Would-be audience members were already beginning to line up outside of Shanley Pavilion well in advance of the Friday night opening when an inexplicable message appeared on Facebook:
“All performances for Pippin have been cancelled. All cast and crew members are healthy and uninjured. We apologize for this inconvenience and will be offering more details as soon as possible.”
The sudden cancellation of Pippin, the first production this year from Arts Alliance, Northwestern’s oldest student-run theater board, has been the subject of shock and consternation throughout the theater community. In the days following Pippin’s cancellation, rumors swirled that Arts Alliance had lost their license to perform the show. The truth proved even more surprising: The group had never actually acquired the rights to Pippin to begin with.
“It was absolutely devastating,” said Cammy Harris, director of Pippin, two weeks after Pippin’s untimely cancellation.
So, how did Arts Alliance end up in the bizarre situation of having not realized until opening night of Pippin that they did not have the rights secured to perform the show? To answer that, it is important to understand how the process of obtaining the rights to a musical works for student theater groups under normal circumstances.
Applying for rights
The rights application process begins for most Student Theatre Coalition (often referred to as StuCo) boards in the spring before the school year in which the show will be performed, when each board selects student producers and directors for its upcoming season. Each StuCo board selects shows for the season based on a list of pitches from the director and producer, at which point the boards typically begin the process of applying for show rights.
“It’s typically an online process through the licensing company’s website,” says Arts Alliance executive director Andrew Restieri, a School of Communication senior who has been on the board of Arts Alliance since his freshman year and has been involved in its rights application process for three years. “It can take anywhere from five minutes to weeks depending on the availability of the rights.”
According to Restieri, StuCo boards learn via email whether their rights applications are successful. Pippin, like a large portion of the musical theater canon, is licensed by Music Theatre International, a large licensing company operating out of New York City. If a group is offered the rights, MTI will then attach a blank contract to the email, which the StuCo board would have to process through the Campus Life office.
The StuCo board would then attach a voucher for the amount on the contract through the Student Organization Finance Office (SOFO), and turn the contract and voucher in to SOFO. A check would be written by the SOFO attendant and mailed along with the signed contract.
From the perspective of Arts Alliance, Restieri said, everything had gone according to plan with the rights application for Pippin. Unbeknownst to him or the rest of the board, however, the contract that an Arts Alliance member had filled out and brought to SOFO was never mailed to MTI. SOFO could not be reached for comment.
“Our understanding is that the contract was not mailed with the check,” Restieri said. “So the licensing company got the check that the voucher was written for without a copy of the signed contract. The signed contract is what grants us the rights, and MTI just never received that.” MTI could not be reached for comment.
Rights offers from MTI expire within one month of the initial offer. According to Restieri, MTI does not follow up with theater companies after the initial rights offer; crucially, he says that in a normal process, Arts Alliance would not expect to hear again from MTI after being offered the rights.
“Typically, we pay the rights and we don’t hear from [the licensing company] again until after the show is closed,” Restieri said.
The only potential sign that something had gone awry was the absence of the scripts, which are typically mailed out by MTI after a group secures rights. With the absence of the official authorized scripts from MTI, Restieri says he is uncertain as to how the Pippin rehearsal team operated, though unauthorized scripts for popular shows are usually accessible online. (It’s not difficult to find an unauthorized, scanned PDF of the official Pippin book on the internet in a matter of minutes).
The producer of Pippin, Communication senior Jamie Joeyen-Waldorf, declined to comment about the absence of authorized scripts due to an ongoing investigation into the matter by the University.
According to Restieri, the board of Arts Alliance was unaware throughout the Pippin rehearsal process that the production team did not have the official scripts from MTI. This disconnect between the board and production team of the show did not necessarily represent anything out of the ordinary for a StuCo production; typically, production and rehearsal room teams operate relatively independently from their respective board.
“Theoretically, the red flag would have been raised when we never got the scripts,” Restieri said. “Because [the scripts would have arrived] over the summer, the production manager, finance director and I weren’t here to check to see if the scripts had come, and then we got back to school, and the show was going up. I assumed they had the scripts.”
Restieri believes that MTI found out about the show from promotional material on the Arts Alliance website or social media. As for opening night, Restieri said that he received a call from MTI informing him that Arts Alliance could not continue with their scheduled performances only a few hours before opening night. The sudden news caused a ripple of shock and confusion throughout the cast, crew, and theater community at large.
“The producer, cast, team and I were all completely blindsided by the news,” said Harris, a Communication senior, “and to have the excitement of opening night be so drastically undercut was very emotional for us all.”
In the days and weeks following Pippin’s cancellation, fear spread throughout the student theater community that the Pippin rights debacle could sour the relationship between MTI and Northwestern student theater in general, putting other shows licensed through MTI in potential jeopardy. Arts Alliance did briefly lose the rights to The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, which is also licensed through MTI, and which they had planned to produce for their late-fall slot in the McCormick Auditorium.
According to Restieri, MTI offered the rights to Spelling Bee back to Arts Alliance after the board re-applied for them; the production is set to open on Nov. 30, as originally planned.
As for the lasting implications of Pippin’s cancellation, procedural reforms for all StuCo boards may soon be underway. StuCo co-chairs Bryana Barry and Matt Burgess said in an email to the StuCo listserv last week that, “in the interest of the full community, we are working with the University to ensure these things never happen again and are looking at ways of improving how StuCo operates across all of the 12 member organizations.”
Andrew Restieri said he was hopeful about StuCo’s ability to improve the rights application for all theater boards. He also stressed the importance of focusing on the future rather than getting caught up in the urge to blame any particular individual or group for what happened to Pippin.
“I’ve really been trying to stress that there’s no one to blame here,” Restieri said. “It’s not our fault, it’s not SOFO’s fault, it’s not MTI’s fault, it was just a hugely unfortunate series of events that led to a really terrible thing happening for Arts Alliance and for the artists involved. But we’re all students, first and foremost, and all we can do is grow from this and learn from it, and be hopeful that artists in the future don’t have to go through what we went through.”
“It was very difficult to have such a wonderful project that we were all so proud of taken away before we could share it with the campus and our loved ones,” said Harris. “Nevertheless, I am incredibly thankful for the process we built and the wonderful memories and friends that came out of our time together.”