Mark Shenton: Producers must be given credit where it’s due

Denee Benton and Josh Groban in Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812
Mark Shenton
Mark is associate editor of The Stage, as well as joint lead critic. He has written regularly for The Stage since 2005, including a daily online column.
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This week David Bowie’s Lazarus opened in London, after premiering Off-Broadway in December 2015. Above the title, it is billed as the New York Theatre Workshop production, crediting the theatre where it originally opened. Yet it is clear from the programme note by lead producer Robert Fox that he, not NYTW, brought it to fruition, putting together the team that included writer Enda Walsh, director Ivo van Hove and designer Jan Versweyveld.

Fox writes:

As a producer, my hope and ambition is to try to ensure that, along with my colleagues, we try to bring together the right group of people to give the particular project the best chance to succeed creatively, and this is by no means easy, particularly when working on something brand new and a musical.

But he also acknowledges NYTW’s contribution:

To have had the chance to work on Lazarus with David, Enda and Ivo, along with the fabulous cast and creative team that did the production at the inspiring New York Theatre Workshop, was an incredible privilege.

Commercial producers frequently work with producing theatres to realise projects they’ve developed. Recent examples of that process in the UK include Sonia Friedman taking Sunny Afternoon to Hampstead Theatre to premiere, as she will with Jez Butterworth’s The Ferryman at the Royal Court next April. Playful Productions collaborated with the Royal Shakespeare Company on the stage version of Wolf Hall. And Scott Rudin has recently worked on Evening at the Talk House and The Red Barn at the National Theatre.

It’s a process of mutual benefit: the theatre gets enhancement money to give the play a more secure financial footing, while the commercial producer gets a try-out for the production, which won’t have to fight for an audience.

At other times a commercial producer will pounce on an existing project and seek to capitalise on it. That’s when things can get tricky between the originating theatre and the producer, especially if the latter seeks to assert an artistic influence beyond the remit of a cash injection.

This seems to have been the case with the Broadway transfer of Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812, opening at the Imperial Theatre on November 14. The original Off-Broadway production of this musical based on part of Tolstoy’s War and Peace opened at Ars Nova in 2012, and was subsequently given extended life in two pop-up tent venues, first downtown then in an empty plot on West 45th Street (next to the theatre where it is now playing).

But the show’s lead commercial producer Howard Kagan – a former Wall Street executive and board member of Ars Nova – unilaterally agreed to change the show’s billing that credited Ars Nova for its original production. The dispute centred on just five words: the company said it was guaranteed, in a 2012 legal document, that the show would be billed as “the Ars Nova production of”. But, in fact, it was only billed above the title at the end of a long list of producers, with an additional credit at the bottom of the page: “Originally commissioned, developed, and world premiere produced by Ars Nova.”

Does it matter? Ars Nova thought so and took the matter to court. Jason Eagan, founding artistic director of Ars Nova, commented: “We’re extremely hurt by everything that’s happened, and we feel that our work is being minimised. It’s particularly disappointing that it’s happening by one of our own board members.”

It got even nastier: Ars Nova staff were not invited to previews, and the producers scheduled the cast recording for the same day as the theatre’s annual fundraising gala, which could have prevented the musical’s stars from appearing at it. Last week, star Josh Groban posted on Twitter: “Neither I nor my cast have anything to do with this issue regarding a playbill credit... As the ‘parents’ are bickering it isn’t fair to punish or drag in the kids. Furthermore we are not being used as pawns for scheduling conflicts or anything of that nature and will not be.”

After arbitration, the parties have now agreed on a more specific credit to Ars Nova. But Kagan has continued to defend his position, writing to his investors last week to say that “we do not believe Ars Nova deserves all the credit for this Broadway production” and accusing Ars Nova of “a vicious and misleading email and social media campaign online and in the press”.

As the US witnessed the last-minute squabbling between presidential hopefuls, it was interesting to follow Broadway’s home-made offstage drama, in which Ars Nova accused the producer of doing almost precisely the same thing. It said he had threatened to “initiate a smear campaign in the press to irreparably harm Ars Nova’s reputation”.

What matters most is the show, not the billing. I can’t wait to see it again after it has opened. A couple of weeks ago I saw an early preview and loved it, whoever was responsible for getting it there.

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