My name is Jeffrey Whitty
January 10, 2023
To the Attorney Grievance Committee of the First Judicial Department of the Supreme Court of New York State:
My name is Jeffrey Whitty. I make my living as a storyteller in the entertainment field. My work includes the 2004 Broadway musical Avenue Q, for which I received a Tony Award for Best Book of a Musical, as well as the 2018 film Can You Ever Forgive Me? for which I was recognized with multiple Best Adapted Screenplay awards, including the Writers Guild of America and the Independent Spirit Awards, as well as Oscar and BAFTA nominations.
I hereby lodge a complaint against CONRAD RIPPY of the Levine, Plotkin and Menin law firm in New York City (LPMNY). I began working with Mr. Rippy on a contingency basis in 2003 in a reasonable expectation of fiduciary obligation. His behavior proved anything but as he betrayed my fiduciary trust, fostering deceptive and unethical conflicts within his firm, in order to gather power and money for himself in the Broadway industry.
On a less-egregious level, I wish to bring to your attention two further attorneys:
SUSAN MINDELL, also of Levine, Plotkin and Menin, who participated in Mr. Rippy’s deceptive practices.
LESLIE BEN-ZVI, an attorney I hired in 2016 in order to fight the predations of Levine, Plotkin and Menin after the firm dropped me for specious reasons. His direct engagement with clients of LPMNY deserves scrutiny.
Exploitation is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “The action or fact of treating someone unfairly in order to benefit from their work.” As I learned firsthand from Mr. Rippy, exploitation is brutal abuse - for the target is punished for doing well.
And in my case, I did very well. In June 2016, after three years of rigorous, grueling work, I opened a musical theater property called Head Over Heels at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, Oregon. I wrote the “book”, which is the script, dialogue and story architecture of the musical. For the score, I drew from the catalog of 80’s rockers the Go-Go’s.
The first public production of Head Over Heels – a trial run to develop the show for Broadway - proved wildly successful with audiences, receiving the most passionate response of my career.
I counted on this revenue to survive because my finances were dwindling after years of projects that didn’t take off. Such ups and downs are par for the course in my industry – but when I create a hit after years of non-starters, I need my attorneys to protect me rather than betray my trust to benefit themselves.
Within a week of my June 2016 opening night in Oregon, delighted word-of-mouth sold out the entire five-month run. In the show’s closing weeks, hopeful audience members lined up outside the theater in hopes of snagging a spare ticket.
On opening night, my agent, JOHN BUZZETTI of the William Morris Endeavor Agency, declared that my show was “going to run forever.”
In a July 6, 2015 email after my opening night, Conrad Rippy wrote me an email that was cc-ed to Buzzetti:
I know, and the Go-Go’s most certainly know, how terrific Head Over Heels is, and what an incredible accomplishment. As John, who I am sure is listening, said to you on the Monday after the opening: it’s a work of genius.
Given the show’s success, and given the further improvements I planned for Broadway, my financial future seemed secure. Alas, I did not know at the time that, in my 2013 contract with producers, my lawyer and agent intentionally deleted my creative control, seizing my consent over its fortunes, all to enrich themselves in an industry where a hit musical property can be worth a billion dollars-plus these days.
A billion-plus dollars. Please remember the value of a hit musical as the ensuing abuses escalate to unprecedented heights in the Broadway industry.
Among many other top-grossing musicals, Rippy’s firm of Levine, Plotkin and Menin is production counsel for the smash musical Hamilton. My agent John Buzzetti represents the majority of Hamilton’s creative team as well as many other big hitters. They hold tremendous power in the industry.
Years before, when I chose my collaborators on my creative team – specifically the positions of DIRECTOR and MUSIC DIRECTOR - I did not select any of my agent John Buzzetti’s clients. I chose artists whom I found best suited to the show’s mashup of classical theater (the script was written in rigorous iambic pentameter, based on a book from 1580) and modern sensibilities (drawing from the catalog of the Go-Go’s with such care that many audience members assumed that the music was written for the show).
Sensing a burgeoning hit, Buzzetti wanted his artists on my creative team at any cost. As he worked closely with Rippy to seize control of my property, he is a key figure in the abuses to unfold.
“Agency packaging” is a contentious issue in the entertainment industry, best known in the world of film. When an agent “packages” a project, they strike deals that bundle their other clients on a given property. My 2012 Broadway musical Bring It On was arguably packaged, as Mr. Buzzetti represented the bulk of the creative team, but in that instance the packaging occurred before a word was written – and moreover, the clients were up to the task. It was a happy collaboration with no bumps.
Alas, Broadway's Head Over Heels took agency packaging to a ruinous extreme. When Buzzetti recognized the giddy crowd response on my opening night, he proceeded to bully and manipulate his way into packaging a show already three years in development, firing all of my collaborators and pulling their work - including major sections of the show that worked wonderfully before the crowd – and then replacing the unjustly fired artists with his clients, who were ill-suited to the task.
In tandem, my attorney Conrad Rippy also seized control of my art by quietly representing all sides of the contract in flagrant violation of Rule 1.7 of the New York Rules of Professional Conduct.
Eighteen months after the most successful opening night of my career, ownership of my hard-won property belonged to clients of my lawyer and agent as I weathered a rain of abusive behavior designed to intimidate me and keep me at heel.
And as I shall discuss in Chapter Two, I am not the only victim of the flagrant conflicts allowed by Levine, Plotkin and Menin.
Artists depend on our representatives to protect us, but when the predators are one’s own representatives, the artist is left in free-fall, scrambling in mid-air, vulnerable to exploitation across the board. Art is more than just property – it is the artist’s self-expression. To steal and then destroy an artist’s work is a deeply personal violation. The theft and vandalism of my art was a devastating blow to my career, my mental health - and as the abuse escalated to include intimidating threats from strangers, my basic sense of personal safety.
As a veteran in the field, I am certain that if all aboard Head Over Heels behaved ethically and remained in their professional areas, we’d have enjoyed a hit and the revenue that rains down. I’ve written a sturdy hit before, after all: Avenue Q, which ran for 16 years in New York City.
My pilot production of Head Over Heels received a passionate audience response unprecedented in my career and showed every sign of being my second broad-market success – until my lawyer and agent opportunistically portrayed my work as a failure that could only be saved by shoving my agent’s clients on board, as my attorney worked beyond my view to hand my property to wealthy and celebrity clients also on his firm’s roster.
It is a complicated story that starts small – with a few customary rights removed from my contract without my knowledge nor consent – and escalates to an astonishing degree, leading to one of Broadway’s biggest flop enterprises: a baffling, critically-panned, audience-allergic musical that ran for 28 weeks at a loss every single week.
The exploitation of me grew so extreme that it demanded a cover-up almost too shocking to be believed. It brings me no pleasure to hold the receipts, nor to tell the story now. Speaking out is a risk, as you shall understand.
The position of whistleblower is awful. No matter what direction the victim chooses, their future feels hopeless. It’s like standing in the middle of a giant glue trap. For reasons that shall become clear, I have no choice but to speak out, which will likely be the death knell to a once-flourishing career that I built from square one.
I arrived in New York City on July 26th 1993 on a bus from Oregon with no professional connections - just two suitcases, two grand in my pocket and dreams of making a living in the theater. Ten years and five days later, Avenue Q opened on Broadway. Every step up the ladder came after manifold failures as well as the grind of earning enough money to survive.
It is one of this story’s many ironies that 25 years to the day after I arrived in New York City on July 26th, 2018, a musical called Head Over Heels opened at the Hudson Theater on Broadway, bearing my name and the tagline “From the mind that brought you Avenue Q.”
But the body of the artist was not present, nor was my audience-attentive work. I was pointedly excluded from the festivities. The show that played on that Broadway stage was a disgraceful, amateurish vandalism of the creative property that I quit two years before from the abuse of my lawyer and agent.
Nobody reached out to recognize me for creating the show, the characters, for any of the hard work I did. There was no acknowledgment that there would be no show at all if I’d not created it in the first place. Rippy and Buzzetti made certain that I was shunned, sneered at across the industry, for my presence might unravel their spiteful web of lies and put their careers at risk.
I was afraid to begin this document lest it trigger more intimidation on its release. It has taken me hundreds of hours to compile the heavily-sourced document that follows.
I sincerely hope that I am not too late for action to be taken against lawyers who consider themselves above the Bar’s Standards and Practices.
If left unchecked, I believe that such treatment may well kill an artist some day, driving them to self-harm as they struggle undefended amidst a nonstop storm of exploitation:
“Mistreating someone in order to profit from their work.”
The scales of Justice have been morbidly askew for nearly a decade now as I stood entirely alone against the entertainment industry’s most powerful talent agency and one of Broadway’s biggest law firms, as well as a bevy of producers and celebrities with boundless money.
Mr. Rippy led the depiction of me as a mark to be destroyed and discarded when I tried to stand up for myself, alone, with no one in my corner.
But what makes me a target is also my shield: I hold the truth.
And by telling it here, warts and all, I pray that the scales of Justice find balance once more.