On Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Legacy and American Cultural Treasures

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rodgersandhammersteinWhen I read last week that the rights to the oeuvre of Rodgers and Hammerstein — including the collaborators’ huge, beloved song catalog and the musicals themselves that Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote — had been sold to Imagem Music Group, the investment limb of a Dutch pension fund, part of me was tremendously saddened. It was hardly an industry secret that the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization was looking to sell itself for something more than a song; if anything, perhaps the company should have made this move a couple of years ago when the market seemed hotter overall than it is today. Then again, perhaps the current blockbuster Broadway revival of South Pacific has turbocharged the value of the Rodgers and Hammerstein estates to a point where this was, indeed, just the right time to strike. No matter how you slice it, the sale marks the end of an era. At a reputed price tag of $200 million, it’s high as the flag on the fourth of July, indeed.

And both Imagen and the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization, for reasons that are understandable, trumpeted the merger proudly in the press. Here is the announcement on Imagen’s website and here, below, is a little of the text of the announcement that best sizes up the enormous magnitude of this transaction:

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RHO, as a licensing agency, represents more than 12,000 songs, 900 concert works, 200 writers and 100 musicals, including works by Irving Berlin and Rodgers & Hart, such as Berlin’s “White Christmas” and Annie Get Your Gun, and Rodgers & Hart’s Pal Joey and “The Lady is a Tramp.” RHO is in friendly and constructive discussions with Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Really Useful Group about continuing to represent his musicals in North America, including Cats, Evita, and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.

Also, here is what the New York Times said, in its typically dispassionate, read-between-the-lines manner:

The sale represents a transfer of power over one of America’s most famous song catalogs and the licensing rights for future productions of the musicals, which until now had been controlled by the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization, a Manhattan-based company that is widely known in the theater world for its quality control and the active involvement of two heirs, the writers’ daughters Mary Rodgers Guettel and Alice Hammerstein Mathias.

As part of the deal – the value of which was not released – Imagem is also acquiring the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization and retaining its management, led by its president and executive director, Theodore S. Chapin.

Mr. Chapin said in an interview that Imagem was committed to maintaining high artistic standards for both future productions and the commercial licensing of specific songs, which include “My Favorite Things,” “Some Enchanted Evening” and standards from other Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals like “Carousel” and “The King and I.” Ms. Rodgers Guettel and Ms. Hammerstein Mathias will also remain involved as part of an advisory committee.

The third graph is great — I never thought for a minute that Rodgers Guettel (with whom I have been acquainted) or Hammerstein Mathias or Chapin would acquiesce to a sale that would do anything but uphold, preserve, protect and defend the Rodgers and Hammerstein legacy into the future. So that’s not what made me sad. What made me sad is feeling that something unquestionably American — in culture, spirit, history — had been lost to what one might call a foreign owner. While it’s not as if the Dutch are known for raping the American cultural landscape, it still seemed to sting.

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However, Dalouge Smith, who runs a blog called Dog Days and is, per his bio, “President & CEO of San Diego Youth Symphony and Conservatory and serves as Chairman of the San Diego Regional Arts and Culture Coalition,” decided to turn this moment into a bit of a snark-fest with a post called “The Hills Are Alive with the Sound of Ricola.” Mind you, Ricola cough drops and breath mints are actually Swiss, but I won’t quibble. It did make for a pithy headline.

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And in some ways it is a very good post. For example, Smith asks,

Should you be alarmed that these landmarks of the American musical theater will now be foreign owned after being privately owned by their authors and heirs since creation? The answer is complicated.

The first place to look for a clue to assessing this sale is to examine how the news was reported. In the NY Times you’ll find the story in the Theater section and in The Times of London it resides in the Business section. The NY Times gives some attention to the cultural import of these works by quoting the families’ business manager that the buyers are “committed to maintaining high artistic standards for both future productions and the commercial licensing of specific songs.”…

Smith then raises an issue that most people probably aren’t thinking of. Since Imagen happens to be the investment arm of pension funds, and…

Assuming that pension funds are exclusively focused on growing their investments to meet payout obligations, this sale is problematic. How long until the families’ reputation for holding productions to the letter of the text is undermined by the lure of advertising revenue? How long until the lyrics of a song are transformed to sell a product – doing more damage to the integrity of these artists’ work through mass replication than any theater production anywhere could even dream of doing? Or even worse, how long until a show can’t get performed because of a non-compete clauses written into advertising licensing agreements?

But even that is not really what Smith is getting at. In fact, I’m not sure he knows enough about the production of contemporary musical theatre to effectively argue that “the lure of advertising revenue” is adversely affecting “the letter of the text” or that non-compete clauses are going to hamper productions. Among other things, in cities like New York there are already plenty of reasons why certain shows can’t be done, such as when rights owners hold out for big, splashy commercial runs. And there are plenty of people who wouldn’t be bothered at all if there was a little less in the way of retreaded musical theater out there and more in the way of something new.

Good grief, so the real issue is about purity? Well, there’s always something to be said for purity — just ask the estate of Samuel Beckett, which demands such technical purity in revivals of his plays that even minor infractions are often cause for cease-and-desist orders and, for all I know, calls inside the estate of the playwright for the evildoers to be hanged. Even so, yes, there are a lot of theatrical issues for which I would value purity over experimentation. At the same time, let’s consider, just as an example, the favor that Jay-Z did some years ago for the work of Charles Strouse:

Now, obviously I understand that the song here is taken out of context. But look at how Strouse’s willingness to allow the rights to that song (presumably with lyricist Martin Charnin) offered the potential to extend the reach of Annie beyond the blue-hairs of Broadway and show queens. If Smith wants to tell Strouse that he’s a pathetic sellout, that is his right. But Smith didn’t write the song. When it’s his song, he gets to make those decisions.

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I’m not going to try to refute what Smith says next — but I will republish a great swath of it because I think what he says here is important for everyone to read and everyone to think about:

In today’s United States, copyright law is a mess. Different rules apply for every artistic medium and activity. The basic situation is that copyright holders have the authority to allow or prevent any change to their work and can sell to anyone for any price well beyond the lifetime of the creator. The Rodgers and Hammerstein heirs have the right to sell this cultural property to whomever they like for whatever price they can get. I suppose they decided their fathers’ legacies would be well served by having an owner with an interest in licensing it to all corners of the globe. To secure this global reach, they’ve sold off an American cultural asset during a national economic crisis so Dutch pensioners, who have government provided health care and robust social services, receive their monthly retirement checks.

We have federal rules regarding foreign ownership of media companies and sensitive national security information, but not our cultural heritage. I doubt this sale will be reviewed by the Federal Trade Commission or any other regulatory agency. It probably isn’t required. The arts aren’t enough of a priority for anyone in government to even think about this sale as a national loss they way they’d decry the sale of an historic object. Nor do I recall seeing cultural ownership on the advocacy agenda of our national arts service organizations.

The fault here is not with the sellers or with the buyers. The fault is in our national failure to reach a balance between private ownership and the public good. Weeks after Wynton Marsalis challenged us to see that it is our homegrown arts that bind us together as a nation, we are reminded that like nearly all things in the United States, our heritage doesn’t belong to the public. This is particularly true in the performing arts.

Fair enough. But you know what? There’s just something in Smith’s tone that strikes me as out of bounds. When Smith insinuates that the Rodgers and Hammerstein heirs should somehow be restricted in their rights sale to preapproved, homegrown investors, it feels like he’s suggesting that patiotism and cultural nationalism can or should be legislated. I think this is dangerous — and not just because it contradicts the usual capitalistic impulses. It’s dangerous because it raises a question: Where does it end? Look at what Smith goes on to write:

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“When does private property of any type become so important to the public that it can only be transferred to the public trust or supersedes private ownership and transfers to the public domain?”

Well, even if you can answer this question, the next one must inevitably be “Who gets to decide?” And where does that stop? Look at Lever House in Manhattan — a landmarked structure representing the birth of the International Style of architecture in the U.S. and a pinnacle of 20th century design. It has fallen into something like disrepair when a joint American-German venture bought it and began to bring it back. Yes, the granting of landmark status to the structure ensure its place of prominence, but let’s be clear: the building’s prior custodians did a poor job of maintaining what is a cultural legacy equal to that of the Rodgers and Hammerstein oeuvre.

And more than that, if Smith’s idea of protecting, preserving and defending American culture is paramount, then is it not the case that we should expect other countries to do the same? For example, were we in the wrong when the U.S. allowed the Old London Bridge to be dismantled and reassembled in Arizona? Regardless of what you think of him as a person or as an artist, the output of Michael Jackson is distinctly and irretrievably American, yet let’s remember that Sony/ATV, which is the company that owns Jackson’s work (and the work of the Beatles’) is 50% Jackson’s and 50% a part of Sony, and Sony is not an American company. So once again I ask: Where does nationalism end and capitalism begin? Under Smith’s dictum, when an American art museum attends an auction and wants to bid on something that is the cultural property, if you will, of a European nation, that museum should not bid, right? How would he ensure this — through laws?

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I wish the Rodgers and Hammerstein catalogue could remain in American hands. But I trust the guardians of that legacy more than Smith does. And there’s not a law on earth that can change my mind. Only time will tell whether it was worth the placement of that trust.