The Unknown Challenges of ‘Les Miserables’

Securing musical's rights proved largest barricade to Theatre Department's production

Junior Jack Bistritz stands atop a barricade as revolution leader Enjolras in the Theatre Department's production of "Les Miserables," playing Nov. 20-22.
Will McKnight
Junior Jack Bistritz stands atop a barricade as revolution leader Enjolras in the Theatre Department’s production of “Les Miserables,” playing Nov. 20-22.

The Theatre Department embraced the challenge of staging “Les Miserables,” but the biggest challenge may have been attaining the rights to perform the show.

Because the musical is currently on Broadway, no other performances are allowed nationwide. However, Shaker Heights obtained the rights last April, which allowed the Theatre Department to perform the musical now.

The department acquired the rights last April from the Great Lakes Theatre. Great Lakes Theatre recently had an ongoing production of Les Mis, and the show’s return to Broadway made it tougher. “We were locked out,” said Theatre Department Chairman Scott Sumerak.

Great Lakes Theatre’s proximity complicated things. “If there is a pro production, they get exclusive right to do it within a 100 mile radius around their production,” Sumerak said.  He called Great Lakes and asked for permission after its run was over. Because Great Lakes Theatre did not extend its rights to the play for an extra three-month period after their production, Shaker cleared the hurdle of local competition.

However, the rights were locked up nationwide because a Broadway staging of Les Mis opened a few weeks ago. Attaining the rights takes time and can be tough.

“We apply to the rights management company. We provide them with information like ticket price, anticipated number of audience members, how many students are in the show, and how many performances we want to do,” Sumerak said. “The company, in this case Music Theatre International, either accepts or denies our application for the rights.”

The Broadway production is also set to tour and will travel through the area. If another theater has paid to keep the rights exclusive to its company, rights can be denied. “If an application is accepted,” said Sumerak, “MTI charges a per-show fee as well as a rental fee for the scripts and scores.”

The rights were $420 for each of the three performances, said Sumerak, who added that it is hard to estimate the cost for sets and costumes. “We recycle many pieces for both and rent or borrow  costumes from many different places.”

Shaker theater students went to see the Great Lakes production of Les Mis a few weeks ago and seemed to enjoy themselves. “I think they were really inspired,” theater teacher Christine McBurney said. “The entire theatre department gave a standing ovation.”

The performance gave the students something to think about when preparing their roles.

McBurney said, “It’s kind of like a chance to do extra homework.”

This story has been updated to accurately reflect the per-performance cost for the rights to the musical. 

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