The endless line of people who have a notion for a new jukebox musical or television talent show is proof of a legal point: Nobody owns an idea. But that doesn't mean the battles over exactly who owns what aren't some of the hairiest in the theater business.
Take the cases of Three Mo' Tenors and Naked Boys Singing.
Starting on Sept. 12, Tenors, the show in which a trio of black tenors sing selections from opera, blues, Broadway and other musical genres, will be sitting down for a four-month engagement at the Little Shubert Theater on 42nd Street. That will be the show's first long-term engagement in New York, and part of the reason for doing it, said Willette Murphy Klausner, the producer, is "to more clearly brand the project so people will know that this is the show."
The show? As opposed to the show with the Italian guys?
Actually, the need for such distinctions goes back several years to a heated dispute between the producers and the first three singers to appear in Three Mo' Tenors, a conflict that has led to multiple lawsuits.
Marion J. Caffey, the show's creator, said the original idea for Three Mo' Tenors was to showcase the vocal versatility of classically trained black tenors. He handpicked three men - Victor Trent Cook, Rodrick Dixon and Thomas Young - all of whom had Broadway or professional singing careers. Working with the tenors and their repertories, and taking songs from other places, Caffey said, he put together a show.
He said that the idea from the start was to have a rotating cast. (Since the show's inception, there have been 14 tenors; currently there are six in rotation.) Cook and Dixon, in interviews, said they were not under that impression when they began performing the show in 2001.
But the producers drew up a series of agreements for Cook, Dixon and Young that, among other things, forbade them from using the name Three Mo' Tenors once their time in the show was over and prohibited them from performing in a show with a substantially similar repertory. They signed, though Cook and Dixon said they had understood that a more formal contract would be negotiated later.
Then came enormous popular and critical success, and with it heated arguments and financial disputes. One of the show's two producers, acting alone, drew up a new agreement in 2002 with Cook, Dixon and Young that would have let them perform together and describe themselves as the former Three Mo' Tenors if they left the show. But things got uglier, with the producing team breaking apart and the three original tenors going off to perform the show on their own. Meanwhile, the trio and the people behind Three Mo' Tenors, who had hired a new group of singers, both claimed the mantle of authenticity. Lawsuits were exchanged.
In 2005 a judge threw out the 2002 agreement and barred Cook, Dixon and Young from advertising themselves as having anything to do with Tenors but allowed them to continue their show, a version of their performance in Three Mo' Tenors, as Cook, Dixon & Young.
That did not solve the problem. Klausner said booking agents, worried about confusion in the marketplace, were still sometimes wary of bringing in Three Mo' Tenors. (She said she hoped a successful New York run would end that wariness.) Her lawyer is still sending letters every time the name Three Mo' Tenors is associated with Cook, Dixon & Young.