Charged With Plagiarism, Regional Urinetown Teams Fire Back; Lawsuit Filed

By Zachary Pincus-Roth
01 Dec 2006

Creators of the two Midwest productions of Urinetown accused of plagiarizing the Broadway version's direction, choreography and design are fighting back. The Carousel Dinner Theatre in Akron, OH, has sued the Broadway team, and a lawyer for the Chicago production at the Mercury Theater sent the Broadway team a letter denying all charges.



The suit, filed Nov. 22 in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio, asks the court to declare that the Akron production is "not substantially similar" to the Broadway production and did not violate any laws.

"We want an acknowledgement that the work done in Akron was original and didn't violate anybody's creative rights," says Terrence L. Seeberger, a lawyer for the Akron production.

"We're not going to be bullied, honestly, by something we deem very harmful to the industry and we're not going to sit and take it, especially when we worked very hard to create something completely different on its own merit," Tom Mullen, the director and producer of the Chicago Urinetown, tells Playbill.com.

Ronald H. Shechtman, a lawyer for the Broadway team, says the team is meeting Dec. 4 to determine its next step. He says of the suit, "We will review evidence that they let us see. They let us see their pictures, we'll let them see our pictures." He says he has evidence that the productions are "virtually identical." The Broadway team has not yet filed a lawsuit.

Seeberger had no comment on why he decided to file a lawsuit as opposed to taking other routes. The suit acknowledges that the Broadway lighting design was copyrighted on Aug. 21 of this year, but does not acknowledge any other copyrights, except for the script.

Ronald H. Shechtman, a lawyer for the Broadway team, said that he has received approved copyrights for the choreography and set design as well. Applications for copyrights for the direction and costume design, filed in late summer, he says, are still pending.

In the past, only the work of playwrights, choreographers and set designers has been deemed protected by law, but for direction, and costume and lighting design, the situation is much more fuzzy, Shechtman says. But, he added, "if they want to test us on the issue of stage direction, we believe this is an appropriate test case."

The plaintiffs in the Akron suit are the Carousel Dinner Theatre along with its artistic director Sean Cercone and the production's set designer Robert Kovach, costume designer Dale Dibernardo and lighting designer Paul Black (the director Jennifer Cody and choreographer Brian Loeffler are not among them). The defendants named are the Broadway Urinetown's director John Rando, choreographer John Carrafa, set designer Scott Pask, lighting designer Brian MacDevitt and costume designer Gregory Gale.

The controversy began with a Nov. 13 letter from Shechtman to the regional productions accusing them of using "significant aspects of the Broadway Team's original, creative work." The letter said that while the productions had the license to the Urinetown script and songs, that license does not permit them to use the Broadway direction, choreography and design. The letter accused the productions of violating copyright law and laws against unfair competition, among others, and asked for the productions' accounting figures to "determine an appropriate license fee and damages."

*

The Chicago production's Mullen spoke to Playbill.com, giving reasons for denying the plagiarism charges. In response to a charge from Carrafa that 90 percent of the dance steps in Chicago production were exactly the same as on Broadway, Mullen responds, "Carrafa's wrong," and says he specifically asked his choreographer to make the dancing different than the original.

For instance, Mullen says, of his choreography, "My production had tons of movie parodies, that aren't in the original because I thought it would speak to a Midwestern audience much better." Elements include a "Charlie's Angels" pose and references to "Titanic," "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," and others. In addition, Mullen says, the production includes a parody of Wicked, which opened on Broadway two years after Urinetown opened.

Hauptman responded, "The example we give in terms of that is, ok, you have a Stephen King novel, you change the location from Maine to Connecticut and you sort of write a small little chapter in the middle and put your name on it and say this is my book."

Mullen also expressed concern that the SSDC — to which he is a dues-paying member — has sided with Rando and Carrafa and has provided them with an attorney, leaving Mullen to fend for himself. "They use my money to fund their case," he says.

Hauptman of the SSDC said that the potential law suit against the regional productions would be the individuals' law suit, not the SSDC's. "The union is very concerned about copyright infringement and replication," she says. "Yes, Carrafa and Rando came to us and told us their concern, and that's what's important to us, the principles that are underlying here, for the entire membership."

She also said, of Mullen, "The union's position is that his membership is still in good standing and as soon as this is worked out, the union will take a position or do something internally if necessary."

Hunter Foster, the husband of Jennifer Cody, who directed the Akron production, defended the Akron production to Playbill.com in a story posted Nov. 16.