Urinetown Fringe Festival Director Accuses Broadway Production of Copying

By Zachary Pincus-Roth
07 Dec 2006

In a new wrinkle in the Urinetown plagiarism controversy, Joseph P. McDonnell, who directed and choreographed the original 1999 New York International Fringe Festival production of Urinetown, is accusing John Rando and John Carrafa — the director and choreographer, respectively, of the Broadway production — of stealing aspects of his version’s direction, choreography and design.



McDonnell has raised his complaints in response to Rando, Carrafa and the Broadway Urinetown’s design team accusing productions of the musical in Chicago and Akron of plagiarizing their ideas.

McDonnell says, “If they are asserting that there is no wrongdoing on their part and their production managed to look so much like mine, then they should be able to consider the possibility that the producers in Chicago and Ohio can resemble theirs with no wrongdoing on their parts.”

“I am not looking for a fight with Mr. Carrafa and Mr. Rando or anyone else,” McDonnell adds. “I want to stand up for what is right, and I believe that these people in Chicago and Ohio are being treated unfairly.” McDonnell does say he has contacted a lawyer about his claim.

“I purposefully never saw the Fringe production. I never looked at pictures of the Fringe production,” Carrafa responds. “Similar is not what we’re talking about. Things that are implicit to the script are not what we’re talking about. We’re talking about what we added.”

Scott Pask, the Broadway set designer, says that he did not see the Fringe production and has never seen photos of the production. Rando and the Broadway team’s lawyer, Ronald H. Shechtman, could not immediately be reached for comment, but Shechtman told Variety that Rando never saw the Fringe production.

McDonnell says that while his staging did not have much choreography, some of the choreography it did have is similar to the Broadway production. For example, he says, in the Broadway production, “The number ‘Run Freedom Run’ looked just like my production to a lot of people who saw both,” he says.

In the Chicago and Akron productions, Carrafa asserted, as he has in the past, “’Run Freedom Run’ is step for step, move for move, gesture for gesture exactly the same as we did it on Broadway.”

“I’m willing to talk about any details about that number moment by moment by moment, talk about exactly what he [Brian Loeffler, the choreographer of both Chicago and Akron] did, and what we did,” Carrafa adds. “If the guy from the Fringe can go into that kind of detail, then I’d like to hear it. If it’s exactly the same, then wow, that’s an unbelievable coincidence, but it can’t be, there’s no way.”

McDonnell says that he has not reviewed the two productions side by side, but he would do so if he needed to for legal purposes.

The controversy began with a Nov. 13 letter from Shechtman to the regional productions — at the Carousel Dinner Theatre in Akron, OH and the Mercury Theater in Chicago — 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."

On Nov. 22, the Carousel Dinner Theatre responded by suing the Broadway team, asking for a court to declare that there was no wrongdoing on the dinner theatre’s part. A lawyer for the Chicago production at the Mercury Theater sent the Broadway team a letter denying all charges.

In an early reading of the musical McDonnell acted in the role of Caldwell B. Cladwell, before he directed the Fringe production. He was not hired for the subsequent Off-Broadway and then Broadway transfers. He had not pushed for his contract to include first right of refusal to direct subsequent productions because, before Urinetown, no show had transferred from the Fringe to such success.

McDonnell says he had not spoken up until now because, he says, “I thought I was too little and too powerless. I thought it would do no good.”