A jury handed down a mixed verdict Wednesday in the trial of a Broadway press agent accused of scaring off an angel investor who stood ready to save the ill-fated production “Rebecca—The Musical.”
After two days of deliberations, a six-person jury in Manhattan Supreme Court cleared publicist Marc Thibodeau of defamation, but found him liable for tortious interference with prospective business relations.
Thibodeau already had been found liable by Commercial Division Justice Jeffrey Oing, at the summary judgment stage, for breach of his agent contract with “Rebecca.”
However, the jury on Wednesday—in a decision that case lawyers on both sides said was curious—awarded only $5,000 for breach of contract and $85,000 for tortious interference to plaintiff Rebecca Broadway Limited Partnership, the production company behind the never-made show.
Producers from the partnership, including Broadway show veterans Ben Sprecher and Louise Forlenza, had been asking for more than $10 million.
“We think this is a complete vindication of Mr. Thibodeau,” said Thibodeau’s lawyer, Andrew Miltenberg, on Wednesday.
“It surprised me” that any damages were awarded, he added, “but given how much the plaintiffs were seeking, it really speaks to what the jurors thought of the alleged damages.”
Erik Groothuis, a lawyer for Rebecca Broadway Limited Partnership, saw it differently.
“It’s clearly not a vindication of Thibodeau,” he said. “Thibodeau had already been found liable on the breach of contract claim. Now, a jury has found him liable on the tortious interference claim. That is a finding that, contrary to his testimony that he was a whistleblower, says he tortiously interfered with his contract.”
“Obviously we were disappointed in the amount the jury awarded,” Groothuis said.
Both Groothuis and Miltenberg noted that $5,000 was the amount the production company paid Thibodeau for his services, and so how the jury pinpointed the amount seemed apparent. How jurors arrived at $85,000 for tortious interference was much harder to explain, they both said.
“Rebecca—The Musical” has never been shown in the United States, despite production attempts dating back to at least 2012. Lack of funding and one stage-worthy plot twist after another, including false promises of a major foreign investor named “Paul Abrams” who never actually existed, have kept it aground.
The musical is an adaptation of the 1938 Gothic novel “Rebecca,” by Daphne du Maurier, that tells the tale of a ghost haunting a young bride.
In the tale of “Rebecca’s” doomed U.S. production, “Paul Abrams” became a ghost of a sort, as well.
“This is the most fascinating case I’ve ever been a part of, both factually and legally,” Groothuis said last summer. “I’ve often thought somebody is going to make a musical about the making of this musical—and about the struggle it has been for my client.”
Sprecher and Forlenza acquired the English-speaking rights to the show in 2008 and planned to open it in London. But it was canceled after problems with a special effect.
They switched their aim to the Great White Way, but by 2012 were forced to postpone performances because of lack of funding.
Meanwhile, Mark Hotton, a man hired to raise capital for the show who currently sits in federal prison, told Sprecher and Forlenza that he’d found a major British investor named “Paul Abrams.” As time came for the investment, though, Hotton announced that Abrams had contracted malaria in Africa and died.
A New York Times story in October 2012 then reported that several of the “investors” in the show, including “Abrams,” never existed.
As producers scrambled, Larry Runsdorf, an angel investor from Florida, stepped forward. But soon after, he began getting emails from anonymous accounts that warned him that his money would be lost. One said the “cloud hanging over this production is very, very dark”; another included the Times article.
He quickly backed out.
The surreptitious emails had come from publicist Thibodeau, leading to the lawsuit before Oing.
Miltenberg, a partner at Nesenoff & Miltenberg in Manhattan, said Wednesday that he believes the jurors cleared his client of defaming the production because there was “a very strong feeling that Marc Thibodeau was expressing an opinion and telling the truth” when he informed Runsdorf that the show was troubled.
“What he said was either his opinion or it was information that was readily available to the public from two New York Times articles and a New York Post article,” Miltenberg added. “None of this was a surprise to anybody, including the angel investor.”
He also noted that Runsdorf never took the stand for plaintiffs.
“How can you say that but for this email from Thibodeau, this man would have invested two and quarter million dollars, if he wasn’t there to testify?” Miltenberg said. “They just had a lot of speculative testimony. And they went to the jurors to raise money for this show, and the jury said no to it.”
But Ronald Russo, another lawyer for the production and of counsel at Schlam Stone, said in a statement Wednesday, “A six-member 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.”
Groothuis added that the plaintiffs will consider whether there are issues for appeal in the lawsuit, Rebecca Broadway v. Hotton, 65369/12.
Sprecher and Forlenza, he added, finally let go of the rights to “Rebecca” at the end of 2016; they could no longer afford to extend the rights from an Austrian company that holds them.
“Rebecca” had a different life in Vienna. Starting in 2006, it played to sold-out houses for three years.