How to Put on a Musical

Keep It Legal

By John Kenrick

(Copyright 2003)

I know how tempting it can be. You have a copy of a script – A Chorus Line, for example, or perhaps Chicago – and a well-meaning friend gives you a readable photocopy of the conductor's score. Being a creative, intelligent person, you start thinking . . . why not have your school or theatre group present the show! After all, you have the essentials in hand, so you won't need to contact the licensing company, right? Think of all the money you can save by not paying rights! With all the millions that A Chorus Line has made over the years, no one will mind your little production – heck, no one outside of your neck of the woods will even hear about it. All you need is a few photocopies of the script and score, and you'll be in business. . .

You'll be in business alright – illegal business. Every year, misguided but well-intentioned teachers and community theatre directors put on unauthorized productions of familiar musicals. And in so doing, they become bona fide criminals.

What, you don't like me putting that way? Tough. Amateur theatre productions can make tremendous positive contributions to the lives of communities and individuals. However, those contributions are compromised when the production in question is criminal. (Yes, I will keep using that word because we are discussing criminal activity!)

Your cause may be a good one, but what kind of moral statement are you making? I am not going to try scaring you with tales of police shutting down your production and carting you off in handcuffs. While such things can happen, I've never heard of it being done to amateur producers. However, we live in a litigious age, and licensing companies do take legal action against unauthorized productions. If you think that you can get out of all this by not charging admission, you are wrong. You are still obliged to pay rights fees for any material you use.

This is not just a question of law, but one of basic fairness. Writers and composers have a right to receive pay for their work. For some time after their deaths, their descendants inherit that right. The licensing companies that preserve and distribute the scripts and scores for these shows also deserve compensation. The fact that you are raising money for a good cause does not give you the right to deny these people an honest share in your profits. And that is all the rights money amounts to – a share. An intelligent budget, effective publicity, and decent ticket sales will bring in enough money to pay for all cost (rights included) -- while still earning a fair amount for your school or group. In some cases advance fundraising is needed, but that can be a surprisingly manageable process and can add to your production's community-building effect.

Even if you have convinced yourself that there is no way for your group to pay for the rights to a well-known musical, there are plenty of inexpensive options. These options are not only legal, but offer solid, entertaining possibilities for performers of any age group or level of experience.

So do yourself and everyone involved in your production a favor. Set aside that script and fuzzy photocopy of the score -- they would have been cumbersome for your cast and orchestra to work with anyway. Then call the legitimate licensing firm handling the title of your choice and see what kind of package they can offer. You may be surprised. You will also have the satisfaction of creating a great event that serves a good cause in a moral way.

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