Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Whatever happened to class?

I'm a little appalled by this article in the New York Times and I'm not entirely sure why it's got my goat so much. I've been suffering from some mild insomnia and I'm irrationally angry about this (so much so that I just used the phrase "got my goat!"), so this may not be my most eloquent post ever....

In brief, in case you're reading after that link has expired, a high school in the Bronx was putting on a production of Chicago, and they had not secured the rights (which, had they asked, would not have been granted because the school is within 75 miles of where the show is currently playing on Broadway). They got caught, and were told they couldn't do the show. Somehow this made the news, some city council-people got involved, the Broadway producers had a huge PR problem on their hands, and everybody - producers, licensing agent, authors - caved.

I first heard the story yesterday on the radio, before the "happy ending," and the spin on it was "The big bad producers won't let us do our show too close to theirs," and not "It's illegal to perform something without first getting the rights." Clauses about performing a currently running show within x miles of a commercial production (in any city or on tour) are pretty standard, and I will admit that it's the one thing about all this I find a little silly, 'cause it's not like a high school production is really competition for a ten-year-old Broadway musical. But it's also not the point. Because that clause was actually irrelevant, since they never asked (or paid) for permission in the first place. Then there's this little nugget from the Times:

The school's drama teacher, Anthony Cerrini, 24, had decided to stage "Chicago." He found some dialogue on the Internet, transcribed some of it from the 2002 movie starring Catherine Zeta-Jones and Renée Zellweger, and wrote some of it himself.

At the news conference, Mr. Cerrini took responsibility and said that he had never been told about the need for an application.


Okay, seriously?? He thought it was okay to write some of the dialogue himself??? What, I wonder, qualifies Mr. Cerrini to be a drama teacher? Apparently not reading plays, which almost always have a warning about performance printed in them (along with convenient instructions on who to contact for the rights).

Now that permission has been granted, will they pay royalties, or was this a gift? And much more importantly (to me, anyway), which version are they going to do? Somehow I doubt everyone was pulled out of class today for emergency rehearsals to learn the correct text. Are they seriously going to do Mr. Cerrini's patchwork script and call it the work of Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse?

I mean, okay, it's high school, I get it. My drama teacher thought he could do some minor rewrites to some of the shows we did - not to make them age-appropriate, but to make them fit better with his "directorial vision." But at least he paid for the rights first! In college we put on a couple of revues without permission to use the songs (though we didn't charge admission, which might make it okay - and what do cabaret singers do?), and anyone who's ever made a flyer for a college or high school campus is probably guilty of some form of copyright infringement of an image or two. (Hell, I've probably technically broken the law by posting the occasional comic strip on this very blog - though always with a link to the original source.)

But this just seems like a much bigger deal to me. If it were just a case of the guy being new and maybe going to the bookstore and buying the script and the vocal selections and making photocopies without realizing he also had to get permission, I might understand that, since the materials are out there. But to make stuff up? To transcribe parts of the movie? That's so clearly wrong! What is it teaching these kids about the rights of the artist to protect his work? About artistic integrity?

And what's worse is that they got caught and didn't really have to own up. Because I'm sure this sort of thing happens all the time all over the country and no one's the wiser. In fact, "…the principal, Robert Leder, said he had not recalled having to apply for anything in 27 years of putting on high school musical events." (27 years?? Dude!!) But when those people do get caught, they get shut down, and we just don't hear about it. And I suppose it's not fair to the kids, who've been working hard on this thing, to suffer for the mistake of their teachers. But the lesson here is essentially "Don't take responsibility, make a big stink and cause bad PR for the people who are against you even though they're 100% right, both legally and morally, and you'll get your way."

Fuck drama, Lehman High School needs an ethics class.

Though I guess, in the end, Fosse and Ebb were right. "When you're in trouble, go into your dance. / Though you are stiffer than a girder / They'll let you get away with murder. / Razzle dazzle 'em / And you've got a romance." That's copyrighted material, by the way.

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