So there was a lot of uproar over the weekend about two productions of plays that changed major elements without permission of the authors.
One was a Houston production of the musical Hands on a Hardbody, in which the order of songs was switched around, which necessitated (since the show is about a competition where characters drop out one-by-one) certain characters leaving the stage earlier than planned, as well as some editing of which characters sang specific vocal lines. Some songs were cut. In this case, the director, Bruce Lumpkin, invited the creators to see the production, specifically Amanda Green, who attended; Lumpkin apparently expected the creators would be pleased with the unauthorized changes. The show was shut down.
The other was a production of David Mamet’s classic play about political correctness in the 90s, Oleanna. In this case, one of the characters in the two-person play was played by a male actor instead of a female actor, as Carol is traditionally played. The casting decision was kept secret until the play opened, and as soon as the reviews were registered and the unauthorized changes were known, the theater got served with a cease-and-desist order and the production was shut down after the one performance.
Let me be very clear that it doesn’t matter if the new changes were brilliant or not. They were not authorized by the contract that was signed. A playwright has the right to expect that a play will honor the intent of her or his play.
Stephen Sondheim halted a production of Company in the 80s which substituted a gay couple for one of the set of Bobby’s married friends; it was an unauthorized change. In 2002, he granted permission to a college production directed by Billy Porter where they ASKED if they could experiment and change Marta into Marty, making Bobby more openly bisexual (then having two girlfriends and a boyfriend)- I think that choice possibly strengthens the play by eliminating the pesky and trite “Bobby’s secretly a closet-case, that’s why he can’t commit” argument. And then of course there was a recent reading of the show at Roundabout with Sondheim’s blessing which featured Alan Cumming as Joanne.
In 2011, BoxCar Theatre in San Francisco did a production of the stage musical Little Shop of Horrors which edited the script they’d contracted to include elements of the original movie upon which it was based and the musical movie that was eventually made of the musical, as well as interpolating songs from entirely unrelated property The Rocky Horror Picture Show. It was, unsurprisingly, shut down.
But again, regardless of how interesting making alterations to the script is, doing it without permission after having signed a contract is wrong.
I personally think that the bit of Oleanna casting is kind of brilliant; Carol as written in the text is a proto-lesbian who is manipulated by her offstage feminist group into hitting political buzzwords that will get the straight white male to not only check his privilege, but to in fact lose his job and regret that he ever set foot in academia. The play is not about sexual harassment per se, it’s right-wing propaganda about The Dangers of Political Correctness.
In this new production, they didn’t change any of the text, but had a male performer playing “Carol”. What no one seems to have mentioned is that Carol in this production was clearly intended to be a transgender character. All of the reviews and stories have focused on the play now being about Two Guys, when it appears that the intent was to bring the play into this century and present a more modern antagonist as a transgender woman. Yes, if the play is two men, the script is nonsense. If the play is a privileged man vs. a marginalized woman who gains power, there’s the drama.
Now, it’s difficult to write or talk about transgender people, as so few people understand the vocabulary and aren’t given the basic tools to understand the lifestyle (I’m not even sure if I’m being entirely sensitive here), so it’s not unsurprising that this would be overlooked and/or misunderstood by critics and those writing on the piece.
It’s possible it wasn’t even the original intent of the director, as in an article about it Erica Case and Aaron Kopec, owners of Alchemist Theatre, said: "We excitedly brought this story to the stage because even though it was written years ago, the unfortunate story that it tells is still relevant today. We auditioned for this show looking for the best talent, not looking for a gender. When Ben Parman auditioned we saw the reality that this relationship, which is more about power, is not gender-specific but gender-neutral.” That’s bullshit. If they didn’t intend to cast the show this way in the first place, I don’t know why a young man would even be auditioning for this show. If true, it speaks to poor auditioning practices.
Regardless, the changes were unauthorized, kept secret, and now the show is shut down. But I suspect if they had asked for permission to do something interesting with the show, and made their case for the updated casting, possibly Mamet would have said yes, and then they would have been able to promote the show as a Daring New Take on a Classic, instead of looking like privileged and unprofessional assholes. A missed opportunity.