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Entertainment & Arts

‘Bring It On: The Musical’ is in a spirited legal tussle

“Bring It On: The Musical,” which begins performances at the Ahmanson Theatre on Oct. 30, promises flashy dance numbers and high-flying acrobatics as rival high school cheerleading squads battle for first place at the national championships.

Off stage, a different sort of battle is shaping up between the producers of the musical and the screenwriter of the 2000 motion picture “Bring It On,” who is arguing that the show is based on the original movie.

Jessica Bendinger, the sole credited screenwriter for the film, claims the musical’s producers never acquired or received permission to use her exclusive rights, according to a request for arbitration filed by the Writers Guild of America. The WGA is seeking damages and to halt the show until the producers have acquired Bendinger’s rights.

The guild is seeking the arbitration with Beacon Communications, an L.A.-based entertainment company that is the producer of the musical along with Universal Pictures Stage Productions. (The former company is now known as Beacon Pictures). Beacon produced the movie, starring Kirsten Dunst, as well as its four direct-to-video sequels. Universal distributed the original movie domestically.

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Attorneys for Bendinger are also trying to draw Center Theatre Group into the fray. “Bring It On: The Musical” will start its national tour at the Ahmanson before traveling to more than 10 other cities, including San Francisco, Denver, Houston, Chicago and Dallas.

Bendinger’s attorneys recently sent a letter to Michael Ritchie, artistic director of CTG, requesting the company stop using marketing material that refers to the show as an “original” creation. The letter states that the company’s advertising is “misleading the public” and is damaging to the people who worked on the movie.

The website for CTG describes the production as an “entirely original musical comedy.” Nancy Hereford, a spokeswoman for CTG, said the company has no comment on the legal proceedings.

Universal spokeswoman Kori Bernards said, “There is no basis for this claim and as the legal process unfolds, that will become clear to all parties involved.”

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Bendinger claims that the creative team behind the musical have used her story and merely altered some plot elements and character names. “It’s the movie with some convenient details changed,” she said in a recent interview. “If it’s an original, how did they get the idea?”

Bendinger said she got in touch with the WGA in February, when the show had its world premiere at the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta. She hasn’t seen the musical but has a copy of the script.

Both the musical and the original film focus on a cheer-team rivalry between an affluent high school and one from a poorer, urban district, according to published reports. But the stage show produced in Atlanta differs from the film in certain respects. In the musical, the perky blond heroine, named Campbell, is reassigned to urban Jackson High School where she must win the respect of her new teammates, as it remains in competition with her old school. The plot twist doesn’t exist in the original movie. The musical also invents supporting characters that don’t exist in the movie, including a cross-dressing student named La Cienaga.

“Bring It On: The Musical” boasts an unusually prestigious creative team for a touring production. The score is co-written by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Tom Kitt, both Tony Award winners for “In the Heights” and “Next to Normal,” respectively. The book for the musical is by Jeff Whitty, a Tony winner for “Avenue Q.”

It remains unclear if there are plans to transfer the musical to Broadway after its national tour.

Bendinger said she was planning her own stage version of the movie for several years with producer Marc Platt at Universal. (Platt, the producer of the long-running hit “Wicked,” did not respond to a request for comment.) She said in 2004, she met with Whitty, who wanted to collaborate with her, but a partnership never materialized.

After she learned about the competing stage project, Bendinger said she had a meeting with Beacon executive Charlie Lyons in which they discussed the possibility of working something out. But she later learned that Beacon was going to use the “Bring It On” title rights — essentially the name of the movie — and that they were offering her a token amount for her not to use her rights on the material.

Show spokesman Michael Hartman said that the producers won’t comment on legal matters.

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Bendinger said audiences are likely to assume that the movie and the musical are related. “The producers are banking on that confusion and in the process, capitalizing on my rights,” she said.

An arbitration session for the Writers Guild and Beacon is expected to take place in February, according to Neville Johnson, Bendinger’s attorney. He said claims such as this are uncommon in the world of entertainment, though he mentioned a similar dispute in 2000 involving a screenwriter for the movie “Waterworld” and a Universal theme-park show that shared its name. In that situation, he said, arbitration proved favorably for the screenwriter.

The “Bring It On” decision could end up being an important one as more Hollywood properties are being turned into stage musicals. Some recent film-to-stage adaptations show how complicated apportioning writing credits can be. The credits for the Broadway musical “Legally Blonde” state that the show is based on the novel by Amanda Brown as well as the 2001 movie. “Sister Act,” currently on Broadway, lists the screenwriter for the original 1992 movie among its credits.

Bendinger said she would allow the “Bring It On” musical to proceed if she is properly credited and compensated.

A favorable decision for Bendinger would be too late to affect the L.A. leg of the “Bring It On” tour, which concludes in December. But the show is scheduled to travel to other cities through April.

david.ng@latimes.com


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