Writer Paul Cozby's show — a musical comedy about teens staging a high school musical called Cyranose — debuted in a Fort Worth, TX, high school reading in 2004, following a pitch he made in 2003. The hit Disney TV musical, which spawned a hot-selling album, a concert version, a planned touring show and resident Equity and amateur productions, first aired in January 2006.
Texas-based writer Cozby got the idea for his High School Musical in 2003, when he witnessed the enthusiasm of young performers at a cast party for his daughter's school musical.
Following the May 2004 reading at Fort Worth Academy of Fine Arts, a full non-Equity production of High School Musical was staged in Fort Worth in summer 2005. The Fort Worth Star-Telegram said the performance showed "gusto galore" and called it a "high-energy musical." There were six paid performances.
But six months later, the Disney Channel original movie with the same title and similar stock characters (a nerd, a jock, coach, diva, drama teacher, etc.) debuted, dampening Cozby's hope that his property would be able to have a life outside the shadow of what would become a major property for Disney.
"I was new to this — this was the first musical I had completed, the first one we moved to any kind of production," Cozby told Playbill.com, adding that his musical is not "pop" flavored but has a contemporary Broadway show-tune sound. He said he always saw the show as being perfect for the stock and amateur market. "I was pitching that from day one," he said.
His response to the Disney hit?
"I was just very surprised," he said. "The plot elements are just very similar. If you put the two works side by side, the similarities are remarkable — obviously beginning with the title."
Cozby's lawyer, Charles Baker of the Houston firm Porter & Hedges LLC, told Playbill.com that Cozby has filed suit against Disney Enterprises, "claiming they stole his idea, claiming they infringed upon his trademark title [and] seeking damages and seeking an injunction" against the use of the title by Disney and, essentially, the continuation of the property.
(The juggernaut Disney property rolls on, however: TV sequels are already in the works, as is an arena ice show based on the picture.)
The goal is to "stop all use of both the 'mark' and stop all productions," Baker said.
Observers say that's unlikely — the genie is out of the bottle, and Disney's property is expected to grow larger and larger.
As artists often coincidentally have the same idea at the same time, and it's hard to prove that ideas were stolen, it would seem that the most central issue in this suit would be the loss of potential profits due to the loss of a commonlaw trademark that Cozby had dibs on.
In the meantime, Cozby (who has since moved to Manhattan with his family) and his production company The Musical Machine, Inc. are banging the drum for their underdog show, reluctantly now calling it "the original high school musical," and hoping for a wide future in theatres around the country.
The Equity-approved Manhattan reading is produced by The Musical Machine, Inc. and NYC-based Republic Theater Company. It's part of an ongoing effort by the author to expose his work in front of "audiences and industry professionals."
Cozby said he spoke to a major name in publishing and licensing about getting his show in the marketplace and was told to make his pitch after the legal smoke has cleared.
Cozby is doing everything he can to get publishers and producers to the May 21 New York reading. A post-show talkback is planned to discuss the show's craft.
Given the genesis of the show, it would seem that if Cozby's writing is smart enough, theatres not able to afford a license to stage Disney's "High School Musical" might snatch up his an alternative.
Cozby agreed. His superobjective (as they say in high school drama class) is to get his work produced. "It's about the work," he said.
The Manhattan Equity staged reading of Cozby's High School Musical (directed by Akiva Daube) will be May 21 at 7 PM at New World Stages, 340 West 50th Street, between Eighth and Ninth Ave.
Tickets are free on a first-come, first-served basis by making a reservation at (212) 252-5494 or by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Musical direction is by Laura Bergquist. The New York reading cast will include Adam Reich, Jessica Scott, Eric Wdowiak, Shannon Davies, Dara Rosenberg, Brandy Wykes, Andrew Langton, Luke Strandquist, Breeda Wool, Simone Gallon, Mike Gomez, Shawn McLaughlin, Emily Falvey, Tyler Hollinger, Jason Zimbler, Antony Raymond and Brett Holland, with Bess Cozby, Pryce Stevens, Nina Louri, Anthony Galluccio, Jon Risk and Melissa Ciesla.
Lyricist-librettist-composer Cozby's High School Musical follows the behind-the-scenes dramas of Cyranose, fictional Herbert Hoover High's newest school musical. "Nerdy writer Marty worries that the world will never see his masterpiece," according to production notes. "The musical's success rests on the broad shoulders of class hunk Johnny Rocket. As opening night approaches, Johnny must choose between playing the big game or being in the musical. Will the show go on?"
For more information, visit www.highschoolmusical.com, the domain name secured by Cozby before the Disney movie blossomed.