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Heirs can wield great power if granted through an estate plan

There was a time when Broadway served as the gold standard of American entertainment. There are those who lament that the shimmer has faded. But there are signs that managers of some of the greatest musical theater estates are trying to breathe new life into the Great White Way. It's a trend that is noted by observant estate planning attorneys in New Jersey and elsewhere.

Perhaps one of the prime examples of this movement is that represented by the executors of the George and Ira Gershwin estates. Heirs of the famous brothers have been working since the 1990s to capitalize on the brand equity that goes with the Gershwin name. They are hoping to see the fruits of their labors this week when "Porgy & Bess," now titled "The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess," opens on Broadway. As an adjunct to the show, they're hoping to reissue the Porgy and Bess story in book form, without music.

What once was a four-hour opera has reportedly been transformed into a more streamlined two-hour musical adaptation that the Gershwin heirs hope will lend itself to being produced by all sorts of companies, much as is done so commonly now with shows like "Oklahoma!" and "My Fair Lady."

According to The New York Times, the Gershwin heirs are not alone. Managers of the estates of Alan Jay Lerner, Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein are all working to polish up old plays that featured songs that became standards in their day so that they can be remarketed for a new generation. In some instances they're even refashioning productions to feature the show standards and some formerly stand-alone hits.

The actions of the estate conservators are not without detractors. Some theater purists have attacked the Gershwin heirs accusing them of greed and diluting the Gershwin legacy. But the heirs say their greater responsibility is to be sure the legacy of the music continues and that the families of the two brothers can continue to enjoy the financial benefits.

John Kander, one of the co-writers of the scores for such shows as "Cabaret" and "Chicago," offers the wisdom that in order to avoid such conflicts it behooves composers and writers, like any artist, to leave specific instructions about how to protect the works they create. The way to do that is through proper estate planning.

Source: The New York Times, "The Songs Remain the Same, but Broadway Heirs Call the Shots," Patrick Healy, Jan. 9, 2012

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