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Sunday Morning Michael Dale: My Favorite Cease and Desist Letters

Also, The Inconvenient Miracle clashes faith with contemporary issues and enjoying Indian food at the birthplace of Gay and Off-Off Broadway Theatre

This week...

The Inconvenient Miracle at The Episcopal Actors' Guild through August 27. (General Admission $25, VIP seating $35)

Inexpensive and recommended...

Romeo and Juliet presented by Sister Shakes Productions at Under St. Marks Theatre as part of FRIGID's Little Shakespeare Festival. Final performance August 28. ($25 or pay what you can)

Down To Eartha at Gene Frankel Theatre, August 18-21. Dierdra McDowell's excellent solo play about Eartha Kitt being blacklisted after her anti-war comments during a White House luncheon. ($25, students/seniors $20)

Looking forward to...

Mom On Skype at Irondale. Final performance tonight at 7:30. ($30, students/seniors/working artists $15). An ensemble of Ukrainian children have been flown to America to perform a play they created and premiered while in a bomb shelter.

Opening number...

A while back. I was in an audience of theatre fans watching an onstage conversation between Frank Rich and Stephen Sondheim and the subject of unauthorized changes made in regional and amateur productions came up. The composer/lyricist mentioned that he had heard of a production of Company that ended with Bobby committing suicide by shooting himself.

"He shot himself after singing Being Alive?," asked an incredulous Rich.

Every performance rights contract includes an important clause stating that no changes can be made to the script without written permission, and fortunately the Internet age has increased the chances of finding out about violators through published reviews, posted videos and chat board comments, like the current situation where The Door Church in McAllen, Texas not only staged a production of Lin-Manuel Miranda's Hamilton without acquiring the rights, but added revisions to promote their theological teachings, including anti-LGBTQ+ material.

Even more-established theatre companies, that you'd think would abide by the rules, have been caught in the act. Here are a few of the most egregious cases I can recall. I can't confirm that they all received formal cease and desist letters, but appropriate action was taken.

Oh, and by the way...

**SPOILERS BELOW**

You Won't Be A Warbucks For Long: As reported by Michael Riedel back in 2003, the explanation Annie lyricist and original director Martin Charnin was given for director Amanda Dehnert's darkly framed Trinity Rep production of his beloved musical comedy was:

"They told me they thought 'Annie' was a classic, like Shakespeare, so they could reinterpret it," Charnin said.

"I told them there's one difference: Shakespeare is dead; I'm not."

The legend of this production that's been incorrectly passed on through the years is that it ended with Annie waking up at the orphanage and bursting into tears as she realizes being adopted by Oliver Warbucks was just a dream. But what Dehnert actually did was create a new opening scene where Annie, after having fled the orphanage, escapes a rainstorm by breaking into an abandoned theatre. She falls asleep and dreams of the action that is the script Charnin authored with bookwriter Thomas Meehan and composer Charles Strouse. But instead of bursting into tears when she wakes up in the added final scene, she finds a dog she names Sandy and sings a reprise of Tomorrow, determined to make her life better without having to luck into a billionaire's generosity.

Charnin was tipped off on the added material by someone who attended a preview performance and had the framing scenes nixed.

Goodbye, Love: On an early April evening in 2011, the following was posted by a member on BroadwayWorld's message board:

"Why do directors feel they can changed anything they want. I just saw a production of Rent where Mimi died at the end.... didn't jump over the moon to come back.... just dead."

The seven page thread that followed revealed that the production was staged at Maryland's Towson University, where director and faculty member Diane Smith-Sadak defended her revision by claiming it dealt more realistically with the AIDS crisis than the ending written by Jonathan Larson.

After performance rights holder Music Theatre International demanded that either the original ending be reinstated or the production shut down, the proper material was incorporated, but not without Smith-Sadak claiming victimhood in a letter to the university's newspaper:

"Like the characters in Rent who faced the ongoing struggle to create art in an increasingly corporate mindset and money-driven and fear-driven attitude we in tonight's production came in and reworked our ending into what you will see tonight. The 'traditional' ending of Rent. We complied only under duress."

Music Theatre International President Drew Cohen responded to her letter with his own public statement, concluding, "This was about one person deciding that she could write a better show than the one that was licensed and opting to present it in violation of the performance license. Respectfully, that is simply not allowed."

Don't. Just DON'T: It shouldn't be any surprise that, in 2015, the African Community Theatre at Ohio's Kent State University would decide to mount a production of Katori Hall's Olivier-winning drama, The Mountaintop, which imagines the final hours of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s life before being assassinated. Except for the fact that the actor playing Dr. King, Robert Branch, was white.

Now, this isn't a Hamilton-type situation where white historic figures like George Washington and Aaron Burr were scripted by the author to be played by non-white actors. Katori Hall has expressed that she fully expected anyone seriously reading the play would know that she'd want the role cast realistically.

But director Michael Oatman, who is Black, stated on Kent State's website, "I truly wanted to explore the issue of racial ownership and authenticity. I didn't want this to be a stunt, but a true exploration of King's wish that we all be judged by the content of our character and not the color of our skin."

Justin Fraley, who also is Black, was listed on the website as "Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. #2" implying that he and Branch would be splitting the production's six performances, with Oatman stating, "I wanted the contrast... I wanted to see how the words rang differently or indeed the same, coming from two different actors, with two different racial backgrounds."

But eventually Fraley stated publicly that he never went on as Dr. King, claiming the director told him, "I think I wanna shake things up a bit and have a white cat play the role instead."

Unfortunately, the playwright hadn't heard of this casting controversy until after the run was completed, but language has been added to the play's licensing agreement to ensure that both of The Mountaintop's roles are cast with "actors who are African-American or Black."

While it wouldn't be completely accurate to say The Inconvenient Miracle: A Mysterious Birth Musical is about reproductive health rights...

...it's still quite significant at this time in American history to watch a scene where a 14-year-old girl is asking a nun to help her get an abortion. Add to the mix that the girl is a virgin, the nun has been praying for a sign of God's existence and the show, penned by Emily Claire Schmitt (book), Emily Rose Simons (score) and Ria T. DiLullo (additional story and direction), is billed as a musical comedy, and I have to say there's a lot of intriguing stuff going on. (General Admission $25, VIP seating $35)

Sunday Morning Michael Dale:  My Favorite Cease and Desist Letters
Gael Schaefer and Deijah Faulkner
(Photo: Ahron R. Foster)

Adults seeming in their 20s play the teenagers of Saint Angela's School for Girls, where Sister Florence (lovely job by standby Gael Schaefer, who was on book), the last remaining nun of her order, tries to present her students with a respectable role model while struggling with a crisis of faith.

The story revolves around Vanessa (strong and understated Deijah Faulkner), who isn't shy about declaring herself an atheist. Best friend Trisha (Nicola Barrett) sticks by her as she's continually tormented by the popular self-proclaimed profit Abigail (Samantha Streich, in brassy mean girl mode), who, in a Harold Hill style number, declares a new religion based on Vanessa giving a virgin birth.

All we see of Vanessa's family life is scenes with her eccentric grandmother (Ellen Orchid), whose significance grows as the story continues, but a long-term detention grants her more personal moments with Sister Florence, and the two develop a kinship at a time when they're both in need of support and guidance.

If I had attended a Catholic school for girls, I probably would have gotten more of the references and the humor of The Inconvenient Miracle, but I can appreciate it as a sweet and tuneful musical that ponders over significant questions, performed with gusto by an exuberant company.

When you live in a city with a rich cultural history, like New York...

...at least for me, everywhere you go contains memories. Not just your own. Other people's memories. Every time I go to the Neil Simon Theatre, I'll remember that, when it was The Alvin Theatre, this is where Broadway audiences first heard the voice of Ethel Merman, as she belted the Gershwins' I Got Rhythm on opening night of Girl Crazy. When I walk by 1 Sheridan Square, I'll remember this is where crowds gathered for a night at Café Society to hear Billie Holiday sing Strange Fruit, which was mostly banned from the airwaves for its imagery of Black men being lynched. And when I'm on St. Marks Place, no matter what business currently resides at 19-25, I'll always picture it as The Electric Circus, the hedonistic playground of the psychedelic era where Andy Warhol and The Velvet Underground held court.

Sunday Morning Michael Dale:  My Favorite Cease and Desist Letters A couple of weeks ago I was walking around Greenwich Village and noticed that a new Indian restaurant, Bombay Bistro, had opened up at 31 Cornelia Street. So I popped in and enjoyed a very tasty plate of vegetable korma, but the main course was the memories, supplied to me by the great playwright Robert Patrick, of the time in the 1960s, when this was Caffe Cino, the birthplace of Off-Off Broadway and America's gay theatre.

One of my earliest assignments for BroadwayWorld was a phone interview with Patrick to talk about his new Off-Off Broadway production of Hollywood At Sunset, but all he really wanted to talk about was his years as a young man hanging out at Café Cino.

Sunday Morning Michael Dale:  My Favorite Cease and Desist Letters "I was a doorman, a waiter, a sex slave, I acted, I did lights, I washed dishes and after three years there, one day I was helping move scenery in for Lanford Wilson's first play. The scenery for an Off-Off-Broadway play at this time was usually a bed. It's evocative and it's easy to move. Lanford had a fold-out sofa bed and I suddenly had an idea for a play about two men unfolding a sofa bed. And so I wrote The Haunted Host, which drama anthologist William M. Hoffman called "the first gay play".

The owner, Joe Cino, was no man of the theatre, but he was happy to say, "Sure, why not?" when the young playwrights who would sip coffee and write there all day asked if they could put on some small shows.

Sunday Morning Michael Dale:  My Favorite Cease and Desist Letters I sat in the middle of the narrow dining room, imagining the times when the village locals would come by to see the latest by young talents like Harvey Fierstein, Sam Shepard, Doric Wilson and John Guare. There was a noisy group of guys clustered at a table around where the stage might have been, but to me their chatter was downed out by the tap-dancing of 18-year-old Bernadette Peters in the early one-act version of Dames At Sea.

Several years ago, Robert Patrick led an effort to have a plaque dedicated to Joe Cino placed outside the building. It since has been joined by a plaque put up by NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project. Stop by for a look, and imagine what wonders artists can do when someone tells them, "Sure, why not?"

And while you're there, enjoy a plate of korma. It's very good.

Curtain Line...

"There are 700 Tony voters. Half of them live out of town, half of them are dead." - Irene Gandy

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