Why Won't My Lawyer Take My Side?
A couple of weeks after John’s February 13th meltdown, I learned that besides the firings, Carmel Dean’s arrangements had been yanked from the show. No reason was ever given to her nor me. Carmel had to tell me herself that the arrangements were pulled.
Such recklessness never crossed my mind. My reps and the producers were so ignorant of musical construction that they never bothered to inform me. They thought that replacing them would be easy.
Not so. Arrangements are more than just the sound, they are key to the structure. If a musical is a building, the music arrangements are the support beams. One can’t just yank the arrangements out three years into development and expect the building to stand.
Much of what the audience loved about the pilot production of Head Over Heels came from work that Carmel inspired.
But keeping her work meant that money and acclaim would go to Carmel, who earned it - with no revenue and glory going to my agent and his clients, who did not. So the work of my excellent collaborator was pulled, in an expectation that I could be bullied into re-doing what worked before, adding years to the process.
And as I wrote: a climate of bullying, fear and abuse is death to creative inspiration.
I beseeched Leitch and Ferrari to sit down with me and consider the losses, but they ignored me.
Now the musical that delighted sold-out audiences in its first production had been gutted and destroyed. I had no other projects that promised revenue. My representation demanded that I begin at Square One with (what would prove to be) ill-suited collaborators instead of the rigorously audience-attentive artists who built the show with me, every single one of them rudely fired with no explanation.
All of the work I did mounting the pilot production - the endless days spent in rehearsal, then working at night - often through the night - to get revision pages in to stage management for rehearsal in a few hours - all of that work was tossed lightly in the garbage.
Here is an example of a typical exchange with Conrad Rippy, after I learned that the arrangements had been pulled.
Feb 29, 2016
TO: Conrad Rippy
FROM: Jeff Whitty
SUBJECT: MY POSITION
I won't go forward with the show if my conditions aren't met.
Basically, there are sections of the show that work wonderfully the way they are. If they seem simple it's because of 10000 complicated alternatives rejected. To redo them for the sake of other people's egos is a waste of my time.
I will point these moments out in a formal way. One example: I will not redo from scratch the insane structural work that went into dovetailing the stories of ALL of our main characters into "Unforgiven/Insincere." Why should I? Because Michael Mayer was too lazy to investigate what it took to get it there?
If Michael wants "his team" on board for his security and comfort, WHAT THE FUCK ABOUT MY TEAM? What about MY security and comfort, people? And is the music supervisor/director not really more tied to AUTHOR than DIRECTOR in the case of this jukebox show?
And Carmel Dean will get appropriate fucking credit. God how I will miss her presence in the room. Tom's work has to be inarguably better. I think of Carmel’s thrilling climax to "Rainy Day"; all of "Vacation"; the nuns in "Good Girl"; that transition from "I Get Weak" into "Heaven", that gorgeous simple shimmering "Apology"; the nuns and chorus in that heartbreaking "Here You Are." All of that has to be the same or better or I'm disgusted and done.
It was my right to put my foot down. It was my lawyer’s job to back me up.
Please note that I demand that Rippy – my lawyer - address the storytelling mechanics of the musical. If he is making my artistic decisions, then surely my lawyer had the artistic insight about how to put Humpty Dumpty together again.
My tiresome nitty-gritty went blithely ignored by Rippy, of course. But he certainly made sure to clarify the terms of me leaving the show, the better to hand my property to his wealthier and more famous clients:
Feb 29, 2016
FROM: Conrad Rippy
TO: Jeff Whitty
I understand your position. As long as "not going forward" means something along the lines we talked about yesterday - i.e. withdrawing, with approval of any subsequent collaborator vis-à-vis the book, with no reduction in your compensation - then am on board and happy to relate to the producers. I continue to think that you are your own best advocate with respect to Michael Mayer and Tom Kitt, and that actually collaborating with them (at least initially) would be the best way to go.
Why would I give an inch to Michael Mayer, the man who so blithely destroyed my work in his first maneuver?
Because Rippy is a lawyer far removed from the development process, he confuses "collaboration" with being a doormat. As I said, every prior collaboration of mine worked happily on a consensus basis, ensuring that all parties were respected. Mayer came onto the show like a preening diva, treating me as his servant, as someone who didn't understand storytelling - despite the fact that I wrote a musical that ran for sixteen years commercially and won a Tony for my efforts.
Also ... I understand that Tom and Michael have both spoken to Carmel and that she seems to be in an OK place ... but her lawyer is Mark Sendroff, who Donovan and Rick fired as production counsel in favor of Susan Mindell. So I would be very cautious about communicating with Carmel about anything having to do with her arrangements and orchestrations. It's absolutely clear that her work cannot be used in any subsequent production without compensation - and you never know, everyone (you included) may decide to use some of her work. But there's no benefit to you (or to the show) to wake that sleeping dog.
I would gently suggest not communicating (certainly in writing) with her about the show during this period, at least. As my Sonya story yesterday indicated, it's a long process and you never know. But to have Sendroff rattling cages right now isn't helpful, you know?
The title of my email could not be clearer:
Why was Conrad not taking MY POSITION, giving these producers a forceful ultimatum?
The answer lies in the conflicts his firm allowed.
I wish now that I had kept attorney Mark Sendroff in the loop. It didn’t occur to me that Rippy didn’t want Sendroff sniffing around lest he discover Rippy's fiduciary violations.
The following months were brutal, as Michael Mayer seized creative control of my work without my consent. He commenced giving me ill-considered orders about changes he wanted in the show, though he seemed only to have glanced through the script. I sent him an email pleading to keep the arrangements - that went unanswered.
Many of Mayer's rash decisions – such as shoving “We Got the Beat” as an impossible opening number – destroyed work that the crowd loved. My original first five minutes played like a dream and set up the show perfectly, a sturdy expositional foundation that set everything up. Nothing in the lyrics of “We Got the Beat” supported the complicated architecture of setting up story, and made waste of the crucial opening minutes. (One of my hard rules of musical storytelling is: "You have ten minutes to give the audience a reason to care, or you're dead in the water.")
Mayer had the bullies on his side. I had no one.
He could have seen the show live in Ashland - but declined. He made his devastating decisions based on a grainy video that was shot for understudies to learn their tracks.
In theater, the writer holds creative control because producers and directors come and go over the course of a show’s life. Avenue Q has had hundreds of productions, for example, all with different producers and directors. The script always stays the same. My name is always on it. This is why the writer comes first in theater. We writers have to be attentive “momma bears” to the very end. Our livelihood depends on quality control.
One can write a screenplay in a week. It might even be good. A screenwriter can turn their script in to his film producers and hear nothing until the premiere. Musicals are far more complicated for writers for their many moving parts. They demand years - sometimes over a decade - to get right, and the writer is there working at every step.
In subsequent phone conversations, Rippy would argue – sometimes shrieking at me – that I “sacrificed creative control” on February 13th. I was gobsmacked. I didn’t “sacrifice” anything. I was the one tied to the stake.
"It happens all the time in this business," said my lawyer with little experience in theater, to the veteran of a decade and a half in the trenches of musical theater development.
My mental health began a grim decline as I watched my livelihood and my career’s proudest work destroyed – all while I was being villainized, bullied, humiliated, blamed, shamed. I had no other income to live on, as Avenue Q was reaching the end of its life. I knew that Mayer’s reckless changes would lead to a flop, and I would be proven right, which gave me no pleasure as the show’s eventual failure made silencing me a necessity.
March 27, 2016
TO: Conrad Rippy
FROM: Jeff Whitty
>> On Mar 17, 2016, at 11:53 AM, Conrad Rippy wrote:
>>And since he’s the director, and since the composer / lyricists here didn’t really feel strongly about it either way, that was that
But for this jukebox musical, where my access to creative oxygen depended on the ability to adjust the music, isn't the MD role really most closely tied to ME? Do my strong feelings matter perhaps more than the Go-Go's in this case of musical storytelling? Why is everyone all, "Jeff can just stick in someone else's work" without realizing that my work GREW out of what Carmel did? Conrad, I appreciate that you are giving me the other view, but look at how alarmed I am and CONTINUE TO BE.
Again – why was my busybody attorney refusing to go to the mat for me? Why was he arguing about subjects he knew nothing about, which were way beyond his area?
In July, the “workshop” production was scheduled to take place at New York Stage and Film at Vassar College in New York, where Mayer would show the public his “reimagining” of my once-audience-pleasing work. I originally agreed to participate, but my intuition pinged that I was walking into a trap that would trigger further humiliating abuse. During the process, Mayer would sleep well at night, while I would stay up until dawn writing revision pages to turn in for the next day's rehearsal, trying to repair the damage that he did when he installed his agency buddy as music director.
Directors do not possess creative control over the writer's work in theater.
Until then, I'd always looked forward to workshops. I’d never dreaded a workshop. After worrying for weeks, I ended up delaying my flights, and then at the last minute, as I got out of my Uber at the airport, my iPad and iPhone smashed when they fell from the roof of the car as I was rushing to the last plane. It felt like divine intervention.
I was unavailable to participate in my own exploitation nor fulfil my role as the production’s kicking-boy.
It was my right not to participate in an abusive work environment.
When I called Mayer on my shattered phone from LAX’s departures area to tell him I wasn’t coming, I told him I’d be available for any conversation he wanted to have during his rehearsal process. After a couple of minutes of logistical conversation, he shrieked, “I’m the dom top and you’re the sub bottom! Come and see it at the end!”
We said our goodbyes, and that was the last conversation I ever had with Michael Mayer.
(Note: "Dom top" and "sub bottom" are terms used in BDSM. However, in BDSM, all sides are present because they consent to be there. There is another word that describes the seizing of control without consent in the sexual arena.)
I hung up in relief, albeit creeped out by Mayer’s parting shot. How was my agent portraying me to Mayer? As some kind of servant? As his BDSM slave? What the hell was going on beyond my view?
I chose not to fly across the country to attend the public performance, in defiance of my “dom top.” It would be deeply awkward, and again, my presence could spring another trap. All eyes would be on me. I chose to avert further abuse, telling my new agent Scott that I would see Mayer’s workshop on video, the way that he saw my production.
Despite my offer to consult, nobody reached out to me during their rehearsals (this is important later). After their public performance, I heard nothing for a couple of weeks beyond an email from Scott, who saw it and encouraged me to iron out the “rough edges” – rough edges nowhere in evidence in my production. When a video link to the public performance arrived at last, I was appalled and deeply wounded to witness Mayer’s public desecration of my work in front of potential investors.
If Head Over Heels was a painting instead of a script, the reckless destruction would be easier to comprehend. It’s as if Mayer attacked my work with razor blades and fashioned a primitive collage with the shreds.
Pages of comedic bits that took dozens of drafts to land were made unfunny and, in some cases, cut entirely (as much of my humor plays in performance but is easy to miss on the page). And the years that I spent crafting a story to effortlessly match pre-existing lyrics were tossed aside and wasted.
With Head Over Heels I assiduously avoided the traps that make many people shudder to hear the words “Broadway” and “musical” together: the bland generalities, the unjustified excess, the "show people" showing off without concern for the audience experience. Bit by bit, Mayer was inserting those qualities. In his Dunning-Kruger confidence that he was a master of the bookwriter's craft, he was fashioning a flop.
In June I conversed by phone with producers Leitch and Ferrari – men who never attended a single rehearsal of our Ashland production. (For context, my Bring It On had two out-of-town tryouts; its producers attended every second of the months of rehearsal, offering their insight and support.) Though newbies to musical development, I expected Leitch and Ferrari to recognize the decline in storytelling. But they were not theater savvy. They only saw the show a couple of times, a year-plus prior. They had no personal experience with my collaborators in Ashland.
Their first experience of the process was with Mayer and Kitt. And Leitch and Ferrari were in the thrall of my abusive now-former agent, who told them that the only path to Broadway was to destroy work that the audience loved by populating the show with his clients and starting from scratch. As Buzzetti had humiliated me in front of them before, treating me like a despised uppity servant, they too treated me like garbage: the way they were trained.
My agent discouraged them from hearing me out despite the fact that I was a grizzled veteran in the field of musical theater development. I understood the show better than anyone as, after all, I created it from my imagination. My bona-fides could not be argued. And Avenue Q's success emerged from an atmosphere of respect for its hardworking creators, not a scorched-earth battlefield.
Leitch and Ferrari declared that they wanted to stick with Mayer’s “vision,” though they couldn’t articulate what that vision was when I asked them. Buzzetti's beautiful lies were more pleasing than the uncomfortable truth that they were being exploited. It would have solved every problem to keep Carmel’s arrangements in the show. It would have been so easy. But she was not my agent’s client.
In despair, drawing the only boundary I could to stop the onslaught of opportunistic behavior, I told Leitch and Ferrari that I quit Head Over Heels.
I let go of three years of my life, my finest work and my only source of income on the horizon.
I did so in the moment, on the call, with no drama. My voice was calm. As I had no one in my corner, I had no choice but to let the con artists take my work to its inevitable outcome. Allowing their flop was the only hope I had that my work might eventually reach New York.
Leitch and Ferrari wheedled and protested, begging me to stay aboard. But from a business perspective, how could I delete work that played smashingly before the crowd? It was impossible to manufacture inspiration in a bullying work environment. To get the show back to its original level, I’d have to steal from Carmel.
I wasn’t being “difficult” as I would be portrayed. I was looking out for business in the midst of impossible demands. And when the bullies would not relent, I had to look after myself.
In more than one phone conversation, sometimes resorting to yelling, Rippy argued that while Carmel’s execution was copyrightable, her concepts were not. He insisted that I betray my unjustly fired collaborator and steal her ideas – demanding that I violate professional decorum and exploit my collaborator and my friend. Following Conrad’s orders would destroy a cherished professional relationship and my integrity in the eyes of the industry.
All so my lawyer and agent could run amok with my work.
In truth I had no lawyer nor agent, but confidence artists claiming to be so. My agent dropped the mask too far, and I caught on to him. But I was still blinded by misguided notions of friendship where Rippy was concerned. Perusing the emails now, it’s clear that my fiduciaries saw me as their subordinate to be punished if I proved an obstacle to their ambitions.
By this point, the dispute had little to do with Head Over Heels. My livelihood was at stake, against the fragile egos of my former fiduciaries.
By quitting, I was hardly free. I was in a glue trap. The more I tried to escape, the further I became stuck in a sickening grind of exploitation from a perfect storm of entitled, narcissistic predators.