New York Times

October 19, 2016

Three Words Lead to a Battle Over ‘Great Comet’ on Broadway

Michael Paulson

Three Words Lead to a Battle Over ‘Great Comet’ on Broadway

Five years ago, the small nonprofit theater company Ars Nova commissioned an up-and-coming composer to write his wacky dream project, a musical adaptation of one dramatic section of “War and Peace.”

Five years ago, the small nonprofit theater company Ars Nova commissioned an up-and-coming composer to write his wacky dream project, a musical adaptation of one dramatic section of “War and Peace.”

On Tuesday night, that musical, “Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812,” now a $14 million show starring the best-selling recording artist Josh Groban, had its first preview performance at the Imperial Theater — a major moment for Ars Nova, which has never before seen a project it birthed transfer to Broadway.

But the leadership of Ars Nova was not allowed to be there.

In a stunning and abrupt severing of an unusually close partnership, the nonprofit and the show’s commercial producers, closely interconnected by longstanding personal and financial relationships, are suddenly in a bitter battle over how the nonprofit’s role in the show’s development is credited in the show’s program.

Infuriated by the dispute, the show’s commercial producers have barred Ars Nova officials from the theater and threatened to prevent cast members from performing at the nonprofit’s big annual fund-raiser by scheduling the cast album recording on the same day, according to Ars Nova.

The schism has intensified sharply since it was first reported on Tuesday by The New York Post. Howard Kagan, a former Wall Street executive and a lead producer of the musical, has resigned from the board of Ars Nova, where he had been a top donor. And the nonprofit’s leadership, which had announced plans to honor Mr. Kagan and his co-producer wife, Janet, at its coming gala, instead on Wednesday took a step toward potential litigation, accusing Mr. Kagan of breach of contract and breach of fiduciary duty to the nonprofit’s board.

“We’re extremely hurt by everything that’s happened, and we feel that our work is being minimized,” said Jason Eagan, the founding artistic director of Ars Nova. “It’s particularly disappointing that it’s happening by one of our own board members.”

Matt Ross, a spokesman for the show, said neither he nor Mr. Kagan would have any comment, and he declined to make either the show’s creator, Dave Malloy, or its director, Rachel Chavkin, available to comment.

At issue are a mere three words: “the,” “production” and “of.”

Ars Nova says it was guaranteed, in a 2012 legal document, a copy of which it provided to The New York Times, that the Playbill would describe “The Great Comet” as “The Ars Nova production of” the show. An early draft of the Playbill did just that. But the actual program, now being distributed to theatergoers, does not include those words, instead listing Ars Nova above the title among the producers, and saying, in small type at the bottom of the title page, “originally commissioned, developed, and world premiere produced by Ars Nova.”

The language sought by Ars Nova has been used in programs for some other shows. In a 2013 revival of “Pippin” that was co-produced by the Kagans, the Playbill describes that show, above the title, as “The American Repertory Theater production of…”

In an interview Wednesday, Mr. Eagan said such language was a signal of Ars Nova’s role as an incubator for young artists: “It feels very important to us that people understand who we are, and what we do, and that it started here. That’s a very different thing than being lumped in with a group of financial backers.”

The dispute does not affect the financial agreement between the commercial producers and the nonprofit, which has been promised 1.5 percent of the weekly gross box office (increasing to 2 percent once the show recoups its capitalization, if that happens).

Several Ars Nova board members also stand to make (or lose) money as producers of the Broadway show; when the Ars Nova board met this week to discuss possible courses of action, those board members did not participate in the discussions. Mr. Eagan and another founder of the theater, Jenny Steingart, are also credited as producers, because they helped bundle investors for the show; Ms. Steingart is also an investor in the show.

It is not clear why Mr. Kagan opted not to use the agreed-upon language. According to Ars Nova’s managing director, Renee Blinkwolt, Mr. Kagan first notified the nonprofit of his desire to change the above-the-title billing on Oct. 9, and over a series of emails, phone conversations and meetings that followed the discussion became increasingly adversarial.

A lawyer representing Ars Nova, Richard A. Roth, on Wednesday sent Mr. Kagan a blistering letter accusing the Kagans’ production company of violating its contract with Ars Nova by changing the billing language, and accusing Mr. Kagan personally of breaching his fiduciary duty as an Ars Nova board member by threatening to initiate “a smear campaign in the press in order to irreparably harm Ars Nova’s reputation” as well as by harming its gala. The letter also accused Mr. Kagan of seeking to defame Ms. Blinkwolt.

“The Great Comet” was the largest and most expensive project ever undertaken by Ars Nova, and its initial run at the theater was quite successful; when the Kagans expressed an interest in giving the show a commercial life, Ars Nova was enthusiastic because of the couple’s commitment to preserve the show’s immersive nature — at each stage of the show’s development, theaters, including the Imperial, have been redesigned to look like Russian supper clubs, and seating has been rearranged so that audience members surround the dramatic action.

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