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January 31, 2014

You broke it, you bought it

In today's Wall Street Journal "Sightings" column, I report on a recent tussle between a regional theater company and a major playwright--and the lesson it teaches. Here's an excerpt.

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Two weeks ago, I was getting ready to go to Sarasota to see a revival by Florida's Asolo Repertory Theatre of Brian Friel's "Philadelphia, Here I Come!" Then I got an e-mail from the company's marketing director telling me that the performance had been canceled. No explanation was proffered, but I assumed that one of the stars was sick, and went elsewhere to see another show.

Garssitting-300x200.jpgA few days later I found out that I'd been dead wrong. Jay Handelman, the Sarasota Herald-Tribune's theater critic, reported that Mr. Friel had abruptly withdrawn his permission for Asolo Rep to perform the play when he learned that Frank Galati, the director, had "cut three characters and eliminated two intermissions and some dialogue while adding a few Irish songs and a little dancing." "Philadelphia, Here I Come!" is now being restaged as written, and will reopen next week.

I was staggered when I heard what Asolo Rep had done--not because they did it, but because they didn't clear it first with Mr. Friel. He is, after all, one of the world's greatest living playwrights, and "Philadelphia, Here I Come!" was the play that made him famous. When it was last performed in New York by the Irish Repertory Theatre in 2005, I judged it to be one of the best plays of the postwar era. I still feel that way. Is it unimprovably good? I think so, but that's not the point. "Philadelphia, Here I Come!" was written in 1964 and remains under copyright. It cannot be performed, much less altered, without the author's permission. End of story.

It was a very different story when Diane Paulus, Suzan-Lori Parks and Diedre L. Murray rewrote "Porgy and Bess" in 2011 for a revival that opened at Cambridge's American Repertory Theatre, then transferred successfully to Broadway. Their alterations, whose purpose was to modernize George Gershwin's 1935 masterpiece and render it politically correct, were done at the behest and with the permission of the estates of George and Ira Gershwin. They were tasteless, but legal.

As these two contrasting anecdotes suggest, playwrights (and their estates) take sharply differing views of such matters....

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Read the whole thing here.

Posted January 31, 2014 11:00 AM

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