It’s A Suggestion, Not A Review: Whose Play Is It, Anyway?

Dave Sikula asks an important question that comes up again and again in the theater community. Can he answer it too?

In our last thrilling installment, I’d been asked at a “Farnsworth” talkback why we hadn’t just added a prologue and/or epilogue debunking Aaron Sorkin’s presentation of the historical record.

As soon as that question was asked, I was immediately reminded of two stories I’d just read involving theatres and directors playing fast and loose with the scripts for their plays.

Now, before I begin this saga, let me state that I don’t think there’s a director working who hasn’t either altered the script s/he’s working with or, at the very least, thought about it. It’s not right and it’s not legal, but we’ve all done it. Most of the time, the changes are minor and banal, done strictly for logistical reasons. A character can’t be told to stand since he’s already standing, or is standing next to a table rather than the chair indicated in the script. It could even be something as simple as an actor’s height or hair color differing from the one in the text.

Me, directing. Looks exciting and glamorous, doesn't it?

Me, directing. Looks exciting and glamorous, doesn’t it?

But to the stories I’d read. The first story concerned a production of “Hands on a Hardbody” that had opened at Houston’s Theatre Under the Stars, or TUTS for short. The musical, by Doug Wright, Trey Anastasio, and Amanda Wright, is based on a documentary about a group of people who were trying to win a new pickup truck by keeping their hands on the car. The last person with a hand on the truck would take it home. The show flopped on Broadway (28 previews, 28 performances), but will probably have some sort of life in regional companies.

Doesn't look real enticing to me, but who knows?

Doesn’t look real enticing to me, but who knows?

TUTS was the first of those companies (as far as I know) to present the show. The director, Bruce Lumpkin, invited Wright and Green to opening night, but neglected to tell them he had made changes to the show, mainly involving cutting sections and reassigning lyrics and songs to the characters for whom they were intended.

To quote Howard Sherman’s recap of what happened:

Green described to me her experience in watching the show. “They started the opening number and I noticed that some people were singing solos other than what we’d assigned. As we neared the middle of the opening number, I thought, ‘what happened to the middle section?’” She said that musical material for Norma, the religious woman in the story, “was gone.”

When the second song began, Green recalls being surprised, saying, “I thought, ‘so we did put this number second after all’ before realizing that we hadn’t done that.” As the act continued, Green said, “I kept waiting for ‘If I Had A Truck’ and it didn’t come.” She went on to detail a litany of ways in which the show in Houston differed from the final Broadway show, including reassigning vocal material to different characters within songs, and especially the shifting of songs from one act to another, which had the effect of removing some characters from the story earlier than before…

Describing her post-show conversation with Lumpkin in Houston, Green says, “When it was over, I was flabbergasted. I had been planning to go to the cast party, but I couldn’t. Bruce came over to me and said, ‘I know you’re mad and I know you hate it, but you know it works better’.” Green continued: “He was pressuring me to make a decision and say I liked it. So I left.”

Amanda Green, in happier days ...

Amanda Green, in happier days …

After much back and forth, Samuel French pulled the right for the show and made the company close down the production.

Now, bullying of Amanda Green aside, what Lumpkin did – and he’s apparently well-known for doing things like this with the shows he directs – was both hubristic and stupid. It’s one thing to make wholesale changes and hope you can get away with them. It’s another to do it and invite the creators to see how you’ve “improved their work,” which in Wright’s words, they’d “spent years building and honing … and had very specific character-driven moments. People didn’t just say things.” But it’s in a whole other level to demand that those creators approve changes. As of this writing, Lumpkin still has a job, but I find it hard to believe that any licensor will rent him a show without, at the very least, keeping a close eye on the product in progress, let alone the final production.

As usual, I’ve hit a critical mass of verbiage before coming to a conclusion, so I’ll leave matters here until our next meeting.

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