"This is Gonna Run Forever!"
A hit musical can be worth a billion-plus dollars nowadays. And my lawyer and agent smelled a hit.
“This is gonna run forever,” my agent John Buzzetti crowed on the opening night of Head Over Heels, glowing from the reception of the rapturous crowd. It was June 13, 2015.
In truth, the success of my first production complicated John’s ambition to package my creative team with his clients. How could he justify destroying a work that the audience clearly loved? If it were a failure, his ambitions would be easier – but he’d doubtless not bother to put his clients on a flop enterprise.
Buzzetti made his first move quickly, supervising the removal of the single producer aboard with any experience. I choose to omit her name. She had joined with Paltrow, Leitch and Ferrari, and was removed soon after opening on the grounds that she failed to produce money to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
John knew she’d never be so foolish as to pull the show’s existing musical arrangements to benefit John’s clients. With the one experienced producer dispatched, Buzzetti had no obstacles to his primacy over my work, for only the suggestible first-time producers Leitch and Ferrari remained. He had Conrad Rippy in his pocket already, as evidenced by their collaboration on the removal of my “customary approvals” (Conrad’s words, again) from the first contract.
Now John needed to justify firing my collaborators to replace with his clients.
To make the transfer, we needed Broadway producers, investors and theater owners to see my Head Over Heels. And getting them there was John’s job, with Conrad assisting.
Yet four months into the sold-out five-month run of Head Over Heels, I grew concerned because Buzzetti hadn’t sent anyone beyond a single producer whom I requested: Kevin McCollum. Kevin was a brilliant producer on Avenue Q and an irreplaceable factor in its success. Kevin admired Head Over Heels when he saw it, and further discussion was on the table.
To my surprise afterwards, John Buzzetti said that McCollum passed on Head Over Heels. When I asked John why, he replied, “He doesn’t think you’ll be willing to make the necessary changes for Broadway.”
This was flat-out untrue. 180 degrees wrong. I planned hundreds of changes from what I learned from audiences. I’ve always been very receptive to the input of smart producers like Kevin. His notes on Avenue Q were invaluable. I’d never disregard him, nor disregard the ticket-buying public by freezing an unfinished show at its first production. This was ridiculous.
“Where did Kevin get that idea?” I asked my agent.
“I don’t know …” Buzzetti said, and I still recall the tremor in his voice. This was the lie that he and Conrad would spread to demonize me around the industry – that I was stubbornly difficult – and this was its trial run.
To my later horror, I would learn that both Rippy and Buzzetti abused the power that I gave them to be my voice to puppeteer me as saying things I never said. To justify their maneuvers, they spread far and wide that I refused to change my work and so was difficult.
I take pride that I am a dedicated, generous collaborator who in my entire career has never neglected a single note from a producer. On all my projects, I make an agreement with my creative team that nothing goes into the show if anyone aboard disagrees. While this makes my job harder, I’ve seen how the variety of perspectives broadens audience appeal. The extra legwork makes a better show. And I am nothing if not a workhorse.
Conrad Rippy busily propagated this opportunistic lie, commencing a campaign behind my back, depicting me to others in the industry as “crazy” (a classic gaslighting tactic) and “difficult,” a reputation that destroys careers. Conrad and John gleefully spread lies that I was uncompromising to destroy my credibility when I stood in the way of their primacy over my property.
Beyond my view they portrayed themselves as helpful - and me as unappreciative.
As matters later soured, my friend Ian Falconer asked our mutual attorney Conrad Rippy what was going on with me and Head Over Heels.
“Jeff wants the show to be three-and-a-half hours long,” Conrad lied in feigned exasperation. (The show wanted cutting down, which is entirely common for a first production – but even so, the Oregon production ran as long as Wicked and was 15 minutes shorter than Les Miz. My audience was engaged throughout, which is the storyteller’s goal. I cut 20 minutes in the single working preview that I had before work on the show froze. I looked forward to cutting another 20 but never got the chance, for three years of labor would soon be destroyed.)
Conrad’s statement to Ian – “Jeff wants the show to be three-and-a-half hours long” - is most problematic:
Why was my lawyer Conrad Rippy gossiping about my confidential legal business to others?
Why was my lawyer Conrad Rippy spreading provable lies at that?
The reason, of course, is that there was no justification for my lawyer and agent to seize my creative control - though they already did through the deceptive first contract. I’m sure they knew that they left bloody fingerprints there, so instead of revealing the deception in the contract, they resorted to lies and smears as they bullied the client so naïve as to trust in them.
A month before closing, in a panic, I arranged a phone call with Rippy, Buzzetti, Leitch and Ferrari, in hopes that we could get experienced commercial producers out to see the show.
The phone call was horrifying. I began by stating that I wanted to leave discussion about a new director for seasoned commercial producers, because I wanted to keep director Bill Rauch in the mix. There was no rush at this early moment.
Sensing an obstacle to his primacy, John Buzzetti, my agent - the man I paid to be my champion, protector and voice in the industry - exploded in a calculated rage:
“The show was BAD!” he shrieked in front of Conrad, me, and the gullible producers. “It was BAD BAD BAD! I am saving you from yourself! You’re CRAZY!”
(“This is gonna run forever,” he glowed on opening night. “A work of genius,” he declared shortly after.)
I was less intimidated than baffled. “John, what specifically was bad about the production?”
There was a click. The tantrum-thrower was gone, having slammed down the phone in a calculated performance of rage, designed to stop conversation and intimidate – a tactic for which he is well-known in the industry.
And John clearly had no answer to my reasonable question.
I wasn’t paying John for his opinions on my work. I paid him to promote and defend me.
Meanwhile Conrad Rippy observed the abuse without raising a word in my defense. He had other designs on me, and the more abuse I took, the less resistance I would offer as he transferred my valuable property to the wealthy, celebrity clients whose interests he represented in secret.