A high-profile legal battle between composers Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman, and producer Scott Rudin, over the rights to the long-in-coming musical Gold, has been settled out of court. According to a Feb. 2 report in the New York Times, Rudin will be paid roughly $160,000 if the show is ever produced. Rudin was the original backer of a failed 1999 workshop production of Gold. The amount specified would cover the expenses he laid out during the New York Theatre Workshop venture.
The Times quoted statements by both parties. Sondheim and Weidman said, "We are pleased to have this lawsuit behind us and we are now looking forward to further developing the show with our director, Hal Prince, and its eventual production." The statement appeared to indicate that Prince, who had exited the project when Rudin threatened suit, was back on board.
Rudin, meanwhile, using the combative tone he employed from the start, said "After instigating a lawsuit against me, Mr. Sondheim and Mr. Weidman have had to agree that they must personally pay me 100 cents on the dollar — the entirety of my investment in 'Gold!' — before they can proceed with a commercial production."
Gold had been scheduled for an out-of-town production at Chicago’s Goodman Theater when the legal battle erupted. Rudin’s statement would seem to say that the composers must pay the $160,000 before embarking on a production, rather than reimburse the producer after the show was on its feet. Also, the adverb “personally” appears to mean that the money would come directly out of Sondheim and Weidman’s pockets, and not from any future producers or producing organization, such as the Goodman.
The resolution brings to an end one of the nastiest and most public skirmishes to hit the theatre world in years. Gold was once called Wise Guys and a hot prospect for Broadway a couple seasons back. It had a much-publicized and highly scrutinized month-long workshop at the New York Theatre Workshop in the fall of 1999. Sam Mendes directed a cast led by Nathan Lane and Victor Garber, playing the eccentric, real-life brothers, Addison and Wilson. The Mizners were regarded as risk-taking gamblers who ended up as real estate developers in Florida. Settings in the musical included Alaska, California, New York City and Boca Raton, FL, which the brothers helped found. At the time, many expected the venture — the first new Sondheim musical since Passion — to jump straight to Broadway. But the workshop proved problematic (Sondheim later called it "a waste of time") and plans for a move were scrapped. Observers of the Wise Guys workshop, which was open only to New York Theatre Workshop subscribers and special guests, said that at some performances only the first act was performed, and that other nights also had parts of the second act. The show's style included presentational, vaudeville pastiche numbers.
In the months that followed, Mendes dropped out, and old Sondheim collaborator Harold Prince climbed aboard as director. Later, the title was changed to Gold.
As the Goodman prepared to stage the next version of Gold, Rudin stepped forward claiming he owned the rights to the work. He sent the composers a "cease and desist" letter and said he would sue if the production went forward. Rudin's lawyer used the provisional state of the script during the NYTW workshop toward an argument that Rudin was never given the opportunity to fully exercise his rights. Without a finished work, the defense went, Rudin could not move forward to production. Thus, he felt he still owned the rights to the project. Rudin and his other partners poured $600,000 into the project and paid the composers' expenses, the Times reported.
Sondheim and Weidman protested that the rights to the work have reverted back to them. The also said the “cease and desist” letters scared the Goodman and Prince off the project.
Following Rudin's initial interference, Sondheim and Weidman filed a $5 million lawsuit against producer Scott Rudin on Nov. 20, citing "intentional malicious and wrongful interference." The suit said Rudin claimed he held the rights to the show, all in a deliberate attempt to scuttle the project. Rudin was originally on board to produce the musical but had a change of heart upon seeing a workshop. "Rudin saw it and hated it," said the court papers, reported AP. "He openly and repeatedly disparaged the play."
In December, the composers secured an injunction against Rudin. The ruling was delivered by Justice Ira Gammerman in State Supreme Court in Manhattan on Dec. 5. "I don't think he has any rights," said Gammerman of Rudin. "I'm looking for a piece of paper. I'm looking for an agreement between Rudin and Sondheim, and I don't see it."
However, Rudin filed an $8 million countersuit the next day, claiming breach of contract and fraud. Rudin's claim to rights to the show remained part of the suit, though the court's injunction prevent him from claiming "exclusive" rights to Gold!.
Rudin has produced Sondheim productions in the past, including Passion and the recent Broadway revival of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. His other theatrical credits include The Blue Room.
Wise Guys, first conceived by Sondheim some four decades ago, was commissioned by the Kennedy Center in D.C. and was originally scheduled to open in fall 1996. Since then, it has been repeatedly postponed.
—By Robert Simonson