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Prop. 8 repercussions hit Sacramento theater

November 11, 2008 |  3:09 pm

The blowback from last Tuesday's passage of Prop. 8, which prohibits same-sex marriage in California, has hit the California Musical Theatre, a major nonprofit stage company in Sacramento, following the revelation via the Web that its artistic director gave $1,000 to back the state constitutional amendment.

Among those weighing in with dismay over Scott Eckern's donation are Tony winners Jeff Whitty, who wrote the book for "Avenue Q," and Marc Shaiman, composer and co-lyricist of "Hairspray." Shaiman said Tuesday that he phoned Eckern on Friday to protest, then e-mailed more than 1,000 contacts to alert them about the donation.Marc Shaiman, composer of Hairspray

"Of course it's his right to donate the money," said Shaiman, who was disappointed that Eckern, a California Musical Theatre employee since 1984 and its artistic director since 2003, had benefited from last season's touring production of "Hairspray," then piped money to a cause the L.A.-based Shaiman deplores. In their conversation, Shaiman said, "he basically gave me that thing we're just sick of hearing -- 'these are my religious beliefs, but it's nothing personal' " against gay people. "I don't want to hear that anymore. I just told him I'm disgusted at that use of money that came in some way from a show I created." (Update: The “Hairspray” production at California Musical Theatre last August was not a touring production, but one mounted by CMT itself. A touring version of “Hairspray” was seen at the theater in 2004.)

Whitty, whose "Avenue Q" is scheduled to play the Sacramento theater in March, was among those alerted by Shaiman's e-mail. On Monday,  he wrote in his whitless.com blog that "like Marc, I'll work to prevent CMT from producing any of my future shows with Mr. Eckern at the helm. To me, he's one of those hypocrites who profits from the contributions of gays ... but thinks of us as ultimately damned."

Jeff Whitty winning a Tony award for Avenue Q But today, despite wanting to "make an example of somebody," Whitty blogged that he reversed his stance on a boycott, writing that Eckern had given him a "convincing and sincere apology" and didn't deserve to be targeted for more censure. Whitty said he would "look forward to working with the California Musical Theatre in the future."

Shaiman said he would keep pushing for public acknowledgment and redress that would not damage the theater for one individual's political views but would make it clear that anti-gay views won't be accepted in the theater community. A benefit event at California Musical Theatre might be appropriate, he said, allowing backers of gay marriage an artistic platform while raising money to help mount a legal appeal to overturn Prop. 8.

In any case, Shaiman said, the response should be measured. When told that Eckern's donation had been posted on a website called antigayblacklist.com that calls for a boycott against businesses and professionals who backed Prop. 8 -- including some public school teachers -- the composer, who also writes film music, questioned using the word "blacklist," the term for the exclusion of artists in 1950s Hollywood for having suspected Communist leanings. "We have to watch ourselves and not become what we're fighting against," he said.   

Eckern released a statement today apologizing "for any harm or injury" caused by his donation. He said he would donate $1,000 -- commensurate to what he gave Prop. 8 backers -- to the Human Rights Campaign, a group that supports equal rights for gays and lesbians. Update: Eckern’s full statement is here.

After talking with many friends and colleagues, he said, "I have a better idea ... how deeply felt these issues are, and I am deeply saddened that my acting upon my religious convictions has been devastating to those I love and admire." He noted that his sister, a lesbian, is in a domestic partnership relationship.

Richard Lewis, the executive producer whose family founded California Musical Theatre decades ago, said Eckern's views were his own, not the theater's, and affirmed "appreciation ... for the [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender] community who have played a crucial role in our success." A torrent of e-mails and calls protesting Eckern's donation began on Friday and has continued, said Lewis, who likened the  blowup to when Los Angeles Dodgers executive Al Campanis questioned on national television whether black ballplayers had the right stuff to be successful baseball managers.

"We're looking at the magnitude of the situation and need to discuss whether we take any action.... We don't want to rush into things and do something foolish," Lewis added. "We just put the initial statement out there: 'Don't punish the theater for what Scott chose to do.' "

The theater, which presents touring Broadway shows and produces its own summer musical festival of seven shows, hiring scores of actors and designers who commonly work in New York, has no policy against employees being politically active or making political contributions, Lewis said. He dismissed the notion that Eckern could be fired for backing Prop. 8 or that it would be allowable under California employment law.

-- Mike Boehm

Photos: Marc Shaiman, top; Jeff Whitty, with Tony Award

Photo credits: Shaiman, Al Seib / Los Angeles Times; Whitty, Jeff Christensen / Reuters

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