Thursday, May 19, 2011

When One Woman’s ‘Creativity’ Oversteps the Bounds of Legality: A Cautionary Tale

Rose's Turn

Once Upon A Time… in Baltimore…

Last month, Towson University opened their production of Jonathan Larson’s RENT. Or was it? It looked pretty much the same… set, costumes, lighting… all very similar to the original Broadway production…. but something was missing. Five lines. Director Diane Smith-Sadak decided to ‘cut’ the final five spoken lines in the show to make it better.

First of all, this is illegal. The contract that is signed by every group licensing the grand rights for this, or any show, clearly states that the script cannot be altered without the written consent of the copyright holder. Second, the deletion of those five lines completely changed the end of the story. Larson wrote RENT as a story of hope. In the end, Mimi reawakens from unconsciousness (and a dream), for a second chance at life. The deletion of the five lines leaves Mimi dead. There is no other way to interpret this… the hope is gone.

Following the April 21 preview of the Towson production, news of the change and the perpetrators started appearing on theatre websites and blogs. People clearly had opinions and were making them known. The news quickly made its way to Music Theatre International, who licensed the show and issued Towson a ‘cease and desist’ order. They were told to put the lines back in or close the production.

The lines were reinstated by the next performance.

That easily could have been the end of the story. Unfortunately, Smith-Sadak decided to make the issue a platform for her creative ‘rights’ as an artist, ending up with more than a little egg on her face. She openly declared in the press that she knew nothing of the contract or copyright protections and challenged the issue as a decree against artists. Smith-Sadak touts her years as an artist, director and playwright and yet still claims to have no knowledge of contracts or copyright law. This is dishonesty at its best.

“This whole giant mess comes down to the bottom line of dollars and cents,” Smith-Sadak told the school paper, The Towerlight. “And that is the biggest irony: that Jonathan Larson wrote passionately about the integrity of the artist following their voices against the commercial onslaught … and yet I keep wondering what he would think now having watched this thing grown over the last 15 years. What would he think of what has happened to this production, being in the hands of corporations and attorneys?”

Smith-Sadak’s caustic remarks show her complete disregard for Jonathan Larson’s work and the law put in place to protect it. "When you look at what really happens in people's lives, the end wasn't really ringing as true to me as I wanted it to. I struggled with it," Smith-Sadak said. So she changed it. Forget RENT’s accolades, forget the Tony Awards, ignore the Pulitzer Prize forget the law—Smith-Sadak knows better.

In an open letter responding to the infraction, MTI President, Drew Cohen called Smith-Sadak’s comments, “arrogant and presumptuous”. He went on to say, "You can make directorial changes, you can make scenic and design changes, and interpret the text and the score how you want to. But what you can't do is add, delete or modify the music or the text. In this instance this production deleted some of the text without permission."

Blatantly changing the script, the very art, Smith-Sadak claims she wants to create and protect, then crying “foul!” when she gets caught, is teaching her students to have no regard for the law, or other artists for that matter. She was hired as an educator to instill moral right from wrong in her students, as well as professional etiquette and respect. Ms. Smith-Sadak is supposed to be a guardian of art not the back alley (script) doctor and dishonest person she has turned out to be.

If Smith-Sadak wanted to smear her fingerprints all over the production, she could have done it legally. First, she could have insisted on original set and costume designs, not put the band on stage in the exact position it was on Broadway and she could have placed the setting in outer space for that matter. To top it off, she claims she wasn’t ‘killing Mimi’ she was leaving it for the audience to decide. Yet in the end, when Angel joined the cast for curtain call, she had him touch Mimi and she got up and joined the cast. Unless she changed something else in the script, Angel dies halfway through the second act.

A dead character ‘reviving’ another…hmmm… can we say Les Miserables? How original.

Bauer-Wolf, J. (2011, April 27). ‘Rent’s’ script edits violate copyright. The Towerlight. Retrieved May 11,2011 from
Hetrick, A. (2011, April 29). University Production of Rent Stirs Controversy With Altered Script. Retrieved May 11, 2011 from
JasonC (2011, April 28). MTI Responds to University’s RENT Script-Changing Violation. MTIBlog. Retrieved May 12, 2011 from
Smith-Sadak, D. (2011, April 26). Letter: Our leap of faith. The Towerlight. Retrieved May 11, 2011 from

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