UPDATE 2:35 PM with more information throughout: A New York State Supreme Court justice ruled this morning that Broadway publicist Marc Thibodeau was in breach of contract when he sent out an email under a false name causing an angel to pull a $2.25 million investment out of escrow. The move abruptly halted production of the musical Rebecca and added to the legend of one of Broadway’s weirdest and most bizarre cases of production interruptus in modern showbiz history.
“Thibodeau said he had pure intentions, that he is an innocent whistle-blower. We said he crossed the line.”
— Lawyer Erik Groothius
Justice Jeffrey Oing ruled that in the fall of 2012, Thibodeau, while working as the publicist for lead producers Ben Sprecher and Louise Forlenza, sent the email to Laurence Runsdorf, a Florida investor who had put $2.25 million in escrow for the long-aborning Rebecca, a $12 million musical based on the 1938 Daphne Du Maurier novel (and 1940 Alfred Hitchcock classic) about the dark secrets and mysteries of Manderley that already had taken as many twists and unlikely turns as any Dickens novel.
Erik Groothius, the lead lawyer representing Sprecher — a veteran Broadway and off-Broadway producer and theater owner — and his partner told Deadline in an exclusive interview that Oing’s ruling “holds that as a matter of law, Thibodeau breached his agreement and that the matter of liability can decided by a jury.” Oing, according to Groothius, did not accept Thibodeau’s argument that he was acting solely as a whistle-blower trying to protect an innocent investor, and that Sprecher and Forlenza have the right to argue before a jury that the flack’s actions were defamatory and breached his fiduciary responsibility to their show.
The full decision, Groothius said, was read into the record Tuesday morning but will not be available for several days.
Few backstage stories have stirred up as much interest as the case of Sprecher and Rebecca. Sprecher optioned the show after successful runs in a number of European cities (though not London), and in 2011, he announced plans for a Broadway opening in the spring of 2012. A London production had been cancelled when the prospective theater’s basement mysteriously filled with water. Eminent director Michael Blakemore (City Of Angels) was hired to “assist” the show’s original director, Francesca Zambello; Blakemore was to steer it to Broadway. The original $16 million budget was trimmed back to $12 million. Then things really started going strange.
Sprecher had trouble raising the capital needed to begin rehearsals. He hired a “developer” to find investors, but that person, Mark Hotton, proved to be a master embezzler whose shady history Sprecher had somehow failed to detect despite what came up on a web search. Hotton took Sprecher and Forlenza to the cleaners, claiming, in the boldest part of his scam, that an investor named Paul Abrams had died suddenly of malaria after an African safari. Abrams didn’t exist. Hotton was sentenced to 34 months in prison. Sprecher remained stalwart and, in the fall of 2012, thought that with $2.25 million in escrow from Runsdorf, he finally had the money that would allow rehearsals to begin.
And then suddenly he didn’t. After receiving an email from “Sarah Finkelstein” warning him that the Rebecca producers were not to be trusted, Runsdorf pulled out of the show. “Sarah Finkelstein” turned out to be one of several names Thibodeau was using to ward off potential investors (he later admitted to using the cover names). Not your standard behavior for a publicity man, especially one of Broadway’s most respected press agents, whose clients include The Phantom Of The Opera. After tracking down the source of the emails, Sprecher and Forlenza sued.
Thibodeau claimed he was not under contract to them and that, after working on Rebecca for the better part of four years, he had concluded that the producers were hiding essential information from the potential investors. “I will always firmly believe that Mr. Sprecher and Ms. Forlenza came to know that Paul Abrams was not real well before the show collapsed,” Thibodeau said via email in response to today’s ruling, “yet they continued to perpetuate the reality of Abrams. The fact is, they were still doing business with Hotton right up until the end.”
Groothius told Deadline: “Thibodeau said he had pure intentions, that he is an innocent whistle-blower. We said he crossed the line and that we should be able to argue before a jury that there might have been other considerations for what he did.” He added, in an email, that “for the court to rule in our favor as a matter of law, Justice Oing had to conclude not only that Thibodeau violated his contract, but that his conduct caused damages to the Musical — including the forced cancellation on the eve of first day of rehearsal and the loss of the Runsdorf investment — in an amount to be determined at trial.”
Rebecca already lived for a time on the marquee of a Broadway theater, and while it didn’t meet the fiery fate of Manderley, the show had been widely written off as an infamous flame-out and cause for much chatter in Theater District haunts. On that score, it continues to deliver dividends.
“This is not your usual case,” Groothius admitted. “And I’ve never seen anyone as committed to anything as Ben Sprecher is to Rebecca.” The next chapter has yet to be written — and it isn’t likely to be the last.