The venerable Clarkstown Summer Theater Festival marked its 38th summer last week, opening “Celebrate CSTF: A Musical Revue” — a “best-of” musical show from the Rockland County summer tradition.
Directed and conceived by Joe Egan, it was what Egan calls a “sweet, simple show,” including musical numbers from CSTF shows down through the years. The show had a good opening weekend and those involved were looking forward to another great finisher, when producers — contacted by rights-granting organizations, including Tams Witmark, Music Theater International and the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization — decided to pull the plug on the show.
Here’s an email from CSTF’s Jack Rosen:
“Sorry to inform you, but due to circumstances beyond our control, the last three shows Clarkstown Summer Theatre Festival, have been canceled. The dates were Thursday August 12, Friday August 13 and Saturday August 14, all at 8:00pm. This includes the special benefit show for Making Strides Against Breast Cancer and the Food Pantry at St. Paul’s Church, Congers, NY. We appreciate all your support and efforts that you have made during the last year.”
Jesse Johnson, a licensing representative with Music Theater International, a major licensor of musicals, explained that if CSTF wanted to perform the songs in a cabaret — without costumes or choreography that would evoke the spirit or flavor of the show — they might be able to be covered under a BMI or ASCAP license, allowing them to do up to three numbers from the shows. But since “Celebrate” included choreography and costumes, to do it strictly legally, they’d have to use official sheet music and purchase the full rights from the rights-granting houses. Or they could contact the authors of the individual works and seek their permission to perform their songs out of context of the show but with design elements included.
Rosen, a longtime member of the festival, said it wasn’t a matter of the group not wanting to pay for the rights.
“We did want to pay for the rights,” he said. “But they made it so restrictive that we couldn’t do anything. It’s like they put all these impediments in our way.”
Rosen’s wife, Stephanie, CSTF president, said they were willing to pay the rights to use the songs “but it was going to be too involved and the shows would be over.”
“It’s a sad day that we’re not able to put on the show,” she said. “We want to make everything right and by cancelling the show, we’re making things right.”
“We went into this innocently, doing this production,” Stephanie Rosen said. “We thought we would have everything the way it was supposed to be and found out that we needed more, not permission, but whatever the word is. We went in with good faith, preserving summer theater, having a revue. But we’re going to try our best and come back next summer stronger and better than ever.”
The issue, Mrs. Rosen said, was that the group didn’t realize they needed to ask for the rights to put on the songs out of the context of the whole musical.
“We were told by our director. If we did under three songs, if there’s no dialogue, no narration, if the costuming is minimal, sets minimal. Everything is very scaled back. And us, as volunteers, are not in the business. We went on his word.”
“The most we ever did was two songs from the same show,” Egan said. The costumes were sleek, he says, but not really indicative of the show.
The rights for a show like “Wonderful Town,” Egan said, would be in the area of $4,000.
Egan — who has directed the award-winning Nyack High School program — said groups in the area do similar sorts of shows without getting in hot water with licensing groups.
“We really tried to not do it in the nature of the original show,” he says. “We were just essentially trying to do something to keep the group going.”
Stephanie Rosen said she was contacted last week by Tams-Witmark, the licensor for “On the Town,” the show they had planned to present this summer. Rosen said she told Tams they would, instead, be doing a revue, and what the costumes and everything would look like.
Tams didn’t get back to them about what course to take next, she said.
After the fact, Rosen said, “somehow, someone got in touch with Rodgers & Hammerstein,” another large licensor of musicals. R&H contacted CSTF and reminded them that the right to perform songs is licensed and requires permission, Rosen said.
As for the shows that were performed last weekend, Rosen said she was assured that “they said it’s OK,” but wouldn’t say who “they” were.
Rosen said she knows who that person is who contacted R&H, but couldn’t say what motivated them to contact the organization.
She said she would meet tomorrow with the cast of nearly three dozen teens to tell them of the decision. They were to perform a benefit tomorrow night for the American Cancer Society and a local food bank, a performance Jack Rosen said would have raise $1,500.
“We were misinformed about getting the rights to the musical numbers. And that’s the bottom line,” Stephanie Rosen said. “We’re trying to salvage what’s left of the situation to save summer theater.
“There’s always a silver lining,” she said. “You learn from each experience. We never have done a musical revue. This is brand-new to us. And we got a fast education. The main thing is we want to do the right thing by the kids. We do it for them. Now that we know, we want to do the right thing.”