UPDATED THROUGHOUT: In a court battle over money and reputations, the partnership that sought to bring Rebecca the Musical to Broadway won a token $90,000 damage award against its former press agent — less than 1 percent of what producers were seeking.
Publicist Marc Thibodeau hugged his lawyers and cried after the jury verdict. Five women and one man decided that Thibodeau wrongfully interfered with a contract but didn’t defame Rebecca Broadway LP when he sent rogue emails under the pseudonyms Sarah Finkelstein and Bethany Walsh. The emails warned a prospective investor that Rebecca‘s commercial potential was questionable and there was fraud in its midst .
“I am very relieved and gratified,” Thibodeau said in an interview. “It’s been a tough four and a half years.”
Lead producer Ben Sprecher ignored a reporter’s questions after the verdict. Ron Russo, one of the partnership’s lawyers, conceded disappointment about the damages. But the “jury made clear today that Mr. Thibodeau was not a ‘whistleblower,’ as he has contended, and found that his having sent four emails under false names was wrongful,” Russo said in an emailed statement.
Russo didn’t respond to a query about whether the partnership will appeal, or whether producers proceed with a personal suit against Thibodeau. After deliberating for a day and a half, jurors didn’t linger at the courthouse in lower Manhattan and weren’t available for interviews.
The civil case began in 2013, when Rebecca Broadway LP added Marc Thibodeau to an existing suit. In a 2015 decision, Judge Jeffrey Oing decided in the producers’ favor that Thibodeau breached his contract. Today, the jury awarded just $5,000 for the breach — precisely what Thibodeau earned for his work on Rebecca — and $85,000 for interfering with Rebecca Broadway’s contract with the prospective investor, Larry Runsdorf. Sprecher and his producing partner, Louise Forlenza, sought $10.6 million in compensatory damages, plus punitive damages.
The producers spent about $5.6 million of investors’ money, including more than $1 million on the set, before being forced to abandon the production at the end of September, 2012, because they couldn’t raise the entire $12 million capitalization. They blamed Thibodeau’s emails for the collapse, days before rehearsals were to begin.
Since October 2012, Rebecca Broadway spent an additional $620,000 on maintaining the show, including storing sets and on readings in an unsuccessful attempt to finally bring it Broadway. Forlenza testified she lent the partnership most of the $620,000.
Rebecca the Musical was first produced in Vienna in 2006. Sprecher and Forlenza secured the English-language rights in 2008 — and lost them in 2016, Erik Groothuis, a lawyer for the partnership, disclosed in court.
Thibodeau’s lawyers, led by Andrew Miltenberg, argued that even with $2.25 million from Runsdorf — who got cold feet after Thibodeau’s emails — completing the capitalization was a pipe dream. Runsdorf had specified that he would only invest once the rest of the money was in place. Runsdorf didn’t testify, which may have hampered Rebecca Broadway’s case.
The recollections of Thibodeau and the producers dominated the acrimonious two-and-a-half-week trial. Jonathan Mazer, another attorney for the producing partnership, said in his closing statement about Thibodeau: “He’s a bald-faced liar. He is disloyal. He betrayed the musical. He betrayed Sprecher. He did everything he could to bring down this musical and he succeeded.”
The jurors found that Thibodeau intended to interfere with the prospective business relationship between Rebecca Broadway and Runsdorf, but the press agent didn’t act “for the sole purpose of harming” the partnership.
Thibodeau sent the emails after alerting Sprecher to fraud lawsuits against a stock broker named Mark Hotton, who had been hired to raise money for Rebecca. Hotton purportedly brought in four overseas backers who committed $4.5 million. In reality, the overseas angels never existed and never ponied up a penny. Hotton, now in federal prison, fleeced Sprecher and Forlenza out of tens of thousands of dollars in fees and expenses in connection with the phantom investors.
After being repeatedly warned about Hotton, Sprecher brushed off the press agent’s concern about the fraud, which Thibodeau found “deeply concerning.” There was also concurrent New York Times coverage suggesting that the overseas investors weren’t real. Sprecher testified that by then he was focused on raising money elsewhere.
Since Thibodeau was unmasked as the emailer, Sprecher and Forlenza pursued him “viciously.””I feel like they’ve tried to ruin my life,” Thibodeau said in court. “It has been a four-and-a-half-year nightmare, so I don’t have a positive opinion of them now, no.”
Thibodeau said in the interview today that an insurer paid his court fees and he must pay the $90,000 damages out of pocket. The press agent said his reputation was on the line. “That’s why the defamation claim was the most important one for me,” he said. “For me, this was about, ‘I told the truth.”