Thursday, October 23, 2008

COPYRIGHTS

The past few days have been an interesting peek into the strange and sometimes bizarre world of copyrights.

I've been kicking around the idea of a book -- collecting these up and publishing them with an in-bound CD of the music to some of the shows. Being one who prefers to ask permission instead of forgiveness (which, in the legal world, can be real expensive), I started asking around to see if I could find out who owns what and how much of this stuff is still "owned".

One company (which shall remain nameless) turned my request over to the legal department of the company that handles all their distribution and perfomance rights, and the letter I received from this individual (who shall also remain nameless) was.. well, sad on one hand and astounding on the other. Bear in mind that most of these havent been performed for perhaps six or seven decades... but the way this lawyer framed it, he was protecting Gollum's precious, in terms so hardlined and sharp that I decided, hey, there's plenty of other stuff out there to work with. No need to fool with this twit.

So I got the government's online copyright research page... and then the true wonder of how flat-out twisted our copyright laws have become hit me in the face with a large frying pan.

Let's see -- you cant research anything published prior to 1969. For that, you have to contact the Copyright Office which, for a fee, will research it for you... with no guarantee that the information they have will be correct. Or, alternatively, you can travel to DC and go through their card catalogue, but -- again -- there's no reassurance that what you find will be the latest information. Something could have had it copyright renewed, and the card catalogue might not have it indicated as such.

So here I have a situation where several of these publishers dont even exist anymore... or else they were bought out by a larger firm, with no idea of whether or not the purchaser took their entire catalogue or just parts of it, leaving the rest fallow. In some cases, from what I've found, even the still-existing publishers dont know if their materials are still protected or not.

Folks, we're talking about stuff that's no longer performed and hasnt been for well over sixty years. These little things are just collecting dust in an archive somewhere, and trying to get information about them is next to impossible. Actually, no, it's on the other side of impossible: I have a score for an operetta written in 1921, and the Library of Congress wont release a copy of the libretto without authorization from the copyright holder... except that the company no longer exists, the creators are all dead, and the work hasnt been performed since 1922. So what does one do in that case?

For the bulk of the works discussed here, written in the 1930s, the situation becomes even more absurd. Pre-1937, the copyright would have fallen in one of seven categories -- or possibly two, since one would be for music, the other for a "dramatic work". Renewal of the copyright would depend on a half dozen different factors. Post-1937, it becomes even more chaotic.

Thank you, Mr. Disney. Much appreciated, sir. I hope you choke on your little mouse.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

MEET ARIZONA

As charming as a high school operetta can be, MEETING ARIZONA (1947), by George Murray Brown and Charles Wakefield Cadman, falls at certain points in colloquialisms that... well, let's just say that time hasnt been kind.

The sudden death of Colonel Blair has left the Ride 'Em Hard dude ranch temporarily without an owner, and, despite the colonel's adopted son Larry Benson's claims that the colonel had a will, the ranch manager Jack Guldy doubts it. Enter the colonel's only living blood family, his niece Lettie, who's arrived because, if there's no will, she inherits it by being next of kin. Larry figures that Jack could profit if no will is found by buying the ranch cheap from Lettie, but Jack counters by saying that the colonel wanted Lettie to visit, at which point he'd marry her off to Larry.

Needless to say, that doesnt go over well with either Lettie or Larry (although, face it, you already know what's going to happen, right?).

Well, turns out Jack is sorta-kinda right because, unknownst to anyone, Cappy, the corral boss, has found the will, which does indeed state that Larry and Lettie inherit the whole thing *if* they fall in love and marry without any undue influence. Naturally, after a few minor complications, they do. Conveniently in the end, Jack is exposed as an escaped convict and returned to jail, followed by lots of singing and dancing and firing guns in the air. Curtain.

Okay, it's not quite as straight-forward as that. There's a whole roster of minor characters, like Tom, Larry's best friend, who impersonates an ex-sheriff named Arizona Tom (for no real reason, actually). He regales the "dudes and dudines" with wild stories of his various arrests over the many, many decades, and they just keep getting wilder and wilder. We also have Aunt Lavinia, who might be from the East but has embraced, as fully as possible, the Wild West lifestyle, as well as a supporting cast of Mexicans and Indians, all portrayed with shockingly little stereotyping -- in fact there's a gorgeous, four-part chorale about Mexico's cultural attachment to the land. Pity that the rest of the show didnt rise to that particular moment.

And what *is* sad, despite the potential here, is the quality of the lyrics, which borders ever so precariously on the golly-gosh-gee, downright awful. The opening chorus propels us atmospherically with:

This is a dude, dude, dude ranch
In the wild and wooly West
This is a dude, dude, dude ranch
And Arizona's best
This is a dude, dude, dude ranch
So, come on, men and gals
We shore are happy, happy
To be your cowboy pals

Ride 'em hard, cowboy
Yippee
Ride 'em hard, cowboy
Yippee
If you are out for play
You'll find us always gay
Welcome to our good ol ranch.

Aside from the fact that it doesnt scan very well (which results in music that's floundering around trying to make the stop-and-start lines work), I just cannot see *anyone* today getting through that with a straight face, sorry. What with the always gay cowboys riding 'em hard... well, sorry, but no, time has not been nice. But lest you think this is some innuendo-filled work, trust me that there are times when there's no innuendo about it, nossir. Consider, after Lettie has been told she's been brought out here to be married off. She goes into just fearfully high dudgeon, exclaiming:

How can you say that? A man with the cheapness to invite me out here, in order to make false love, for the sake of a will nobody can find!

She goes on and on about the whole "making love" thing quite a lot, which starts to suggest something not quite prim about Miss Lettie... but I suppose that's a discussion for another time. At any rate...

It's interesting looking at this and seeing so many echoes of OKLAHOMA: the willful and obstinate couple that wind up together, the villanous ranch foreman, the secondary romantic interest with its own comic obstacles to true love, and the late-middle-aged lady who acts more like a man than most of the men. There's also a big party scene at the top of Act Two that has a production number about the Wild West lifestyle. Obviously, things arent as fully developed as Rodgers and Hammerstein might have written, but the parallels are glaring. Were this and OKLAHOMA released today, I'm sure litigation would be flying around like crazy.

There's not much out there about Brown, save that he wrote a few other operettas, one with Cadman called HOLLYWOOD EXTRA. For himself, Cadman wrote "From the Land of Sky Blue Water" (yes, the song made famous by a beer commercial in the 50s and 60s). He studied native American music with the Omaha and Winnebago tribes in Nebraska and recorded several cylinders of indigenous music for the Smithsonian. He also founded the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra and was a principal soloist with them for many years, during which he also composed several movie soundtracks -- his work was considered at one point second only to Tiomkin. Given that he died in 1946, it's very possible MEET ARIZONA was his last work.