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Theatrical furores: be careful what you say and what changes you make

Mark Shenton with Stephen Sondheim at the Critics' Circle awards. Photo: Catherine Cooper Events
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A series of theatrical furores have erupted recently, from Australia to America, that illustrate the widening reach of social media to put things under a minute and increasingly global spotlight. This isn’t to undermine the severity of some of the statements made, but one thing is clear: artists speak out at their peril, whether it be about local politics or even their own work.

Yesterday Opera Australia released the Georgian singer Tamar Iveri, who was due to star in its imminent production of Verdi’s Otello, from her contract, after a Facebook entry she posted some 18 months ago was unearthed in which she praised the violent reaction against a gay pride march that had taken place in Tbilisi.

The post – which she has subsequently claimed was posted by her husband, not herself, on her page – said:

I was quite proud of the fact how Georgian society spat at the parade… Often, in certain cases, it is necessary to break jaws in order to be appreciated as a nation in the future, and to be taken into account seriously. Please, stop vigorous attempts to bring West’s ‘faecal masses’ in the mentality of the people by means of propaganda. Do not try to wrap this mass in beautiful packages, pour Chanel perfume on it and present it to people as if it was something of medical, recreational qualities. No matter how unhappy ‘friendly West’ might become, fortunately, the Georgian people are well aware of what fruits, offered by the West in their menu, to eat and what to discard. Just like my small dog guesses it.

But she’s now discovered that the ‘friendly West’ is now well aware of how tarnished her own fruit has become, and has discarded her: “Opera Australia has reached agreement with Ms Iveri to immediately release her from her contract with the company,” they said in a statement yesterday. “Opera Australia believes the views as stated to be unconscionable.”

That may have brought her planned Australian engagement to an end, but now it looks like its also going to have wider repercussions on her career: according to a Pink News report, La Monnaie Opera in Brussels have also now dropped plans to work with her.

Her attempts at damage limitation may have come a little too late, but she’s issued a further statement on Facebook, reported by The Independent, claiming again that the post was the work of her husband, “and that I therefore cannot take personal responsibility for [it]. I have never been prejudiced against anyone, whether for religious, or racial reasons, or for any other kind of prejudice including those regarding sexual preference. I abhor prejudice in any form altogether.”

Meanwhile, in less incendiary but nevertheless revealing news, the New Yorker recently reported on a talk that Stephen Sondheim gave to a group of drama teachers in New York, organised by the Academy of Teachers, in which he revealed some of challenges of filming Into the Woods and some of the possible changes that have been made.  Among other things, he suggested that the song ‘Any Moment’ had been cut. Then he corrected himself: “I”m sorry, I should say, it’s probably cut.”

But yesterday he issued a clarification through his lawyer:

When the conversation with the teachers occurred, I had not yet seen a full rough cut of the movie. Coincidentally, I saw it immediately after leaving the meeting and, having now seen it a couple of times, I can happily report that it is not only a faithful adaptation of the show, it is a first-rate movie. And for those who care, as the teachers did, the Prince’s dalliance is still in the movie, and so is Any Moment.

So we can breathe a sigh of collective relief. But more than that, he also stated that the New Yorker had misreported the meeting, and had “created some false impressions about my collaboration with the Disney Studio on the film version of Into the Woods. The fact is that James (Lapine, who wrote both the show and the movie) and I worked out every change from stage to screen with the producers and with Rob Marshall, the director. Despite what the New Yorker article may convey, the collaboration was genuinely collaborative and always productive.”

At least any changes made were therefore done with full authorial approval. In yet another story that broke in the US last week, The Stage contributor Howard Sherman uncovered a story about a theatre in Houston making big changes for its production of the Broadway flop Hands on a Hardbody, without consulting the writers or their licensing house.

It’s a brilliant blog which clearly has Sherman mediating between the parties – and raises definite concerns about the behaviour of the artistic director, both on this show and another his company are proposing to do of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. The theatre were duly issued with a cease-and-desist notice that required them to cancel the final performances of Hands on a Hardbody last weekend. It’s a salutary lesson, and shows how dogged journalism played a large part in exposing it.

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