Theater Fight Breaks Out

Theater fight breaks out: TUTS forced to cancel controversial Hands on a Hardbody after legal order

Theater fight: TUTS forced to cancel controversial Hands on a Hardbody

TUTS Underground Hardbody
TUTS Underground has received an ultimatum that has resulted in the cancelation of all future performances of Hands on a Hardbody. Photo by Christian Brown

What should have been a musical about a competition that fuels hopes and dreams has morphed into a pissing contest in which everyone loses.

TUTS Underground received a legal order that has resulted in the cancellation of all future performances of Hands on a Hardbody — with no chance of the dispute being settled before the final show on Sunday.

The Theatre Under the Stars arm that mounts plays suitable for contemporary-minded adult audiences was presented with a cease and desist demand from the licensing company that manages the performance rights to the play created by Amanda Green and Doug Wright. (The dispute was first detailed in a thorough blog post by arts administrator and producer Howard Sherman.)

Lori Thimsen, director of licensing compliance at Samuel French, writes, "As a result of your breach of contract, Samuel French hereby revokes Theatre Under The Stars' license to produce Hands on a Hardbody."

 "We were taken aback and dismayed by [Lumpkin's] lack of respect and regard for copyright laws and our material."

Thimsen orders that the Houston-based nonprofit halts any efforts related to the advertising, promotion, presentation and performance of the work. She further requests that TUTS acknowledges receipt of the demands in writing and complies with her stipulations before end of business day on Friday.

In a statement provided to CultureMap, TUTS officials say that the company "has found itself in a last minute contractual dispute that prevents the continued performances of Hands on a Hardbody."

"We regret this unexpected occurrence and we thank you for your support of TUTS and our Underground series," the statement continues.

This means the final four scheduled shows of Hands on a Hardbody in Houston are canceled.

The matter in question is over creative liberties taken by TUTS artistic director Bruce Lumpkin, whose version of the musical differs from the original. Lumpkin tells Sherman that he reordered songs, but didn't change the lyrics or the dialogue, and that he saw similar variants when he attended productions on Broadway.

Lumpkin insists he wasn't trying to reinvent the wheel, but rather to address one of the work's weaknesses as it tries to delve into the lives of 10 hopefuls who participate in a contest that has a truck as the grand prize.

But Green's account tells a different story.

In Sherman's report, Green says that she realized during the Houston opening night staging that some solo lines were reassigned, that material for one of the characters was removed, and that some incidental music was replaced. Green says that Lumpkin had not approached her nor Wright with a proposal for these changes.

"We wanted to have our show as written," Sherman quotes Green. "We'd spent years building and honing it and had very specific character-driven moments. People didn't just say things. We carefully crafted the show. We were taken aback and dismayed by [Lumpkin's] lack of respect and regard for copyright laws and our material."

 "I have to say I think Lumpkin's order worked."

A New York Times review from last year describes Hands on a Hardbody as static, that the show "can't always surmount the energy drain resulting from the characters' inability to move for long stretches."

CultureMap contributor Tarra Gaines, who was present for TUTS' opening night show, penned a critical review for Arts + Culture Texas in which she detailed the local version as having "kinetic energy." Although she hasn't seen the production on Broadway, she found the song order in the Broadway show's commercial album peculiar.

"I have to say I think Lumpkin's order worked," Gaines says. "In fact, when I was writing up the review and looking at the original Broadway album song list, I couldn't figure out why a reprise of a very important song ("It's a Fix") plot-wise came almost immediately after the first rendition, and how that would work if they were attempting to build some tension in the story."

The actors will receive payment in full, including compensation for canceled performances. Ticket holders can get a full refund or exchange their tickets for any TUTS Underground show in the 2014-15 season.