EXCLUSIVE: Ben Sprecher‘s six-year campaign to hold his former press agent accountable for the collapse of his musical and reputation has been cleared for another courtroom showdown.
Earlier this month, an appellate court declined to intervene in the producer’s lawsuit against publicist Marc Thibodeau, opening the door for a second trial relating to the aborted musical Rebecca. At issue are emails that the press agent sent to a prospective backer in September 2012, linking Sprecher to a fraud.
Sprecher is “radioactive in the theater community and unable to find work,” the producer’s lead lawyer, Erik Groothuis of Schlam Stone & Dolan, wrote in an October 2018 brief in New York Supreme Court. Thibodeau “torpedoed both the musical, and my career with it,” Sprecher said in a 2017 sworn statement.
In the run-up to an opening that never happened, the show was short the $12 million it required. Sprecher and his producing partner, Louise Forlenza, were derailed by a bizarre con, hatched by a Long Island stockbroker named Mark Hotton. There’s no evidence that the producers were aware at the time of Hotton’s fraud. But had they checked his regulatory history or done other due diligence before contracting with him to raise money, they might’ve avoided relying on four fictional investors Hotton invented for a third of the musical’s minimum capitalization.
“Subcontracting fundraising out to people you don’t know to find investment from other people you don’t know is a treacherous undertaking,” said Jason Baruch, with the entertainment law firm Sendroff & Baruch. That’s especially true when working on a tight deadline and casting a wide net outside of conventional sources, he said.
Baruch wasn’t involved with Rebecca, although his wife, Maree Johnson, had been hired to make her Broadway debut in the cast. She received three weeks pay for the show, which was cancelled a day before the first rehearsal. (She’s now in Phantom of the Opera, the 31-year-old Broadway workhorse that’s represented by Thibodeau’s company, The Publicity Office.)
Momentum has shifted throughout the legal epic. In May 2015, Judge Jeffrey Oing sided with the production partnership Rebecca Broadway LP, ruling that Thibodeau breached his contract by sending anonymous, disparaging emails about Rebecca to a prospective co-producer, Larry Runsdorf. Apparently spooked, Runsdorf withdrew a $2.25 million investment. “Those emails literally tanked the show,” Judge Oing said.
Two years later, a jury found that Thibodeau also wrongfully interfered with Rebecca Broadway’s contract with Runsdorf. But it awarded damages of just $90,000, less than 1 percent of what Sprecher and Forlenza sought. Jurors may have been swayed by Thibodeau’s argument that even with Runsdorf’s money, the producers would have been at least $1 million short of the minimum capitalization.
Two potential star witnesses were MIA for the trial: Hotton was in Federal prison, to be released in 2025. Runsdorf declined to testify and later died, at 78.
Sprecher and Thibodeau referred questions for this story to their lawyers.
Set on the fictional estate of Manderley and based on Daphne Du Maurier’s 1938 novel, Rebecca enjoyed a rave review in Variety when it opened in Vienna in 2006. It played throughout Europe. Sprecher, who’s worked in theater since the mid-1970s in various capacities but never as a lead producer of a Broadway musical, acquired the English language rights, with Forlenza.
The project wasn’t charmed. A London engagement was scrapped because of flooding at its designated theater, the Shaftesbury. And Broadway was first postponed after a co-producer pulled out of a $3 million commitment.
The producers turned to Hotton, who strung them along with a shaggy-dog story about high-flying, unseen overseas backers and one dying of malaria. Reporter Patrick Healy raised questions about the narrative in the New York Times, as did Thibodeau privately, who testified that Sprecher brushed off his concerns. The producer has said that he was preoccupied with salvaging the show.
The press agent, writing that he sought to protect an innocent man from losing money, forwarded articles about Rebecca to Runsdorf”s lawyers under one pseudonym, and emailed him directly under another. “The walls are about to cave in on Mr. Sprecher and the Rebecca Broadway production,” Thibodeau wrote to Runsdorf, using the name Sarah Finkelstein.
In September 2018, a judge narrowed Sprecher’s personal suit against Thibodeau to exclude lost income from Rebecca. The suit now focuses on other Sprecher projects potentially affected by Thibodeau’s emails — particularly Little House on the Prairie and The Exorcist.
The emails created suspicions about Sprecher’s “character and fitness to work on theater projects,” deterring potential business partners, Groothuis wrote in a brief late last year. Thibodeau’s team countered that the press agent is being wrongly blamed for “Sprecher’s own problems for having involved himself with a fraudster” and his “longstanding difficulties in raising money for shows.”
Fundraising for those two titles would have been tough under any circumstances. When reviewing the first stop of the Sprecher-produced Little House on the Prairie national tour at New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse, in 2009, Variety critic Steven Suskin called it “an awkward and unsatisfying mix” of different stories. Stephen Dalton, in one of the more generous reviews of a 2017 London staging of Exorcist, produced by special arrangement with Sprecher and Stuart Snyder, described it in The Hollywood Reporter as “a modestly scary old-school shocker.”
Should Sprecher prevail, it’s unclear what damages Thibodeau could afford. Philip Byler of Nesenoff & Miltenberg, which represents Thibodeau, said insurance doesn’t cover the suit. “Even if Thibodeau had a billion dollars, this is a nonsense case,” Byler said in an interview.
Ron Russo, a Schlam Stone lawyer designated as Sprecher’s spokesman, said that the firm is determined to win an “appropriate” award from Thibodeau. “We will do this in every forum available to us, for as long as it takes us, to remedy the enormous damage he inflicted on Rebecca and the scores of innocent theatre people who were damaged,” Russo said in a statement last May. He didn’t return emails this week.
Sprecher is still heartbroken that Rebecca never made it to Broadway, he said in an interview last year with the theater company Primary Stages. At the trial, he praised its “fantastic music,” “compelling” and “redemptive” story and its visual effects.
“We burn Manderley to the ground,” Sprecher testified. “Literally burn the whole thing to the ground eight times a week.”