As a director, there have been several times when I have encountered the challenges of getting a script on its feet in the way it is intended by the authors and the licensing house. In community theatre, you often find yourself being creative with casting – sometimes casting a female in a role written for a male, sometimes doubling up characters, sometimes changing a specified ethnicity and sometimes being creative with the staging so as not to offend audiences with certain sensibilities. These choices are made on what I can most definitely say is a blurred line between creative license and breach of contract. It doesn’t help when you see well-received professional productions bending genders or deviating from the original script.
Over the past couple of days, there has been a lot of press about TUTS Underground‘s production of Hands on a Hardbody. The director of that production made the decision to reassign solos, change the order of songs and even cut a song. Further to that, the director then invited the show’s creator to the opening night of the production. What some people might consider to be innocuous changes led to a blog by theatre veteran Howard Sherman and, eventually, a cease and desist letter being sent to TUTS from the licensing house. Meanwhile, in Milwaukee, David Mamet was issuing a cease and desist letter to Alchemist Theatre for casting a male actor in the Oleanna‘s lead female role.
I have to say, the writer in me is very aware of productions that take liberties with what is written on the page. That writer is a constant voice in my head when I am directing a show. I find it is my responsibility to remind actors that the words on the page are the word that are to be spoken, the lyrics the ones to be sung and the intent of the show the one to be presented. Reigning actors in can be a difficult task at times, line flubs and enthusiastic ad libs certainly happen in live theatre, even on Broadway. However, making the conscious choice to deviate from the script is in the hands of the director, the producer and, ultimately, the governing body of that theatre.
For close to twenty years now one of my favorite productions has been Hair, the 60’s love rock musical that recently enjoyed a successful revival on Broadway. When I was in college, deeply moved by friends being deployed to Desert Storm, I relentlessly begged the department head to allow me to direct a production of Hair. He would respond by telling me that the music is great but the book was horrible. I would disagree, grumble and roar and then resign myself to that safety net of department sanctioned productions. Fifteen years later, Diane Paulus would reimagine what was to become the 2009 Tony Award Winner for Best Revival of a Musical. Indeed, that production was greatly altered and, in our war torn present, resonated with modern audiences in the way I suspected it would all those years ago. However, those changes were made with the direct involvement of James Rado, the author of the production. Unfortunately, however, the revival script of the musical is not available for licensing. Instead, community theatres are challenged with staging “The Bed,” seeing Sheila sleep with Claude as a gesture and Berger pounding on Claude’s grave with glow-in-the-dark drumsticks (an ending that I maintain still has great potential).
Ironically, instead of directing Hair, I ended up directing Pippin, a revival that is currently playing on Broadway and was also decorated with a Tony for Best Revival of a Musical. I had seen a production of it a few years back and noted that the ending of the play had changed. Apparently, Stephen Schwartz was never happy with the “Not bad for the end of a musical comedy – ta da!” ending and, in fact, prefers the newer ending where Theo finds himself embarking on a soul-searching journey with the Leading Player and the Players. Again, this is a change that has been made by the author. When I did that production, it was with a female Leading Player, a gender change that Stephen Schwartz endorses, whereas Mamet and his people are deeply protective of his original scripts and changes to gender.
I was recently entertaining the idea of throwing my hat into the ring to direct a show that I think would be a wonderful creative challenge. However, the script calls for an actor of a specific ethnicity and makes references to his cultural background in the script. Knowing the challenges that we have casting ethnically diverse shows in our area, I asked the theatre to speak with the author to find out if we would be given permission to change the character and the lines. When I am a writer, my fingers belong on the keyboard. When I am directing, they do not. I asked that question because I know it is the right thing to do – for myself, for the theatres I work with, for the authors and for the audience.
The important thing to take away here is that the question needs to be asked. Sometimes you’ll encounter a Stephen Schwartz and get the author’s blessing, sometimes you’ll be dealing with a David Mamet and will have to ditch your new approach to the material. Every time you will avoid being the subject of a controversy that ends up on the landing page of Playbill.com.