May 2006 Ethics Dunces

Herbert H. Lehman High School

When it comes to consuming time, passion, dedication and emotional energy while delivering exhilaration, excitement, romance and life-long memories, few activities can match the high school musical. Not only do schools have an obligation to provide opportunities for students to participate in these extravaganzas, they have a duty to produce them competently, efficiently and legally. These requirements appear to have been left out of the Herbert H. Lehman High faculty manual, because the students there were recruited, rehearsed, costumed and primed to perform a production of the Kander and Ebb slink-fest Chicago without any body bothering to ask Samuel French Inc., the licenser of the rights to the show, for permission to perform it. That would have involved paying money, after all, and the school's 24 year old drama teacher Anthony Cerini didn't see any reason to do that. After all, he could transcribe the movie script from a DVD, take some other material from the internet, fill in the blanks with his own creative writing, and behold: the Tony-winning musical Chicago!

Except, of course, it wasn't. In addition, Cerini's conduct was unethical to the core, as well as illegal:

  • He engaged in multiple copyright law violations, including transcribing the movie screenplay and performing it on stage, adding unauthorized dialogue to a copywritten work, not acquiring stage rights to a literary property that did not belong to him, and not paying royalties for the show, unlike the thousands of other theatrical groups, school, community theater and regional theater that produce the popular musical every year.
  • He wrongly attributed an inferior bootleg version of the show to the great musical comedy writing team Kander and Ebb, diminishing their reputations (as well as not paying them their proper royalties).
  • He prepared to defraud his audiences by claiming his show was the "Broadway hit" Chicago, when it was really the Anthony Cerini patchwork knock-off Chicago.
  • Perhaps worst of all, he deceived and cheated his students, causing them to rehearse a phony version of the show, leading them to believe that that he had done the necessary paperwork to allow the show to go on, and creating a situation that presented a high risk that all of their work would come to nothing if the owners of the show's rights got wind of his plot.

Which they did. And they were angry. Their lawyers sent the school a cease and desist order, and there was really no way out: in addition to being stiffed on their fees, the rights holders had a contract with the Broadway production of Chicago not to grant permission to perform the show within 75 miles…and Lehman High is in the Bronx. So on top of everything else, Cerini's machinations violated a contract made in good faith between two other parties.

None of this stopped the local media and school officials from casting Samuel French Inc. and the Broadway Chicago producers as the villains in the drama. Oh, how could anyone be so cruel as to insist that a school actually ask permission for the right to make money off of someone else's property and creative work, not adulterate it while presenting it to the public, and pay the same fees as everybody else? The monsters!

But it is also true that the students were victims here as well, though it was their own school, not the owners of Chicago, who were the victimizers. To his credit, Broadway's Chicago producer Barry Weissler discussed the situation with Bronx Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, Ambassador Theatre owner Gerald Schoenfeld and Samuel French president Charles Van Nostrand and agreed to let the school perform Cerini's hybrid once, which is considerably better than the zero performances the school has any right to perform, though fewer performances than the students expected. The students were still cheated by their teacher's duplicity, but at least they weren't completely shut out of the high school musical experience.

It would have been nice if they also learned a lesson about ethics, but that doesn't seem to be the case. Student Jason Valentin, who played sleazy lawyer Billy Flynn in the show, told the Associated Press that "it's a tough world" and "there are cruel people out there, but you always find some way to win." It that's what the students are going to take away from this debacle, the Scoreboard wishes the lawyers had shut the show down completely. The "cruel people" were those inside the school, not those on Broadway. Astoundingly, Lehman High's principal stated that the school had never asked permission or paid to do a musical during his 27 year tenure. These people didn't deserve to "win." They do deserve to be fired.




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