Thursday, October 22, 2009

Cease and Desist!

The Cease and Desist on “Whiskey Bars” (my cabaret with the songs of Kurt Weill) arrived from the New York lawyers the day before opening night. It was one of those fine spring Canadian mornings—after the rains but before the mosquitoes—and things had been looking pretty good as I wandered into the Festival office. I’d just come from the Hamilton Festival where “Whiskey Bars” had gone famously; they’d even used my crazed miniature piano promo image for the general Festival poster.

But I should have known something was wrong when the festival director leapt up, handed me a fax and pushed me back out the door, obviously wanting nothing to do with anything with the name of a New York law office printed across the top.

I sat on the steps of the building and read: “Cease and Desist.” In accordance with the theatrical and copyright controls over Kurt Weill’s music, I was hereby forbidden from performing his works and would be held liable in court for the unlicensed use of his music to this point. All further performances of the show “Whiskey Bars” with the songs of Kurt Weill, must be cancelled. Period.

But, but, but…I reread. Unlicensed. That wasn’t right—I had a license! I had paid for a standard contract with the Canadian society that deals with music sung live in concert. I’d been warned that the Kurt Weill Foundation was strict about using Weill’s legacy, so I’d tried to do the right thing. And this was a tiny one-man cabaret! Really tiny. Just me, with a bit of pancake makeup and a handful of songs. With the string of legal names on this letter, it felt like swatting a tiny Canadian mosquito with a huge New York Yankees baseball bat.

My first instinct was the one that has carried me boldly forward all my life in this career — I would run and hide. If I headed into the uncharted North, it might be weeks before they tracked me down. I could live off the grid, hunting for my meat, scavenging a few meager crops; I could survive for years, madly singing Weill alone, until their helicopters found me.

But as I headed home to pack my bag, a sense of desperate calm descended. I knew the Foundation forbade any unauthorized theatrical interpretations of Weill’s music theatre. But my show had songs sung pretty much as I’d do them in concert, set in a dramatic throughline. I had tried to follow the rules. Hadn’t I? Perhaps I could reason with them, beg with them, persuade them. Lawyers are people with hearts and emotions, aren’t they?

I changed my route and headed for a new and empowering destination: the local internet cafĂ©. Several mega-espressos later, my fears seemed ludicrous. I had to confront this team of authoritarians and nit pickers, show them they couldn’t cow me. In a caffeinated frenzy, I drafted faxes, emails, printed up propositions, and by noon I had summed up my strongly worded missives in a couple of brief bullet points:

‘Hi, ummmmm, really, really, sooooooo really sorry about this. Super sorry, in fact. Honest, truly, I thought it was all legal and, in fact, I kind of still think the show is really good, in fact, people seem to like it… could we work something out, that is, just let me know, whenever you can, no hurry, I’ll be waiting. All the best. Hope the weather’s nice in Gotham.’

And attached to that threatening email, I sent them a full script of the show, a list of the songs I was singing, my Hamilton reviews, an explanation of what I was trying to do with the songs. I wanted to add “xo” at the bottom, just for luck.

So I waited. And I waited. I could have phoned New York, but honestly, when dealing with teams of lawyers, I felt like a Neanderthal, all inarticulate grunts. The day went by with no email reply. Opening night was 24 hours away, so I returned to the Festival office to see if I could put off canceling the show till the last minute. They cringed but agreed.

I spent a terrible sleepless night. My whole summer had been planned around doing a Canadian tour of different cities with this show— this would mean months of admin and rehearsal and fees down the drain.

The next morning there was a curt email from New York. “Dear Mr. Duthie. Performances at this festival only can continue. We will review your material. Thank you.”

It was like reading a SMS text message after a first date – Yes, they said 'can'. I love them. And hey, they thanked me! That must mean they love me! Everything is going to be all right. I kicked my heels, said blessings to the gods of theatre and headed out to do the show.

And somehow the deities of theatre did smile on me: my script and letter arrived during the Weill Foundation’s annual directors meeting. Weill experts and scholars, singing stars like the incredible interpreter of Weill’s music Teresa Stratas…all these people were actually meeting when my note arrived. And they liked my script. They sent me a letter from the Foundation saying that the Board had loved my show, loved my reviews and that from henceforth I would receive the enthusiastic support of the Kurt Weill Foundation for my efforts to sing the work of this most amazing composer.

So now I just have to do Weill justice.

Whiskey Bars every Tuesday at Bread and Circus in Kensington Market - tickets at

Monday, October 12, 2009

Opening Whiskey

Played the first night last week of Whiskey Bars in Toronto. Fab! A great house of friends and theatre folk and a great cabaret setting. Bread and Circus in Kensington Market is perfect! The Vampyre paintings (look closely at the above pic) in the trendy little bar up front add to the general decadent cabaret atmosphere.

And the tiny theatre has a nice lighting hang, good sound and puts me in the lap of the audience. Which suits the show perfectly.

I'll be curious to see if the show develops a relationship to the Toronto audiences in the next 5 weeks. It's developed into such a dark story about this obsessed man on some personal road to redemption that I never know now whether it's going to click with the general 'zeitgeist' in a city. The Scottish at the Ed Fringe got it, but they have a dark, dark sense of humour... come to think of it, maybe that's where I got mine...