Whos that on the roof?
Contract clause keeps high school from promoting 'Fiddler,' which opens Friday
Bonnie McCabe spent last Saturday afternoon busily applying stage makeup to the faces of several dozen actors at Forest Grove High School.
Parent volunteers scurried around, fitting costumes, nailing set pieces together and doing all the things they needed to do to be ready for the spring musical, which opens Friday night.
Posters had been put up around town. An ad was sent to the News-Times. A promotion was posted on the district web site.
The only thing missing was the name of the play. It wasn't an oversight. Rather, under the terms of the contract McCabe signed, the school is prohibited from promoting the fact that it's staging 'Fiddler on the Roof.'
'I've been pretty upset,' the longtime FGHS drama teacher said last week. 'But I don't have time to deal with it now.'
Forty-five students were counting on McCabe's leadership to ensure that the spring musical came together with the same kind of quality community members are accustomed to.
'The kids need all my attention and energy right now,' McCabe said. 'I can't afford any distractions.'
By the time the opening night audience settles into seats inside Ellen Stevens Auditorium, ready to take in the latest rendition of a time-honored musical that was first published in 1894 as 'Tevye,' the issue McCabe has been wrestling with will largely be moot.
Instead of trumpeting the name of the musical around town, McCabe and her students have been limited to promoting the fact that the 'musical' was being performed two months earlier than normal.
Posters listed dates and times (and a photo of Tevye) but not the name - all because of fine print located under 'special conditions' in a contract McCabe signed last fall with Music Theatre International, a New York-based company that owns the rights to 'Fiddler.'
McCabe signed the contract in mid-November, agreeing to purchase the rights to perform the musical at the school for $3,110. The entire production, she said, carries a price tag of about $10,000.
She now says she signed under pressure.
'I was already way behind in the decision-making for a March show,' she said. 'We had barely picked the show, and I hadn't even called for auditions.'
Part of the frantic pace was due to a change in tradition. Until this year, spring musicals in Forest Grove have been staged in May, a practice that increasingly conflicted with end-of-the year academic pressures on upperclassmen.
Looking back, McCabe isn't certain whether she was fully aware of the advertising restriction before signing, or shortly after. But the reality has struck a nerve with McCabe and others.
McCabe was told just before Christmas that a Broadway touring company would be coming to Portland this summer to put on the same production.
Knowing that well-known musicals represent valuable intellectual property to their owners she got online but was unable to find any information about a stop in the Pacific Northwest.
She said that during her initial contacts with MTI, company representatives were clear they didn't want FGHS ticket sales infringing on potential income elsewhere.
'I told them I didn't think a little high school in Forest Grove, 25 miles from Portland, was going to make a dent,' said McCabe.
In the eight years she's directed the local high school musical, McCabe can't remember being in a similar situation.
Neither can John Doty, director of the North Medford High School's drama department.
Doty's crew of student actors has just started rehearing Fiddler, which will be staged in early May.
When contacted by the News-Times, he got out his contract to see whether there was a 'no advertise' clause buried in the fine print.
He found restrictions on what the promotions must include (the author's name); the size of the type that must be used and what can't be done with the name of the play (no cast t-shirts).
But there was nothing that says he can't advertise.
Doty said it's common for amateur theater groups, including high school drama departments, to be told they can't stage a play because a professional troupe is touring with it.
For example, in September 2005, he said, he applied for rights to '12 Angry Men.' His request was denied because it had just been announced that a Broadway production, and tour, would be launched. That tour, as it turns out, is only reaching Portland this year.
'If a national tour is announced, amateur rights usually drop into a hole.' Doty said. 'And sometimes it's a big, black hole.'
As the show dates drew closer, McCabe decided to contact Jesse Johnson, an amateur licensing representative at MTI, about her concerns.
When Johnson heard last month how far west Forest Grove is from Portland, McCabe said, he gave her 'a verbal OK and casual e-mail OK' to proceed with promoting the play's title around town.
'I asked him if we could purchase the rights to put playbills up and advertise the name of the play around town,' she said. 'He said that was fine. Just don't take out a major ad in a major newspaper.'
She approached her principal, John O'Neill, about the plan. Assistant principal Karen Robinson was asked to look into the matter.
An e-mail exchange between Robinson and Johnson on Feb. 7 and 8 secured permission from MTI to allow two additional performances of 'Fiddler' for Forest Grove elementary school students for an additional $150, and gave the go-ahead for still photographs to be taken of the show.
The e-mails did not deal with the advertising question.
Administrators at the school district's main office said last week they didn't want to risk violating the contract.
'All of this came to me as a legal question,' said Assistant Superintendent Dave Willard, who said he'd never run across an advertising restriction before.
He checked with Brian Hungerford, the district's lawyer, a month ago and was told to stick with the 'no publicity' agreement.
'We can advertise having a play,' he said, 'but not the name.'
Superintendent Jack Musser echoed Willard's words, saying the district was 'going to abide by the contract,' which he had not seen until last Friday.
He doubted that in-house advertising only would hurt ticket sales for 'Fiddler.'
Both Musser and Willard denied that a sticky situation last year had anything to do with their decision to follow the current contract to the letter.
In that case, a theater patron made a DVD from 'Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat' and was planning to sell them as a fund-raising project not knowing about any contract prohibitions.
Musser said that was a clear violation of the contract.
'When we found out about it, we had to put a stop to it,' he said. 'We were not sued or threatened with a lawsuit.'
McCabe isn't convinced the two situations are mutually exclusive. She feels personally exposed by issues connected to this year's contract. And, she added Saturday, somewhat abandoned by district leaders.
'It held up all the production details, including printing tickets,' she said. 'I've been pretty upset about it, because I feel they're dissecting the letter of the law. It really isn't fair to the kids.'
For his part, O'Neill said 'once we sign the contract, we need to abide by that. We must follow through with our agreement,' he said.