Peace Now: ‘Natasha, Pierre’ Producers And Non-Profit Group Agree To Secret Deal

James Weber

SECOND UPDATE, Wednesday afternoon: The war may be over but both sides are speaking in secret code over a dispute that has injected some unexpected drama into the early Broadway season:

A JOINT STATEMENT FROM ARS NOVA AND THE GREAT COMET: Ars Nova and the producers of The Great Comet deeply regret that a contractual dispute became public, and are pleased to share that the matter has now been resolved, privately, and will continue to work to achieve success for The Great Comet on Broadway.

Asked to clarify this non-statement and confirm that the language “The Ars Nova production of” had been restored to the show’s Playbill, as well as that a cast recording session had been rescheduled so as not to conflict with Ars Nova’s fund-raising gala, both sides said there would be no further comment. Matt Ross, a spokesman for the Broadway production, did confirm that the show has not changed its name, as the non-statement suggested, but that it remains Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet Of 1812.

Reached by telephone, Richard A. Roth, who represented Ars Nova in the negotiations, confirmed that “it’s been settled amicably” along the lines of the lead producers’ offer on Monday to add the credit to the Playbill title page in exchange for ending two actions Ars Nova had brought against them, one in New York State Supreme Court and the other before the American Arbitration Association. Case dismissed, pop the Champagne.

UPDATE Monday morning: The board of Ars Nova met Tuesday morning to consider an offer late Monday from Howard and Janet Kagan and Paula Marie Black, the lead Broadway producers of Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet Of 1812, to add the language “The Ars Nova production of” to the show’s Playbill title page. The condition they set was that the non-profit company agree to drop litigation against them. “The statement Howard’s side released last night was a TOTAL surprise to us,” Ars Nova managing director Renee Blinkwolt told Deadline. “We met this morning and are in ongoing conversations.” Those conversations are likely to include the timing of a session to record the show’s cast album, which had been set to coincide with the group’s December 5 annual gala, a move regarded by the company as retaliation by the producers for making an issue of the billing.

SATURDAY: A skirmish over above-the-title billing in a new Broadway show’s Playbill erupted into all-out war this weekend, as the non-profit theater that developed one of the most acclaimed musicals of recent seasons filed two lawsuits against the commercial producer who has brought the show, Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet Of 1812 to, aptly, the Imperial Theatre.

A sprawling and often ingenious mashup of rock opera, immersive soap opera and New Wave dinner theater, the show is based on a section from the Leo Tolstoy classic War And Peace. It has begun previews and features a major pop music recording star, Josh Groban, in one of the title roles (he was not associated with any of the developmental productions). The legal maneuverings aren’t expected to delay the November 14 official opening.

The lead Broadway producer, Howard Kagan, said Friday that the legal actions surprised him because he believed that discussions to resolve the billing dispute were ongoing. But earlier today Richard A. Roth, the lawyer representing Ars Nova, the highly regarded off-Broadway group that commissioned the musical, accused the producers of bringing the talks to an impasse. “If [Kagan] believes that is ‘negotiation,’ then we have different definitions of the word.”

“If [Kagan] believes that is ‘negotiation,’ then we have different definitions of the word,” —Ars Nova lawyer Richard A. Roth

On Friday, Roth filed two claims on behalf of the group against Kagan (who, with his wife Janet, is the show’s lead Broadway producer): One, with the American Arbitration Association, accuses the production company of breach of contract; and another, in New York State Supreme Court, asserts that Kagan interfered with a contract and breached their fiduciary duty.

Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812.

At issue are the words “The Ars Nova production of.” The leaders of Ars Nova, a mostly off-the-radar non-profit making its Broadway debut, insist they have a signed agreement with the Kagans to use those words above the title of the show in the Playbill. Instead, according to Renee Blinkwolt, managing director of the company, which operates on an annual budget of $1.4 million, Ars Nova is lumped with all of the show’s “producers,” the majority of whom are investors who had little or nothing to do with the creation and development of the show.

Although there are plentiful examples of both types of billing when a show developed at a non-profit theater moves to Broadway, a comparison could be drawn with last year’s Tony Award winner for best play, Stephen Karam’s The Humans. The show was commissioned by the Roundabout Theatre Company, which presented its world premiere. Commercial producer Scott Rudin optioned the play before the reviews came out, and when it moved to Broadway, it had this billing in Playbill:

Playbill listing for 'The Humans' on Broadway.
Playbill listing for ‘The Humans’ on Broadway. Playbill

Such billing can be crucial to a non-profit  company when raising money to support its work. “While everyone in Hollywood knows about Upright Citizens Brigade, Second City and The Public Theater,” Jon Steingart, an Ars Nova co-founder and board member told Deadline, “few outside New York have even heard of Ars Nova, even though our alumni are among the most impactful in the industry.”

The dispute has been made especially bitter because Howard Kagan was, until a few weeks go, a longtime financial backer and board member of the company. That’s the key reason for the breach of fiduciary responsibility aspect of the suit against him. When the dispute first erupted earlier this month, he resigned from the Ars Nova board.

On Friday, Blinkwolt and artistic director Jason Eagan announced the suits in a statement released to the press. In condensed version, it said:

In 2011, Ars Nova commissioned Dave Malloy to create Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812, an ambitious idea that would quickly become the largest project Ars Nova had ever supported at the time…A concept was born and refined over numerous developmental steps, leading to the Ars Nova world premiere in October 2012. The production was an instant sensation.

Producer Howard Kagan took an interest in extending the life of the show…He expressed his great interest in preserving the successful concept, design and staging of the Ars Nova production rather than shifting the show into a more traditional proscenium staging…

If you were to remove the contributions of any one partner along the way, we couldn’t be in previews on Broadway today. And yet with no explanation, the proper recognition of our contribution has been taken away. We believe that the show currently on Broadway started at Ars Nova…[T]he show that started at Ars Nova is extremely valuable to Ars Nova’s past, present and future, and is communicated to the tens of thousands of people seeing The Great Comet on Broadway each week only through our title page billing.

With seemingly no other alternatives to seek remedy for this lost value, our Board voted unanimously last night to file suit for breach of contract to compel the commercial producers of The Great Comet to honor their contractual obligation to bill the show as “The Ars Nova Production Of”. We are devastated that it has come to this, but steadfast in our belief that the billing we are owed is both valuable, and deserved.

Responding Friday with their own statement, the producers said they were surprised to hear about the law suits. “We and our representatives have been speaking to Ars Nova for the past week about our ongoing dispute over billing, and together we have made great progress toward resolving this matter and we expect to continue to do so…Our understanding is that we are still in discussions. We continue to work toward a swift resolution of this matter for the sake of everyone involved in the show, and we hope that those discussions can continue privately.”

But Ars Nova’s lawyer said those attempts at reconciliation had hit a wall.

“My client believed they had agreed with Mr. Kagan’s representatives on the material terms of a final settlement on Wednesday evening,” Richard Roth told Deadline today. “But on Thursday morning, Mr. Kagan apparently went back on this handshake deal, although no explanation or counter was provided to my client. His representatives then requested the conversation be turned over to respective lawyers. On Thursday afternoon, I presented the material terms again, with a request for confirmation that they were once again agreed to by the end of the day. Having still not heard anything on Friday morning, we gave the Kagan camp a noon deadline, letting them know that we would have to move forward if they did not provide a substantive response. He received our deadline and ignored it. By yesterday afternoon we still had not heard from Mr. Kagan. If he believes that is ‘negotiation,’ then we have different definitions of the word.”

Ars Nova already has produced another much-talked about show this season, Underground Railroad Game, which has been extended several times in the wake of rave notices and full houses, where tickets are generally $15 at its West 54th Street theater.

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