Variety

October 31, 2016

‘Great Comet’ Lawsuit Spotlights Broadway Tensions Between Producers, Nonprofits

Gordon Cox

‘Great Comet’ Lawsuit Spotlights Broadway Tensions Between Producers, Nonprofits

At the Broadway box office, ” Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812″ is selling like hotcakes. But behind the scenes a dispute over playbill credits has escalated into a lawsuit – and it not only complicates the Broadway debut of Josh Groban, it also illustrates the tensions can often underlie the dealings between the theater industry’s commercial sector and the not-for-profit world, even as these two segments have become increasingly enmeshed.

At the Broadway box office, “Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812” is selling like hotcakes. But behind the scenes a dispute over playbill credits has escalated into a lawsuit — and it not only complicates the Broadway debut of Josh Groban, it also illustrates the tensions can often underlie the dealings between the theater industry’s commercial sector and the not-for-profit world, even as these two segments have become increasingly enmeshed.

In the lawsuit filed late last week, Ars Nova, the not-for-profit theater company where “Great Comet” originated, pressed its case for prominent credit in the playbill of the Broadway staging, which is backed by a team of commercial producers led by Howard Kagan. As quoted in the filing, the company’s contract with Kagan requires that the show be credited as “The Ars Nova Production Of,” immediately above the title; as it currently reads, the playbill lumps Ars Nova in with the thirty-odd other producers involved in the Broadway run.

As recounted in the filing, the conflict has turned nasty, with Kagan revoking Ars Nova’s rights to house seats and opening night tickets, and threatening to schedule a cast album recording for the show on the same day as the Ars Nova gala, at which “Great Comet” performers are scheduled to appear.

To observers, that five-word credit, and its placement in the billing, might seem a petty thing to litigate over. But in the five decades since such commercial-nonprofit partnerships have proliferated on Broadway, the not-for-profits have learned that prominent credit on a Broadway success can provide a vital boost in profile, both as an audience builder and, even more crucially, as an attraction for potential funders.

“This is our Broadway debut, and the credit is important to us because it’s a beacon of what this little theater company does and can do,” said Renee Blinkwolt, the managing director of Ars Nova. “To be able to connect those dots with ‘Great Comet,’ from Ars Nova all the way to Broadway, is a hugely important narrative for funders, for future artists and for audiences.”

Requests for comment from the commercial side were met with a statement from the production’s representative, saying that the producers still consider themselves in negotiations over the billing. “The producers of ‘The Great Comet’ have always had — and continue to have — gratitude, respect, and admiration for the great work done at Ars Nova, especially the immense achievement of commissioning, developing, and world premiering ‘The Great Comet,’” the statement read in part.

Ever since the 1967 play “The Great White Hope” transferred from D.C.’s Arena Stage to Broadway — a move that is often cited as one of the first of its kind — deals between not-for-profits and commercial producers are made with increasingly frequency. As productions costs have risen, commercial producers often turn to nonprofits, and the creative and financial infrastructures they provide, as a lower-risk avenue for the development of a show.

Sometimes productions originate with the producer, who brings a property to a nonprofit and provides enhancement money for the staging, or sometimes a title can originate with the not-for-profit and the ensuing buzz spurs someone on the commercial side to pick it up for Broadway. Either way, not-for-profit organizations have played key roles in a larger and larger number of Broadway’s notable productions over the years: Both this year’s Tony champ, “Hamilton,” and last year’s “Fun Home” originated at Off Broadway’s Public Theater, and the 2014 Tony winner, “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder,” developed at two nonprofits prior to Broadway.

Because there was no real precedent at the time, the Broadway production of “Great White Hope” didn’t credit Arena. But since then, the deals for such commercial-nonprofit partnerships almost always stipulate that prominent attribution for the production be made to the originating nonprofit.

“It’s virtually standard practice,” said John Breglio, the veteran entertainment lawyer and author (“I Wanna Be a Producer”) who has crafted deals including the one that got 1975 smash “A Chorus Line” from the Public to Broadway. “In most cases, the organization doesn’t make much money on these moves, so what’s left for them is the credit. It’s very prestigious for them, because they can point to that when they go to funders, and it’s important for the purposes of their own credibility.”

For Ars Nova in particular, that credit can serve as an important magnet for donors in an organization that, according to Blinkwolt, typically gets more than 80% of its annual operating budget from contributed income. This year’s budget came in at $1.8 million, with the now-jeopardized gala expected to bring in some 20% of that.

After “Great Comet” began life as an Ars Nova commission from creator-composer Dave Malloy (who was a resident artist at the organization at the time), Kagan — who was on the board at Ars Nova until he resigned earlier this month — served as the lead commercial producer on the project in commercial transfers both Off Broadway (in 2013 at downtown venue Kazino) and in a subsequent staging at not-for-profit American Repertory Theater late last year. Both those versions saw the physical production of the show shift, under the oversight of its original design team, as the musical moved from an environmental staging to one that can fit in a proscenium auditorium like the Imperial Theater, the Broadway venue where “Great Comet” is currently playing.

It’s those subsequent stagings, and the creative changes shepherded by Kagan, that seem to be the sticking point for the credit here. “It gets muddy,” noted Diane Ragsdale, the theater academic whose 2011 book, “In the Intersection: Partnerships in the New Play Sector,” investigated the overlap of the commercial and not-for-profit realms. “Money goes in, decisions get made, and at what point does it go from being the Ars Nova production to the commercial producers’ production? Whose show is it?”

For the two sides in the “Great Comet” dispute, what comes next is unclear. For now, the lawsuit stands, the production is in previews, and the recording of the cast album could potentially conflict with the Ars Nova gala.

“We by no means want to diminish the contribution that Howard and all the commercial producers have made,” said Blinkwolt. “It’s certainly not an easy show to imagine in a Broadway theater, and he’s been brave and really kind of visionary about getting it there. But we’re shocked and saddened and a little bit horrified by all this. This is not at all how we want to be spending the days before our Broadway debut. It should be a triumphant moment.”

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