“Let’s Put on a Show!”
Backstage with Broadway lawyers Seth Gelblum, Elliot Brown, Jean Ward, Loren Plotkin and Nancy Rose
Published in 2010 New York Metro Super Lawyers magazine
on September 22, 2010
Updated on October 4, 2010
For a lawyer working in the theater world, it helps to have a sense of collegiality. “A scorched earth policy never succeeds in a business where so many people have approvals and are set for a long marriage together,” says Seth Gelblum. It doesn’t hurt to like the theater, either. The five lawyers profiled here all started in other professions or practice areas—producer, journalist, corporate lawyer—before winding their way to the Great White Way. The rewards for such work can be immediate (good seats to Broadway hits) and long-term: the satisfaction of having been a key player in the creation of a lasting work of art.
The Big Picture with Seth Gelblum
Early one morning in the late 1970s, Seth Gelblum, a security guard in the South Bronx, stood in the middle of 108th Street holding a part of his car engine in his hand. He’d just torn it out attempting to fix a leaky hose, and in that moment he had the following epiphany: “My life is stupid.”
His first corrective involved a short stint as an unhappy, unproductive movie producer in Los Angeles. His second corrective involved Georgetown. “I’ll go to law school,” he remembers thinking. “Maybe get back into the business that way.”
It worked—in a big way. After a couple of years with, he says, a “big nasty New York corporate law firm,” Gelblum joined a small firm, what is now Frankfurt Kurnit Klein & Selz, for 12 years, and finally Loeb & Loeb, where he is currently chair of the theater practice group. He represents major producers (Scott Rudin), playwrights (David Henry Hwang), composers (Marvin Hamlisch), performers and directors (George C. Wolfe, Julie Taymor and Des McAnuff), not to mention, by his count, “every major film studio, except one” (Paramount). It’s not uncommon, in fact, for Gelblum to be negotiating with himself. “It’s a small business,” he says, “and the conflicts are a constant issue. The only way to deal with it is to tell people of the conflicts, and they can decide, or I can decide, on the basis of those conflicts, before we start to negotiate.” One client, a producer, once told him, “Sometimes I think you don’t represent me; you represent the business.”
“Seth is an enormous presence, highly intelligent, well-organized and extremely personable,” says Philip Smith, chairman and co-CEO of the Shubert Organization, who has dealt with Gelblum on the smash revivals of Equus and Chicago, among other productions. “In a very short time, he found his niche. For instance, he became a member of the New Dramatists and it seemed that all of a sudden he was chairman of the board. He’s that kind of a powerhouse.”
Gelblum is known for using knowledge, humor and charm to keep all parties happy—“Everyone has to be properly incentivized to keep the project rolling forward,” he says—and nowhere have these attributes been so necessary as in Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, the mega-musical stage adaptation of the Marvel Comics character. Among the talent: songs by U2’s Bono and The Edge, and direction by Julie Taymor, who directed The Lion King on Broadway; and Titus, Frida and Across the Universe for Hollywood.
The show is a good example of two durable trends on Broadway: the proliferation of rock and pop music in a domain once dominated by Rodgers & Hammerstein, and the transfer of movies into stage musicals. It is also emblematic of how the best-laid plans can go astray. Even while a $7 million renovation of the Hilton Theatre, the show’s future home, was underway, work on Spider-Man came to a screeching halt last year when the initial producer was unable to come up with the capital—reported to be in the $50 million range, which would make it by far the most expensive Broadway production in history. Amid press reports of an impending disaster, Michael Cohl, concert promoter and former Live Nation chairman, and Jere Harris, manufacturer of stage sets and equipment, stepped in and the show now has an opening date later this year.
Gelblum, who represents Sony as well as Taymor, noted that his role was “to help keep things together” during a fraught time when stars like Alan Cumming and Evan Rachel Wood abandoned roles in favor of other projects. Besides efforts to help find the needed capitalization, Gelblum says, “I felt it my duty to support Julie—while being totally realistic because I was talking to the producers all during this time. She had already put so much of her time and heart into the show.”
As the chief liaison between Broadway and the film studios, Gelblum is often called upon to explain the intricacies of a business that movie executives perceive as a backwater. The $15 million to $20 million average cost of even a large Broadway musical is chump change in Hollywood, as is the perceived profit potential. Then you discover that the cumulative grosses for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s stage musical of The Phantom of the Opera is more than $5 billion, according to the New York press office, leaving in the dust Hollywood’s biggest blockbuster, Avatar, which grossed $2.7 billion worldwide. Little wonder, with this knowledge, that studios have jumped into the game, hoping to extend their brands. In the process, with Gelblum’s advice, they’ve managed to change a business traditionally resistant to modification.
Gelblum helped engineer, for example, an agreement between Warner Bros. and the Dramatists Guild, the powerful writers and composers association, which tweaked what was once holy writ: that Guild members own their work and have approvals for any changes in exchange for comparably little money paid up front. The studios, Gelblum says, “paid to develop, create, market and distribute their material. And now someone’s going to make a musical out of it and own it? It made no sense.” So Gelblum worked out a deal in which the artists would be paid significantly more money up front by the studios in exchange for gaining a partner who will participate in their subsidiary rights revenue for the duration of the copyright of the musical, as well as share approvals over those rights.
Not surprisingly, nonstudio producers are hoping to get in on such a deal, but the Guild, thus far, has not been willing to broaden the agreement. Gelblum is working on all parties. “This is a business where you have to address the concerns and deal fairly with everybody around the table,” he says. “Antagonism or brinksmanship works less well in the theater because you’re going to be working together for a long, long time.”
The Ebullient Mr. Brown
In the mid-’90s, when composer Maury Yeston and writer Peter Stone informed their lawyer, Elliot Brown, that they were writing a musical about the Titanic, Brown broke a cardinal rule and—referencing the ship that rescued the Titanic’s survivors—offered a bit of creative advice: “Guys, you better make sure that the Carpathia arrives on time.” The ebullient entertainment lawyer loves his happy endings, even if they contradict maritime history.
But Brown’s hardly a Pollyanna. He regards The Producers, Mel Brooks’ cynical look at Broadway and theater, as a documentary, and has even adapted one of Max Bialystock’s signature lines. “Don’t forget the checkie!” Bialystock always told his marks. “Can’t produce without checkies.” Brown tells his clients: “Don’t forget to get the rights. Can’t produce without the rights.” He adds: “If you write a musical based on a novel and don’t have the rights to that novel, it’s exactly like building a house on a piece of land you don’t own. It’s called ‘the property’ for a very good reason.”
After majoring in journalism, the Pennsylvania native took the law boards, he says, “to make my mother happy,” and to get over a spat with, he says, “a beautiful blond.” Although he scored high enough to gain entrance to Yale Law School, where Bill Clinton was a classmate, he felt stifled. “It was 1972,” he remembers. “Nixon was in China, there was hostage crisis at a Brooklyn sporting goods store and a serial shooter atop a New Orleans Holiday Inn. And I thought, ‘I can’t stand it! All my friends are going to win Pulitzer Prizes and I’m stuck in law school.’”
He took a leave of absence to work at UPI but found the newsroom to be a rather bloodless place, so unlike the frenetic atmosphere of Ben Hecht’s The Front Page, and he returned to law. Hired as a litigator at Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, the firm’s top entertainment lawyers, Robert Montgomery and Peter Felcher, promptly recruited him for their division. Good thing. “I wouldn’t have lasted a year as a litigator,” Brown says. “I don’t care that much about winning.”
What he cared about was making deals, and, with Montgomery as his mentor—“Here was this short, fat Jewish kid,” he says, “in awe of this tall, patrician WASP”—Brown learned to make the deals with civility. Even today, if he encounters a legal adversary who’s what he calls “a screamer,” he just laughs. “Of course, you speak up if there’s anything outrageous, but, for an old hippie, this is my kind of law. Nobody goes to jail, nobody gets divorced, nobody loses custody of the children. The worst that can happen is you get fired. The best that happens is you go to opening night of a fantastic show like Legally Blonde, and you realize that three years before you made the first phone call to get the rights.”
In 1979, Brown hung out a shingle for five years until he partnered with Franklin, Weinrib, Rudell & Vassallo, where he became, he says, one of the “scribners”—the group of lawyers who helped draft the language for such groundbreaking structures in theater as the royalty pool (a communal share of box-office receipts and profits for artists), the amortization clause (which enabled producers to more quickly recoup investments in the face of spiraling costs), and the complete overhaul of the Broadway road business. In the 1980s, Brown’s client, Miles Wilkin, then-president and founder of the Pace Theatrical Group, brought a higher quality to touring productions of Broadway shows; it had previously been a rather sketchy and patchwork enterprise that didn’t put Broadway in the best light for theater-goers in other states. The impact, says Brown, has been profound. In the 1980s, tourists accounted for 25 percent of the annual box-office receipts; they now represent more than 60 percent. “I think attention to quality engenders an excitement that lasts a lifetime,” he says.
Brown likes to keep his own attention to quality in the legal realm. Michael Bennett, director of A Chorus Line, once stunned him by asking his opinion of his follow-up show, Ballroom, then in development. “I said to him, ‘How could you possibly care what I think?’ And he got livid. ‘If I ask you, I expect you to have an opinion and give it me honestly.’” But Brown still is reticent to proffer advice for fear of stifling the creativity of his clients. “I get calls and my clients ask me, ‘Can I write this and this and this … ?’ and I always say, ‘Write whatever you want and then if you want me to study it for legal ramifications, I’ll be happy to advise you.’”
He adds: “I know that other lawyers, corporate lawyers, might look at what we do with mixed feelings of contempt, jealousy and amusement. What do you mean, ‘terms of barter?’ I know what we do may not be very important. But I take huge satisfaction from how the shows I work on entertain people. And if other lawyers look upon what we do with amusement, well then, it’s just another form of providing entertainment.”
Jean Ward: Small-Town Practitioner
In college, Jean Ward majored in theater, so she can empathize with all of those impractical, creative types. “It’s such a difficult, often discouraging, career choice that I’m happy to be in a position to offer counsel,” she says. “It’s like being the paid adult in the room. You’re not dealing with sober, boring bankers. You’re dealing with people who have some very wild ideas.”
After working in corporate law for a Boston firm (“I was suicidal”), Ward reconnected with fellow Harvard Law School alum Paul Woerner, who was representing West End and Broadway impresario Cameron Mackintosh (Cats, Les Misérables, The Phantom of the Opera). When Woerner died prematurely in the early ’90s, Ward found a home at Frankfurt Kurnit Klein & Selz. She now represents both international powerhouses, such as The Troika Organization, as well as not-for-profits, such as Galway’s Druid Theatre, New Jersey’s McCarter Theatre and Chicago’s Victory Gardens Theater.
“Theater lawyers are really small-town practitioners,” she says. “We do a little bit of everything: from financing to licensing to mini real estate deals to international copyright law. I think because we are such a small business and there are relatively few of us doing it, you become very involved in all aspects of your clients’ enterprises.”
On any given show, Ward and her colleagues work most closely with general managers who are the ersatz chief operating officers for any production. “They often have your back and you have theirs,” says Ward. She adds that once she hears who the GM is going to be, she can tell whether her job is going to be easy or hard. “They are the ones who carry the precedents in their heads, they know what everybody was paid on the last show and they do a lot of the negotiating and drafting,” she says. “Contracts don’t really vary tremendously. I review them and then often the next thing I hear from a general manager will be when a patron stumbles and falls or, in the case of Stomp, when a stick breaks and flies out into the audience.”
Though legal counsel for The Phantom of the Opera and the seemingly unstoppable off-Broadway phenomenon Stomp, Ward also loves working for not-for-profits with their ambitious creative goals. Because so many of them are “authors’ theaters,” she says, which commission work from veteran or emerging playwrights, “you often start off with a fresher and simpler slate.” The decisions reached at this initial stage, too, can have far-reaching repercussions.
A case in point is Kristoffer Diaz’s The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity, a new drama about professional wrestling, which began life at Chicago’s Victory Gardens and had a quick transfer to New York Second Stage, another not-for-profit. Greeted with rave reviews in Chicago, Ward ensured that her client, Victory Gardens, was properly compensated for the value it added to the play through its inaugural production. (If the show goes onto to a commercial production, it will receive profit participation from the producers; if not, it will share in the writer’s licensed royalties.)
“It might be modest but even a small participation will mean [the theater] can continue to nurture new work,” says Ward, adding that the Public Theater was able to ride consecutive financial tsunamis like Hair and A Chorus Line for decades.
It’s also at the nonprofit stage that Ward is called upon to secure all the various rights to shows in development. This can be a nightmare, especially for the so-called “jukebox musicals,” that popular genre in which shows are created around an existing song catalogue, such as Jersey Boys (Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons), Come Fly Away (Sinatra), American Idiot (Green Day) and Million Dollar Quartet (Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins). “Some people just want to know how much they’re going to get and that’s it,” says Ward. “But nothing is worse than dealing with people who know nothing about theater and insist upon creative control and unrealistic financial demands.”
Sometimes there are sad endings even on Broadway. Ward was working on securing the rights for a musical based on the life of country music legend Hank Williams, whose fondness for alcohol and drugs contributed to his death at the age of 29. “It was an A-list team of creators and while they didn’t trash him, the show was not the clean, good, all-American life which the estate was insisting upon,” says Ward. “It was crushing disappointment when it didn’t move forward, but I admire the honesty and integrity of the creative team. It was all or nothing.”
Broadway Nancy Rose
After her first year at George Washington University Law School, Nancy Rose spent the summer working for the Coudert Brothers, the law firm of Sol M. Linowitz, President Carter’s one-time special envoy to the Arab-Israeli peace talks in the late ’70s. Although she didn’t go the foreign service route—the following summer, while working for an entertainment law firm, she was seduced into theatrical law—the negotiating skills she learned there weren’t lost on her. “Key to any negotiation is understanding the vulnerabilities, as well as the strengths, of all the parties involved,” she says. “You are still trying to win people over to your point of view.”
Rose’s penchant for negotiating with a strong point of view is also the legacy of onetime mentor Robert Levine, of Levine Plotkin & Menin, the firm that gave her a grounding in entertainment law. “Robert, whose wife, Suzanne Braun Levine, was one of the co-founders of Ms. magazine, saw me as a driven and aggressive 25-year-old whose energies needed focus,” she says. “He shaped them in so many ways, but the most important was to make sure you had a firm grasp of what your clients’ needs were; and to make sure you had a plan on how best to achieve them.”
She grew up in a theater-loving family in Baltimore that would take biannual trips to New York to see the shows. She and her sister, Susan (who has become a producer), also acted in local theatrical productions. It led to both a deeper love of the form (“I didn’t have the guts to pursue a career but I admired those who did”) as well as invaluable contacts.
Five years ago, when a client, composer Stephen Schwartz, called to say he had just read this great book by Gregory Maguire called Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, Rose put him in touch with her former grammar school co-star Marc Platt, a film producer. At the time, Platt just happened to have a deal at Universal, which just happened to control the rights to the Maguire novel. Platt then teamed Schwartz with book writer Winnie Holzman and director Joe Mantello. The rest, as they say, is Broadway history.
Rose, one of the founders of Schreck Rose Dapello Adams & Hurwitz, sees her job as creating “a map” for her clients on how on best to develop, produce and extend their work. “What is fair to them is really a combination of their own personal needs, their value in the marketplace and industry practice,” says Rose. “You have to have a perspective on all three.”
The Vagina Monologues, the internationally renowned drama by Eve Ensler, a Rose client, is a case in point. Ensler had been performing the show as a solo act around the country until Rose matched her with David Stone, a young, dynamic producer who would subsequently co-produce Wicked with Platt. “David helped Eve see the potential in the show,” Rose says, “brought in director Joe Mantello, and The Vagina Monologues became a phenomenon.” Rose also served as legal counsel to V-Day, a nonprofit world organization benefitting a host of women’s charities, particularly those geared toward stopping violence against women. Rose also helped arrange a deal through which educational institutions could perform the play for free as long as the profits were directed to a likeminded charity. What followed was an HBO show on the The Vagina Monologues and a Lifetime documentary on V-Day.
“There’s one thing I can give my clients, perhaps more than anything else,” she says, “and that is clear, concise advice. I’m known for being brutally honest to them and for being really tough in advocating on their behalf. In that way, I think I make my clients feel secure in a very insecure world.”
Taking Care of Business with Loren Plotkin
Years ago, as a name partner at Levine Plotkin & Menin, Loren Plotkin was having difficulty finding the time to draft documents, which he loves to do, because of the escalating and needy demands of an actor-client. “One of the partners came into my office and I complained to him, ‘I can’t get anything done,’” recalls Plotkin. “And he said, ‘You’ve got it wrong. Anybody can draft documents. What you’re doing is taking care of business. You’re getting it done by doing what you’re doing.’ And he was right.”
For 35 years, Plotkin has been taking care of business on such seminal productions as Rent and Avenue Q, and this past season has been a doozy. From the quick failures of Ragtime and Brighton Beach Memoirs, to the middling hit of Fela!, about a Nigerian activist and pop performer, to the commercial successes, thus far, of Promises, Promises, Come Fly Away and The Addams Family—the latter enduring scathing reviews—it’s been, says the St. John’s law school alum, “a roller coaster.”
Not that he minds the ride. “Artists and schizophrenics have one thing in common: They both see things that are not there,” says Plotkin. “I love working with people who see things that are not there.”
Plotkin was working in banking, real estate and securities law in the 1970s when an old friend, producer Barry Brown, asked him to be the lawyer for a revival of the Stephen Sondheim-Jule Styne classic, Gypsy, starring Angela Lansbury. Intrigued, Plotkin admitted he knew nothing about entertainment law. “He was opening a door for me and I wanted to walk through,” says Plotkin. “I promised I’d learn everything I could and hopefully not mess it up.” So he read every book he could get his hands on about theatrical production, talked to the head of the Dramatists Guild, even asked for a meeting with the New York State Attorney General’s office and the Securities and Exchange Commission to learn more about the laws governing Broadway, its producers and investors.
His late switch to entertainment law turned out to be more help than hindrance.“I was a neophyte in the theater but I wasn’t a neophyte lawyer,” he says, and he used his experience in securities and real estate transactions to bear on the partnership agreements and deal structuring. “Based on my history of doing real estate deals, I made changes in the form of the limited partnership agreements in a way that was more beneficial to the producers,” he says. “Barry and his partners liked that.”
He also brought a fresh perspective to the business. “There’s a self-protecting interest [in the theater] in doing the next deal the way the last deal was done. If you try something new and it doesn’t work, the client is going to criticize; and if it works better, they’re not going to be aware of the fact that it works to their benefit. [So] it might be safer to do things the way you’ve always done them. But it’s not an approach I find particularly attractive.”
Plotkin has innovated with such adventurous clients as the producing team of Jeffrey Seller and Kevin McCollum, whose track record includes Rent, Avenue Q, De La Guarda, La Bohème and In the Heights.
“What I like about Jeffrey and Kevin is that they are not locked into historical structures and that was proven when we took Avenue Q to Las Vegas with producer Robyn Goodman. We had to make a deal that worked for both Wynn and the show’s investors.” Steve Wynn, the stagestruck, real estate magnate, coaxed the adult muppet show to his eponymous hotel in Las Vegas, even building a special theater within the complex. While the show’s run was not successful—it opened in fall of 2005 and closed eight months later—the experience was, according to Plotkin, an eye-opener. “It made all of us re-think the way deals should be made,” he says.
He adds: “It’s about so much more than just the money. It’s about a youthful passion, an enthusiasm, a bliss. I’m outside that passion. But you can’t underestimate how joyful it is to be around it and support it.”