Opening arguments were made this morning in a jury trial pitting publicist Marc Thibodeau against producers Ben Sprecher and Louise Florenza, whose unrequited attempts to mount a musical based on the 1938 Daphne du Maurier novel Rebecca have transfixed Broadway since the production fell apart in 2012.
At issue in the New York State Supreme Court trial is whether the defendant Thibodeau, a veteran PR agent who has represented many of the biggest shows on the Street, violated his contract with Sprecher and Florenza when, in September 2012, he sent three anonymous emails warning off an investor whose $2.25 million, the producers claim, resulted in “destroying” their last-chance effort to get the troubled show on the boards.
A key revelation made during the opening argument by Erik S. Groothius, representing Sprecher and Florenza, was that the producers have lost the rights to the musical after years of extensions and assurances that the show would eventually be seen in New York, in a production that was to have been staged by Michael Blakemore. An earlier version of the musical has already been seen in several European cities.
“By the end of last year, they had lost the rights to Rebecca and will not be bringing it to Broadway,” Groothius told a jury of four women and two men (along with a male and a female alternate). That may surprise no one in the industry who has followed the case, but it was the first time it’s been definitively stated that the show in this form will never be mounted.
It also means, Groothius continued, that Sprecher and Florenza, for whom the show would have been their first as lead producers, are on the hook for $5.5 million owed investors. They “worked tirelessly for almost a decade to bring Rebecca to Broadway in what would have been the pinnacle of their careers,” Groothius said, only to have their dream “demolished” when Thibodeau, “while acting as their own press agent,” sent the emails “packed with venom and lies.”
Groothius replayed the history of the tortured production, which hinged on Sprecher and Florenza’s inability to get the $12 million show capitalized until, in 2012, they hired Mark Hotton to find investors to make up what was purportedly a $4.5 million shortfall. Hotton produced documents on behalf of four eager investors, including “Paul Abrams,” from London, who had signed up for the biggest share of the money. When Hotton later told Sprecher and Florenza that Abrams had died of malaria contracted during an African safari, reporters from The New York Times and other outlets discovered that Abrams and all the other alleged investors were fictions, and that Hotton was in fact a well-known confidence artist (who subsequently was convicted of fraud).
Embarrassed but determined, Sprecher and Florenza sought new investors to make up the latest shortfall and thought they had found one in the person of a Florida businessman who agreed to put up $2.25 million under the condition he remain anonymous and that the money would be released only when the rest of the capital was fully secured. Groothius conceded that Thibodeau had first warned Sprecher and Florenza about Hotton “after doing some amateur sleuthing” and had told the press agent “we’ll take it from here.”
Thibodeau’s lawyer, Andrew Miltenberg, did not contest the emails, but presented a different context. Thibodeau, he said, had worked four years on the project for total compensation of $5,000 and through three failed attempts to mount the show. Ultimately he felt that “his conscience overwhelmed him,” according to Miltenberg, when he observed what he felt were bad-faith actions by the producers toward their investors and creative partners – first about Hotton and later about how close they actually were to completing the show’s capitalization. Miltenberg said a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission would show that Sprecher and Florenza had raised barely half the money needed to mount the show.
“Rebecca was never going to make it on Broadway,” Miltenberg said, calling the trial “Scapegoat” and insisting that the plaintiffs never “suffered any real and compensable damages.”
“This, ladies and gentlemen,” Miltenberg said, sweeping his arm across the courtroom, “is the Ben and Louise show. This show has been running longer in the courts than it ever would have on Broadway.”
The conclusion will be determined by the jury and Justice Jeffrey Oing as the trial continues. Thibodeau is represented by Nesenoff & Miltenberg LLP, New York; Sprecher and Florenza are repped by Schlam Stone & Dolan LLP, New York (Groothuis and Jonathan Mazer of counsel).