My reply is urgent but long, Kenny--PLEASE read-----
I could feel your excitement from reading your post, and I need you to know first off that I empathize with you.
However I need to go straight to two rather difficult questions I have, after reading your post:
--Why do you think it’s allowable for you to do this project in the manner you have planned?
--Do you realize what jeopardy you are putting yourself and the theatre group in by not using musicians who are playing the acoustic instruments Sondheim’s score was written for?
You’ve been musical director for several amateur groups in your area, so I imagine you have some idea of what I’m about to tell you. Things apparently have gone well for you so far, doing orchestra emulations for theatre groups—but I Must go ahead with this rather urgent message to you.
A CAUTIONARY TALEI have provided backing tracks for several area productions, as have you. Several were with public domain material, such as Gilbert and Sullivan. But in other cases, I had to perform Quite a song and dance to be allowed to use synths/samplers for stage shows still under current copyright.
The first show I did with MIDI was “The Mystery of Edwin Drood.” None of us were aware that there could be a problem with us using my tracks instead of a live orchestra. It was the first orchestral emulation I had done, and it was a project of a year and a half duration, to produce the tracks for the production.
ONE WEEK BEFORE OPENING, the publishers of the musical contacted the theatre and told us to “Cease and desist” from using my tracks. Somehow, word had gotten to them about what we were doing. I had a long conversation with the publishers myself, but they would not budge. The Only option we were given was to find a piano player who could play a reduction of the score. Otherwise, the production would be closed down before it opened, the group would be fined $5,000, AND the theatre would not be allowed to produce ANY musical from their catalog for a period of FIVE YEARS.
--!!—We spent several days auditioning the best pianists in town and they all said the same thing, that it was Far too difficult to master the score in the short time left. The cast was in tears when I told them what had happened—it felt like the End of the World.
The story has a happy ending, thank heavens. Through diligent detective work, my staff found a direct phone number for Rupert Holmes, the show’s composer. I called him—we had an hour-long talk, during which he sympathized with me completely. He explained that the publishers have a legal duty to protect the copyrights of their clients, but that he as sole composer and arranger of “Drood” could over ride their objections and grant permission for me to use the tracks I’d slaved over. He said he would Prefer the kind of backing I had produced rather than another sad little production using a solo pianist.
He faxed us a legal release, with very specific and carefully chosen phrases, allowing this one time use of my recordings for this production of “Drood.”
But—the message was clear, that if Tams Witmark or any of the musical theatre publishers in New York get wind of a production using unauthorized recordings—the penalties are severe.
Another story, directly concerning Mr. Sondheim’s works:
A few years later, the same theatre begged me to produce MIDI tracks for “A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to The Forum” and to figure out a way to make them not in danger like the previous time. I knew I couldn’t put us all in jeopardy as I had naively done before, so I called New York to talk with Mr. Sondheim himself. He was at rehearsal, but I spoke with his manager.
The up shot of that conversation was that a special allowance would be granted to me and the theatre, but ONLY because it was “Forum” which is from early in Mr. S’s career, before he established his unique musical style on American theatre. The manager said that Mr. S has been extremely adamant that NONE of his post-“Forum” musicals would Ever be allowed to be done Anywhere with MIDI. He loathes electronics, he loathes the displacement of musicians etc.
One glimmer of hope here is that you can see it was from direct personal contact that I was able to make a personal connection and have special waivers granted.
I have other stories related to talking with creators and copyright issues, but they aren’t as germane as this one.
I urge you, I Beg you, to call Sondheim’s office in New York, and throw yourself at their mercy.
My stomach’s in a knot while typing this. I hate being the bearer of bad news, because I wish that you Could legally do what you’re doing. I think it’s insane that small theatres aren’t legally allowed to supplement or totally replace orchestras, because I know from personal experience that the quality of orchestras most towns are able to muster for amateur theatre are abysmal.
As I said at the beginning, you very likely know all about this particular copyright issue, and you probably figure that the publishers won’t care about a small production in Somewhere U.S.A.
However, from their own lips, I have been told several times now that they don’t want to shut theatres down, but as legal representatives of their clients, they Must enforce the copyright law, or the law and their position as legal reps are both made a mockery.
Please call. Pour your heart out—they may grant you an exception.
But you really cannot assume “Into The Woods” is going to be produced in this manner. The risks are far too high.
Regretfully submitted by