by Frumi Cohen
I love my birthday. Or at least I love inviting my friends over for a special theme activity and while eating great food and something heavy and chocolate. This was what I was doing one birthday several years ago, the moment I fell in love with someone else’s story. It was a story I wanted — really, really wanted to have my way with.
The theme of the party was favorite children’s books. Each participant brought theirs and read it aloud to us. So, as I was turning 51, one of my dearest friends read us the wonderful story of “Weslandia,” written by Paul Fleischman and illustrated by Kevin Hawkes.
As my friend finished and closed the book, I was hearing music, seeing the characters play onstage and sensing the world of “Weslandia” growing up around me. I felt a bit like Tony as he walked the shiny rain drenched streets of the West Side after meeting Maria that night at the dance. I was smitten.
I write book, lyrics and music, and sell my musicals to Middle School and High School Theater programs, and community theaters. Over the years, I have unsuccessfully tried to acquire rights to some wonderful [usually Newberry Award-winning] children’s books but have invariably run into two main roadblocks — money and its inevitable synonym, the “D” word.
Disney. They seem to have all the rights to all the great stories. Not surprising. And forget it. In many cases, the large sum of royalty/option money needed to be paid like rent every year as long as the property was held. I already pay rent.
I‘ve also found that there is no well-worn trail to follow with acquiring rights. It’s a game of shoots and ladders with swamps, quicksand and trap doors. You just pick a name and start calling or emailing, then follow the trail of “yes”es — if there are any.
Sometimes someone in the author’s estate holds the rights, and no one knows who that person is. Sometimes there is an agent, if you can find him or her. Sometimes the book is out of print, and there is no one obvious you can contact at all. But if you’re lucky, there is a current publisher with someone in the subsidiary rights department who actually answers the phone. I got lucky.
I explained my quest for subsidiary stage rights to turn Fleischman’s story into a musical, and she gave me the author’s email. No way could this be a working email!
Nevertheless, I wrote a clever but informative little note declaring my undying love and my intentions for his lovely little story. I also made sure my note included links to my website of children’s musicals and all my credentials. All is fair in love.
A little while later, a note from Mr. Fleischman arrived.
He explained that the movie rights were tied up — Disney, of course — but to contact his agent to see if the ones I wanted, the dramatic rights, might still be available. The agent’s number was right there. I was so beyond beside myself, I was besides being beside myself. He had written back, and I was being taken seriously.
And even though I knew that more often than not, all adaptation rights to stories are usually bundled and cannot be separated unless loads of money changes hands; and even though I knew that the odds of having that much money were against me; and even though I knew that I might be rejected and have to settle for adapting public domain stories like “A Little Princess” and “The Wind in the Willows” for the rest of my life, I took a large edifying sip of my espresso and dialed the agent.
Paul Fleischman, he told me, liked my work and was interested in having me adapt it. Paul? He did? He was??? Oh, good. That’s wonderful, I said trying to steady my voice to keep from sounding like I was half-way through my second double espresso. Which I was.
All I had to do, he said, was pay [a lot] up front and a percentage [50% of a lot] each year I held the rights. I’d also have to pay a percentage of the box office for each show as well, and after that we’d revisit and renegotiate.
I don’t know why, but I didn’t hang up. I told the agent honestly what I could do and what I could not. I explained how I was going to use the material and assured him I could pay the fees and royalties, but on a much smaller scale. But I would do my best work. I acted calmly and professionally, and in the end, we negotiated a two-year contract, which turned into four years. I premiered “Weslandia,” the musical, at Plymouth Meeting Friends School, where I work, and since then it has had several wonderful productions, notably, one in an international school in Rome and one in Shanghai.
Over the years, I’ve had to relinquish rights back to Paul, (I feel I can call him Paul now) when he wants to try to do other things with the rights, and amazingly he has always contacted me, or I have contacted him to reinstate my rights so I could continue to get specific productions. And this year, it has all come full circle. I am bringing “Weslandia,” the musical, back where it started, to my little Friends school.
So why put yourself through this? Acquiring subsidiary rights is hard, expensive and risky; you could write the thing and lose the rights to a higher bidder, but what I have learned is to try anyway. “Weslandia” is about an outcast boy who follows his heart and creates a world of his own and in so doing, changes the hearts and minds of the people around him.
If you feel strongly about a story, go for it. There really is magic in believing. I know that this is true because now, no one else in the world will be writing “Weslandia,” the musical, without at least talking to me first.
So on Friday and Saturday, May 8 and 9, 7 p.m., my 6th grade theater class will be presenting “Weslandia,” the musical, based on the picture book by Paul Fleischman, at Plymouth Meeting Friends School, Germantown and Butler Pikes.