Et tu, William Goldman?

mandy_patinkin_in_the_princess_bride_02.jpg
My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my musical. Prepare to die….

Nobody will care about this post except other musical theatre writers, but I just had to get it off my chest because it saddens me so.

Two of my favorite writers William Goldman and Adam Guettel (screenwriter for “Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid” and musical theatre author of “Light in the Piazza”, “Floyd Collins” respectively) have called it quits after working for more than a year on a musical adaptation of The Princess Bride. Goldman, who wrote the original novel and brought the wonderful screenplay painstakingly to life after selling it to one studio, only to see it killed, then actually buying it back with his own money before having it successfully produced, allegedly demanded 75% of the show’s authorship rights. Whaaaaa???? Let me explain why this is such madness:

Typically, a musical theatre writing team splits the rights (and royalties) evenly between them. Therefore, a two person team (1 bookwriter/lyricist + 1 composer or composer/lyricist) splits even-steven, 50-50. For a three person team (1 bookwriter + 1 lyricist + 1 composer), it goes 33.3%-33.3%-33.3%, repeating. (Trust me, when your show is taking in $1.4 million a week, those repeating .3333s can add up to your kid’s college tuition). And usually, the rights issues are worked out before nary a note or syllable is written.

On “Bride”, the chores were diviied up thusly: 1 bookwriter (Goldman) + 1 composer/lyricist (Guettel). To be fair, they could have gone 50-50, but if anyone had a right to demand more share, it would be Guettel because he’s doing both music and lyrics (although it isn’t typical for lyricist-hyphenates to demand 1/3 more). So for Goldman the bookwriter to ask 75-25, even if it was his original idea, is in a word: nuts-o-riffic. He must’ve consciously been torpedoing the project because he would know no self-respecting writer or composer could agree to take it in the twins like that and still be able to brush their teeth in the mirror without breaking down in tears of shame twice a day*.

Now, Goldman’s no fool. And what’s most dismaying is that having read both of his marvelously witty and raw books on being a scribe in Hollywood, it’s clear that he’s a Writer’s Writer. He advocates for writer’s rights, teaches you how to avoid the financial and emotional pitfalls of ‘writing for hire’, and details in self-deprecating style his long slog from failed novelist to successful novelist to failed screenwriter to Oscar-winning screenwriter. For God’s sake, he even roomed with John Kander (the music half of the legendary Broadway writing team Kander and Ebb, who wrote “Chicago” among others) as a struggling writer in New York. So for him to do something this dunderheaded simply defies logic.

The only thing I can think of is that he must have somehow become disillusioned with Guettel and this was the only way to shake him from the project. Both Guettel (the grandson of composer Richard Rodgers) and Goldman are wealthy enough, so it’s not a question of money. And since Goldman owns the rights to the original story, the songs Guettel’s written are essentially useless now. He could change all the characters’ names and put them on a compilation CD as “Songs from a Dead Musical Whose Title Rhymes with The Winceless Fried” or sing them to his kids one day. It’s just so sad to see such a great project with such a great writing team kick the bucket. I would kill to be able to write The Princess Bride for Broadway, but at 25% authorship?

To quote Vizzini, “Simply, utterly, and in all other ways, inconceivable!

* The Surgeon General advises “brushing twice a day with flourided toothpaste” to fight tooth decay and gum disease.

~ by Jeff on February 17, 2007.

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