isn't even a consensus on whether the term is "dramaturg" or "dramaturge." That said, there's no question a dramaturg's role varies from show to show, from checking historical details to making concrete suggestions about a script or directorial approach. What's in question is whether a dramaturg's contributions are owned (and perhaps copyright-able), or if they simply fall into the process of a play's production.
Rent becomes the test case for these issues. The lawsuit against the Jonathan Larson estate began trial July 21 at the District Court in NYC. Dramaturg Lynn M. Thomson filed suit against the estate, claiming she was underpaid for her doctoring and advice that helped turn Rent into a hit.
According to the NY Times (July 22), Lynn Thomson was paid more than $10,000 for her contribution to the rock musical (her initial contract with New York Theatre Workshop was for only $2,000 -- as was author Larson's). Thomson claims she wrote more than a third of the musical's book and rewrote many of the show's lyrics, giving the piece a more uplifting, energetic spirit. Jonathan Larson has sole authorship credit on Rent, which the Times predicts will gross $26 million on Broadway this alone -- "not counting road companies, album sales and potential film royalties." A December 1996 New York Post story put that figure at more than $250 million, with Thomson asking for 16 percent.
Production spokesperson Richard Kornberg said at the time: "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." According to the Times, defense attorney Peter Parcher asked Thomson on the stand if she had any written documentation of just how much she contributed to the show. "In exact words, [Larson] never said, `you are co author,' and I never asked him," Thomson answered. "But we knew what we were doing... Money is not part of what this is about. In terms of storytelling, character development, Jon needed my help." Later, Thomson told the court she collaborated with Larson on 9 percent of the lyrics and 48 percent of the recitative-style libretto.
Judge Lewis A. Kaplan seems especially interested in whether Thomson's ideas were just taken as suggestions and reworked by Larson, or whether her dialogue/lyrics went into the show verbatim.
Playwright Tony Kushner spoke for Thomson's side, saying he voluntarily paid two collaborators on Angels In America 15 percent of his royalties. "There's no question if Jonathan had been alive, there would be no problem," he said outside the courtroom.
According to the NY Post, Craig Lucas (Prelude To A Kiss) also testified that Thomson "transformed" Rent. The Post also writes that the Larson family offered to settle out of court, with Thomson refusing and making a counter-offer that was then turned down by the Larsons.
According to the NY Times (July 4), the Parcher, Hayes & Liebman law firm is arguing that Thomson's contributions were fully covered in her contract with Larson. Dramaturgs "typically work with writers to iron out problems in their plays." Thomson's contribution to Rent was limited to "ideas and suggestions regarding character, structure and theme." If nothing else, Thomson is referred to in the Broadway Playbill as "dramaturg," not co-author.
"She is simply taking advantage of Larson's inability to speak for himself," L. Peter Parcher added in his memorandum.
On the other side, Russell Alexander Smith says collaboration and dramaturgy doesn't require the writers to specifically refer to themselves as co-authors. "Of the 2,542 lines in the final script of Rent, 1,212 were entirely rewritten or substantially altered by Ms. Thomson and Larson together, and that 48 percent of the final script is either totally new or substantially different."
According to the NY Times, Robert Brustein, head of the American Repertory Theatre and Lincoln Center's Bernard Gersten have given depositions for the defense. Smith will call Lincoln Center's dramaturg, Anne Cattaneo, playwrights Lucas and Kushner, and Yale School Of Drama playwriting Department chair, Mark Bly.
"I'm not trying to take anything away from Jonathan," Thomson was quoted as saying last winter. "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 Larson attorney, Jay Harris, read: "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."
Harris told Playbill On-Line in Dec. 1996 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?"
Kate Loewald, director of play development for seven years at Manhattan Theatre Club, told Playbill On Line (July 8) she sometimes serves as dramaturg (as she did on the recent (Seeking The Genesis), but her greater function is to run the literary office at the theatre.
Asked what exactly a "dramaturg" is, Loewald said, "A dramaturg serves as a consultant working with playwright and director in a pre-production, rehearsal and preview context. We offer feedback ideas on a script and on any aspect of the production, though in my experience that's at that the discretion of the director and playwright. Also, a dramaturg provide research and background material for the authors and the actors. Audience services are part of this as well, so we'll sometimes write pieces about a play to prepare an audience for the work or to give audiences something interesting to read about the play."
"Do I think the dramaturg is a creator?" continued Loewald. "No, I don't. I think that every creative situation is different, and I certainly can't comment specifically on Lynn's situation, but I don't consider myself a creator as dramaturg." Loewald's background prior to MTC was in producing and directing, and she holds a theatre degree from Yale Drama School.
"I have an open mind about Lynn's input into Rent." said Loewald. "I wasn't there, so I don't know what happened. From what I know from people involved, I think her situation in that play was atypical. It's hard to generalize; each situation is unique. It depends on the chemistry involved. I don't think every play needs a dramaturg personally, but sometimes they're very important. And a dramaturg is creative. You make a contribution but you're not actually writing a play."
Asked if she saw a win for Thomson's side having a chilling effect on the non-profit circuit, Loewald said, "I don't see Lynn's case as having instant ramifications at Manhattan Theatre Club. It'd be wrong-headed to make rules based on this one case, even if it's so well-publicized. But it could open up a discussion about what a dramaturg is. It's a nebulous, ill-defined position right now."
Rent won the 1996 Tony Award as Best Musical, and the Pulitzer Prize as outstanding American drama, and still plays with many of its original cast-members at the Nederlander Theatre on West 41st Street.