“Vintage POP!” – A review of American Pop Music

By Claire DeMarco

It was a pleasure and delight to spend last Monday evening, March 27th with Carole J. Bufford.

Note:  Okay, there were several hundred other people there, too!

Bufford wowed the audience at the O’Reilly Theater as she presented her “Vintage POP!” show as part of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust’s Cabaret Series.

Carole J. Bufford getting jazzy. Photo Credit: Sarah Haley

Multi-talented with a wonderful singing voice and a big personality, she often incorporated a little dance or two while performing.  Bufford had a rapport with the audience that you could feel was genuine and the audience responded in kind.

“Vintage POP!” took us on a journey from the 1920s to the 1980s – years considered to be the prime years of American pop music.

Some of the songs included in the program had interesting stories behind them and Bufford enjoyed highlighting them. “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” was almost eliminated from the classic movie “Wizard of Oz.” Bei Mir Bist Du Schön started out as a Yiddish love song and was popularized by the Andrews Sisters, Lutheran siblings from Minnesota.

Bufford regaled us with a variety of songs from the 1919 “There’ll Be a Change in the Weather” through the decades to the 1980’s Tina Turner classic “The Best.”

Bufford is “simply the best.”


The Greer Cabaret Theater is temporarily closed for renovation. The next show in the Trust Cabaret Series is on Monday, May 8, 2023 at the O’Reilly Theater featuring Norm Lewis.  For more information, click here.

Southern Grit(s) – a review of “Steel Magnolias”

By Claire DeMarco

A big wedding is happening this afternoon in a small rural town in 1980’s Louisiana.

Truvy (Robyne Parrish) owner of a home-based beauty salon expects this day to be a bit busier than normal.

She just hired Annelle (Saige Smith) as an assistant and poor Annelle will be thrown head first into hairspray overload, giant rollers and ever churning hair dryers.

Note:  Those old dryers that look like space helmets!

Bride-to-be Shelby (Kyra Kennedy), her mother M’Lynn (Monica Wyche) and Clairee (Elizabeth Elias Huffman) are in various degrees of “hair care.”  Ouiser (Helena Ruoti) arrives late, in a bad mood from the get-go.

Note:  She will later claim that she’s “been in a bad mood for forty years.”

Conversation is centered on Shelby’s upcoming wedding, the preparations, the excitement, promises and hopes to come.

The seasons change, the beauty salon doesn’t.  The customers and friends are still there.

Shelby is married and has a new baby. M’Linn is concerned since Shelby is a diabetic and has been cautioned not to conceive.  A beauty salon is not only a social center for light conversation. It’s a gossip hub as well, where some secrets and discussions are best left at home (but aren’t).

Time passes and Shelby’s health worsens. M’Lynn, Truvy, Clairee, Annelle and Quiser provide the support, comfort, tears and laughter for dealing with life and its many ups and downs.

As the gum chewing, flashy dresser, Parrish shines as Truvy.  She is definitely the epitome of a Southern belle. She gives her opinions willingly, whether you asked for them or not.

We watch Smith transition from a backward, awkward new employee to an assertive and confident member of the group.

Truvy (Robyne Parrish) preps her hair before opening her beauty salon.

Elias Huffman captures the essence of a wealthier, more poised member of the group but one who interjects her verbal shots as well as her cohorts.

Kennedy is the perfect Shelby.  She’s positive, upbeat, forward looking in spite of her limitations.

Wyche portrays M’Linn as the ever-present concerned parent who has watched over Shelby for years.  She shows us how she adapts when Shelby determines her own destiny.

Ruoti is delightful as the ouchy, grouchy Ouiser.  She captures us the moment she hits the stage.  Hardly ever smiling and squinting like she just swallowed a lemon slice.  Ruoti subtly hints that there is a softness behind that façade.

You go Girl(s)!!!

Excellent production and so appropriate for Women’s History Month. Kudos to Director Marya Sea Kaminski.


 “Steel Magnolias” is a production of Pittsburgh Public Theater.  It runs from March 22 through April 9. For more information, click here.




Corny Antics from Pittsburgh to London – a review of “Serenade”

By Claire DeMarco

Tess Townley (Rachel Lewandowski) is a psychologist.  She is also a bit wacky, enthusiastic, prone to jump into situations where she often causes more problems than solutions.  Her friend and colleague, Owen York (Garrett Galcik) are great friends with York wishful that the relationship could be deeper. Owen refers to her as “I Love Lucy with a phd”.

Following the cries of a missing cat, Tess meets the cat’s owner, Englishman Terrence Wakefield (Sam Ruffino).  Time is as fast-paced as the play’s action and Tess and Terrence immediately fall in love with a promise to meet in London on Christmas Eve.

Tess interacts with a menagerie of different people as her journey to London progresses.

Religious Sisters Manchester – Terrier Vashon (Vivian Rose Ferris) and Chautauqua Thibault (Ellie Troiani) interact with Tess at the airport and on the plane.

Wink Shanahan (Benjamin Steffey), a well-known Cornhole Champion (and Tess’s brother-in-law) is also off to England for a large International Cornhole competition.

Note:  Wink is also on the same plane.

Does Tess meet up with Terrence in London?  Is there a happy ending?  What happens to the nuns and of course, Wink, our world class cornholer?

Lewandowski’s Tess is energetic and sometimes child-like.  She is especially funny as she gets stuck attempting to exit a window, legs and butt hanging and flailing frantically.

Galcik is convincing as the solemn, downtrodden, depressed professor.

Ruffino’s English accent is spot on, portraying Terrence as the typical steady Brit.

Ferris and Troiani work well together.  Troaini’s character plays the old school nun (with ever present ruler in hand) while Ferris represents the more modern, compromising nun.

“Serenade” is a buffet of corny, crazy actions as we follow Tess on her wild journey from Pittsburgh to London.

Note:  These antics are presented in an over-the-top frantic way that at times becomes a distraction.

The world-wide premiere of “Serenade” was written by Timothy Ruppert.


 “Serenade” is a production of the Red Masquers at Duquesne University’s Genesius Theater. It runs from March 23 through April 2. For more information, click here.

You’ve got a friend in Pennsylvania – a review of “Shantytown – The Ballad of Fr. James Cox

By Michael Buzzelli

A cynical reporter, Stephen (Joseph McGranaghan), sets out to expose a nationally known celebrity working in Pittsburgh, Father James R. Cox (Michael Fuller), only to realize the good in humanity in Ray Werner’s “Shantytown – the Ballad of Fr. James Cox – the Musical.”

If the plot sounds familiar, you may have seen “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” wherein a cynical reporter sets out to expose a nationally known celebrity working in Pittsburgh only to realize the good in humanity.  The biggest difference in the plot is that Father Cox was on the radio, Mr. Rogers was on TV, and “Shantytown” is a musical.

Despite the recognizable plot, Father James Cox was a fascinating historical character.  The  graduate of Holy Ghost College (now Duquesne University), he was the youngest priest to lead Old St. Patrick’s Church in the Strip District.  During the Depression, Cox  organized a food-relief program and helped the homeless and unemployed find shelter (i.e. creating Shantytown in the Strip). 

In January 1932, Cox led a march of 20,000 unemployed Pennsylvanians, dubbed “Cox’s Army,” on Washington, D.C to confront Herbert Hoover (J. Alex Noble in a variety of roles). The march sparked the Jobless Party, and Cox ran for president.  When his efforts failed, he backed Roosevelt who took the White House later that year.

The cast of Shantytown assembles on stage. Photo Credit: Mark Clayton Southers.

Making “Shantytown – the Ballad of Fr. James Cox” is an ambitious move. There are two really fun songs in the show, “Johnny, I hardly knew ye,” a traditional Irish ballad and famous anti-war song (versions of the song go back to 1867, but it became popular again in the 1970s to protest the Viet Nam war), and “The Haircut Song,” a humorous and original ditty about men kibitzing in the barber shop (delightfully sung by Sam Lothard and the cast). Lothard’s beautifully shiny head gets the biggest laugh in the show when he runs his hand over his bald pate and sings about the army barber cutting off all of his hair.

The cast does a great job with the material. In the chorus, the voices meld together mellifluously.  Despite the gloom of the Depression, the actors look like they’re all having a ball on the stage and their exuberance is contagious.

There’s a stand out performance by Dominique Briggs, who plays Catherine, Cox’s secretary and all-around right-hand-woman. Briggs electrifies the stage in every scene. She has a strong stage presence.

Another outstanding member of the cast is Michele Bankole who sings her heart out.  Pittsburgh stages need more Briggs and Bankole in the future.

There is, however, a weird and mostly unnecessary bit of shadow puppetry, literally and figuratively, hammering away at any subtleties in the show.  The play’s subject matter is so engaging, it doesn’t need shadowy reenactments of the lyrics to make a point.

Werner, best known in advertising for his song, “You’ve Got a Friend in Pennsylvania,” has picked a worthy historical figure to create a show about, Cox was credited with dishing out 300 million meals.

In the recent past of Pittsburgh productions, there have been a plethora of plays based on true-life characters Point Park’s “Men in Boats” about Powell’s expedition down the Colorado River, and the National Tour of “Six: The Musical,” about the six wives of Henry VIII. Now, “Shantytown” joins their ranks. In all cases, it might lead audiences to learn more about the historical shows these characters are based on. The life and times of Father James R. Cox is a worthy subject to take you down an Internet rabbit hole.

“Shantytown – The Ballad of Fr. James Cox – the Musical” gives us Hope (so much so there’s an entire song dedicated to it), and hope is always a good thing.


“Shantytown – The Ballad of Fr. James Cox” runs until March 26th, 2023 at the  Madison Arts Center, 3401 Milwaukee Street, Pittsburgh, PA For more information, click here

Border dispute – a review of “Native Gardens”

By Michael Buzzelli, an Irish Twin

Pablo (Juan Rivera Lebron) and his very pregnant wife, Tania (Evelyn Hernandez), are trying to lay down roots, literally and figuratively, in a swanky neighborhood in Washington, D.C., but their plans go awry when they meet their neighbors, Frank (Cotter Smith) and Virginia (Laurie Klatscher), in “Native Gardens,” by Karen Zacarias.

When the neighbors meet, the seeds of a friendship are sown. Things start off as friendly, even though generational differences, politics and and race seep through the cracks of their friendship like weeds on the sidewalk.

Frank prides himself in his almost award-winning garden (he keeps coming in second to an unseen enemy). He has meticulously maintained the green space with weed-killers and pruning shears. Tania, however, wants go wild, planting native species in her backyard, even though it will attract bugs and bees into the space. Pests that Frank has been desperately attempting to destroy to save his hydrangeas.  The central conflict between the neighbors is around twenty-two inches long. Frank’s garden encroaches into Pablo and Tania’s newly surveyed land and a dispute ensues.

Frank, a dyed-in-the-red-wool Republican, has unknowingly crossed the border into Pablo and Tania’s yard, and he tries to save his garden before the contest judges come by to declare it a winner. Pablo and Tania, however,  are trying to get their backyard fence up in time for a garden party with Pablo’s law firm.

Tensions mount and the backyard brawl begins to escalate, a war of words and petty battles begins (a cigarette butt becomes the butt of a joke in their skirmish). While their opinions are quite contrary, their gardens grow!

Photo credit: Kristi Jan Hoover

Zacarias adds complexity to a simple story about a land dispute between neighbors. It’s sharp and witty, but it’s text and no subtext. Everyone says and does exactly what their thinking. While it takes on some very substantive issues in a humorous way, it hammers them down hard like the stakes in Pablo’s new fence.

The acting is superb. Marc Masterson does another outstanding job directing, letting the cast blossom in their own vibrant colors.

Hernandez is a delight as the soon-to-be mom Tania.  She’s strong and forthright without ever being a pest.

Frank’s crotchety old man is a trope, but Smith gives him nuance and vulnerability. Smith lands some  great silent gags as he putters around in his garden, germinating on revenge.

Klatscher’s Virginia is so immensely likable, even when she tries to be the bad seed, sewing chaos by summoning a lawyer (Maame Danso in a silent cameo) to produce a cease and desist.  Virginia is  lovably awkward thanks to Klatscher’s charm.

Rivera Lebron is no wilting flower, but his costars get more time in the sun.

All of the elements align in perfection in this production.

Tony Ferrieri isn’t your garden variety scenic designer.  He creates another stunning set. Half of the set is Frank and Virginia’s pristine yard, and the other is Pablo and Tania’s more rustic space. The large oak, a plot point in the play, looms majestically over the set.

Paul Whitaker’s lighting design brilliantly sets the time of day for each scene.

The show is about  a minor grievance between neighbors, but in the end, compassion wins. Love wins (even for Frank and Virginia’s off-stage son).

The characters are all likable and their arguments valid. “Native Gardens” makes a strong point about seeing past our differences and being human beings together.  It’s the petty squabbles that crop up on our garden path. What better way to break down barriers – than through laughter?

“Native Gardens” is not an easy plot to hoe, but it’s an important idea to cultivate.


“Native Gardens” is planted at the City Theatre, 1300 Bingham Street, Pittsburgh, PA 15203, until April 2. For more information, click here


A Grand Adventure – a review of “Men in Boats”

by Michael Buzzelli

In 1869, Civil War veteran John Wesley Powell (Haley Holmes) was appointed to President  James A. Garfield to take  a group of men on  an exploratory mission down the Colorado River and through the Grand Canyon (as it would be named later). Playwright Jacklyn Backhaus delves into Powell’s journals  of that fateful expedition in a bright, imaginative way in “Men in Boats.”

First, there are no men in “Men in Boats.” The cast is made up of women and non-binary actors.  It is the single most fascinating thing about the play.  Gender doesn’t matter.

The men in the boats were Jack Sumner (Isabella Duran Shedd), William Dunn (Chloe Chamberlin), Walter “Old Shady” Powell (CG Squire), the Howland Brothers, Oramel (Esther Lee) and Seneca (Ariela Pineda Salgado) among others.

They journeyed on boats that the group named “Emma Dean (after Powell’s wife),” “Kitty Clyde’s Sisters,” “Maiden of the Canyon,” and “No Name.”

While Powell professes brotherhood, we quickly learn that brotherhood is not a noble tie that binds all human hearts and minds. Many of the men are seeking fame or glory, particularly William Dunn . There relationship is contentious, but it is Frank Goodman (Hattie Baier) who is the first to abandon the mission.

Additional Historical side note: When the Howland’s leave with Dunn, they name the point of departure Separation Canyon.

Archive photo of one of Powell’s boats.

While the subject is serious, “Men in Boats” is a delightful little trip. It’s a playful reimagination of historical events. Backhaus’s script is sharp, but a little too repetitious. While I wasn’t rooting for any of the men to die, boredom crept in as they continued to survive every deadly encounter.  Their continued survival sucked the suspense out of the show. Any deaths that may have actually occurred happened off stage.

Side note: It’s possible that some of the explorers were killed by the Shivwits band of Paiutes, a native American tribe who believed that Powell’s men were encroaching on their terrority.

The acting is superb.  Cheers to the entire ensemble. Sha Cage’s direction is frenetic, exciting and fun.

Holmes is terrific as the leading person. Like the real Powell must have been, you can see the gleam in their eye at each new discovery, their steadfast determination.

Goodman, an Englishman, is the butt of a few of the jokes. The character has a lovely little monologue about retreating to Provence, France, and Baier’s accent is spot on, old chap!

A good deal of comic relief comes from the cook, Hawkins (Kaitlyn Hare), who delivers her lines like Hawkins doles out biscuits – with flair.

Under Backhaus’s writing, each personality shines. The men in the boats are very different from each other. Adventure, however, works better in films than on stage.

Daniel Allen’s scenic design is brilliant. There’s a small tributary around the set, a two inch gulley of water surrounding a long island. Propped up on the island are the remnants of the boats. On one end of the theater space there is an immense rock wall expertly lit in crimson hues by Madelyn Miessmer.  Strewn about the stage are Cedar Sage Ellwood’s very authentic looking props.

While there are flaws in the script, Point Park’s production of “Men in Boats” is well crafted, and it’s an amazing exploration of history told in  a unique way.

– MB

“Men in Boats” runs from March 15 – 19 at the Highmark Theatre, In the Pittsburgh Playhouse, 350 Forbes Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15222. For more information, click here

Yaaaasss, Queen – a review of “Six”

By Michael Buzzelli

The six wives of Henry VIII rap battle for dominance as they sing their story in modern parlance in  Marlow and Moss’s “Six the Musical.”

Think: A distaff “Hamilton” across the pond.

Things aren’t so merry for these wives of Windsor. Henry divorces two of them, and decapitates two more. They are, in chronological order:

Divorced: Catherine of Aragon (played on opening night by Jana Larell Glover) has a  divorce is so messy that England leaves Catholicism behind and forms the Church of England.

Beheaded: Anne Boleyn (Zan Berube) has her head cut off for being as sexually free as her hubby. While Henry wanted a son, Anne’s daughter goes on to get a whole era named after her.

Died: Jane Seymour (Amina Faye)  is not “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman,” but the O.G. Jane.

Divorced: Anna of Cleves (Terica Marie) was the only queen to live in luxury after her marriage to the monarch ended.

Beheaded: Katherine Howard (Aline Mayagoitia) may or may not have had an affair with her cousin Thomas.

Survived: Catherine Parr (Sydney Parra) is the only one to outlive the king.

Though he was famous/infamous historically, he was not a popular king when he was on the throne, and these ladies set out to prove it.  While there were seven Henry’s before him, Henry VIII was such a royal pain that there were no kings named  Henry after him.

The six queens of “Six the Musical.”

The story of the regal dames isn’t really a story, just a song about each of them.  Technically, “Six the Musical” is more of a musical revue than a musical, but it, literally and figuratively, dazzles.   The six stars, each getting equal time to shine, are amazing.

Glover (who replaced regular Catherine, Gerianne Pérez) was spectacular. You won’t regret getting “stuck with the understudy” as you would with some shows.

The six are backed up by a glorious band banging drums and strumming guitars on a rock concert stage by scenic designer, Emma Bailey.

Gabriella Slade’s costumes are to die for. They sparkle with bling. It won’t be long before a drag queen bedazzles up Catherine of Aragorn’s gold lamé bodice and struts around dahntahn.

The show is energetic and fun, and it’s also short (under 90 minutes with no intermission) with top-of-the-line production values.

There’s an interesting side effect: It may cause you to look up the actual histories of the queens of Henry VIII, or, at the very least, cause you to get out of your chair and dance.


“Six” runs till March 19, 2023 at the Benedum Theatre, 237 Seventh Street, Pittsburgh, PA 15222. For more information, click here.

There’s Only One Today – a review of “Once”

By Claire DeMarco

Guy (David Toole) is a singer/lyricist living in Dublin.  He strums his guitar and sings to passersby, hoping to catch a few euro in his open guitar case propped beside him.

One of those passersby is Girl (Kate Queen), a Czech citizen separated from her husband.  Working close by she hears and enjoys his music and begins a conversation with Guy.

Guy and Girl have something more in common than their mutual love of music (she plays the piano).  He sells sweepers to support himself and she has one that needs repaired.

Note:  There’s obviously a vacuum in their lives!

In order to pay for the sweeper repairs, Girl decides she’ll play piano for him in the piano store owned by Billy (Jack Boice).

As their music binds them closer together, Guy confesses that his former girlfriend left him and is now in New York.  The lyrics in his songs reflect that despair.

It’s apparent to Girl that Guy does not have any confidence in himself or his music so she becomes his biggest cheerleader.  Full of life she prods him into taking chances.  Through her encouragement she pushes him to make a CD of his works and contact a local bank for funds to help promote his songs.  The money also provides a means to get to New York (possibly to his ex-girlfriend).

Guy and Girl make several suggestions as to how their lives will proceed, with or without each other.   Does Guy go to New York?  Does Girl reconcile with her husband?  Do we even know for sure?

David Toole sings and strums a guitar as Guy. Photo credit: Matt Polk

Toole plays a perfect Guy.  He develops his character from the rather shy, dejected soul into one who grows exponentially as he regains lost confidence and sets future goals.  His guitar playing and vocal presentations are spot on.

Queen shines as the Czech immigrant who is assertive, opinionated and bold.  She also brings out the soft side of Girl.   She is a skilled pianist with a lovely singing voice.

Both Toole and Queen provide a tender rendition of “Falling Slowly”.

Boice provides both serious and comedic moments.  His characterization of Billy fluctuates between loud mouth anger to silly mannerisms and funny moments.  Proud of his bit of Spanish ancestry, he often invokes the physical movements of a Spanish dancer in response to a question or comment.

It is the music itself from the entire cast that is the heart of “Once”.  All of the actors play an instrument, dance and sing to perfection.  It is amazing that these musicians are able to play their instruments, dance while playing, all in unison.

Note:  It is especially fascinating to see the cello player with the other musicians as they all lift their instruments up while playing and dancing at the same time! Kudos to Music Director Dr. Francesca Tortorello.

A wonderful production of a Tony award winning musical!

Once is at Pittsburgh Musical Theater’s Gargaro Theater, 327 S. Main St., West End, March 9-April 2. For tickets and info click here

The first Lion King – a review of “The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe”

By Michael Buzzelli

Despite the weather, March roars in like a lion with the opening of “The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe.”

The Pevensie children, Peter (Jackson Conforti), Susan (Annabel Tew), Edmund (Eamonn McElfresh) and youngest Lucy (Molly Frontz) find a magic portal in a large, wooden wardrobe that leads to the realm of Narnia, an alternate reality of witches, dwarves and talking animals.

The book, published in 1950, by author C. S. Lewis, is probably the first recorded excursion into the multiverse (take that, Marvel, DC and Michelle Yeoh).

The kid’s journey has been prophesied. The four heroes are destined to join Aslan (Michael Barnett), and defeat Jadis, the White Witch (Rachel Pfenningwerth, channeling Cate Blanchette), the evil queen and usurper of Narnia.

The kids team up with Mr. & Mrs. Beaver (Anthony Luisi and Caitlin Young, respectively) on a journey to meet the Lion King.

“Nants ingonyama bagithi Baba Sithi uhm ingonyama!”

Not that Lion King.

Meanwhile, Edmund sneaks off to meet with the White Witch after having fallen under her spell, by ingesting enchanted candy, Turkish Delights.

However, when the witch tries to kill him, Edmund realizes that she’s pure evil. He is rescued, but the witch demands a life for a life by the old laws of Narnia, and Aslan sacrifices himself for Edmund’s transgressions.

As luck would have it, the lion is brought back to life and the Pevensie kids and their talking animal pals vanquish the queen in an epic battle.

Epic battle on a budget. We just see the highlights here.

The White Witch (Rachel Pfenningwerth) is the stranger offering candy to children, i.e. Edmund (Eamonn McElfresh). Photo Credit: Laura Slovesko

Like the book, the show is very Christian. The human children are called the “Sons of Adam and Daughters of Eve” and Aslan is an allegorical stand-in for Jesus Christ.

There’s a weird bit where Santa Claus (Isaac Miller as Father Christmas) shows up and gifts the children with weapons, a sword and shield for Peter, a bow and quiver of arrows for Susan and a dagger and healing potion for Lucy.  I guess Edmund got coal because he was under the thrall of the evil queen at the time.

Note: C.S. Lewis had swords, arrows and healing potions before people were rolling 12-sided dice.

While preachy at times, the show never feels forced or condescending. It does get silly in parts, but the show is so well cast it’s forgivable due to the merits of the acting. The acting is superb.

The young actors even look like they came off the cover of the “Chronicles of Narnia” series.

As Lucy is the heroine of the book, Frontz is the star of the show. She’s terrific. Her lines are spoken with sincerity. It’s so cute she calls the fawn Tumnus (Andrew Lesnett) Mister Tumnus.

While Tew plays Susan with compassion, and Conforti plays Peter as the voice of reason, McElfresh gets to have an actual character arc, ping-ponging from good to evil and back again. He manages it with aplomb.

Barnett plays Aslan as a pious professor with a deafening roar. He towers over the cast, hidden under frizzy mane (thicker and more voluminous than 80’s hair band Twisted Sister) and leonine makeup by Laura R. Smith.

Pfenningwerth is delightfully evil as the White Witch. Her movements are slow, sharp and regal.

The White Witch’s evil hench dwarf (Matt Henderson) chewed the scenery and spit it back out with the verve of a Batman villain, grunting and gasping like Burgess Meredith’s Penguin.

There are a few deaths, Peter slays the wolf, Fenris Ulf (Trevor Buda), and a few more talking forest creatures bit the dust, but all-in-all “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” is a fun romp for the whole family.

– MB

“The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe” runs through March 12 at the New Hazlett Theatre, 6 Allegheny Square, Pittsburgh, PA 15212. For more information, click here

Artist v. Artist: Former Supreme Court Law Clerk and Current Pitt Law Professor Reflects on Andy Warhol Foundation Oral Argument

by Gina McKlveen

The City of Pittsburgh has its fair share of famous natives, but when it comes to well-known artists from the area, one name tends to ‘pop’ into people’s heads—and that is, of course, Andy Warhol.

Born Andrew Warhola, Jr. on August 6, 1928, in Pittsburgh, Andy had a wildly successful art career in New York. From an early age, Warhol quickly carved out a path for himself in the commercial arts at Carnegie Mellon University, and eventually imprinted himself into the art world with his notable pop-art style silk screens of Campbell’s soup cans and other cultural icons, including Marilyn Monroe, Jackie Kennedy, Elizabeth Taylor, and most relevant recently, his works depicting the musician, Prince.

Andy Warhol’s famed “Self-Portrait.”

Following Warhol’s death on February 22, 1987, he returned to Pittsburgh for his final resting place at St. John the Baptist Byzantine Catholic Cemetery. Much of Warhol’s artwork also returned to Pittsburgh, in the form of donations by the Andy Warhol Foundation (“AWF”), a New York non-profit organization committed to the advancement of the visual arts and the preservation of Andy Warhol’s legacy, to The Andy Warhol Museum (“Museum”), one of four Carnegie Museums located in Pittsburgh. The Museum is a shrine to the artist’s legacy, touting the largest collection in the world of his work, including silk screen prints, drawings, paintings, and films.

On October 12, 2022, the Supreme Court heard oral argument in a case filed by the AWF (not the Museum) against the accomplished photographer and creative entrepreneur, Lynn Goldsmith.

The controversy before the Court arises form photographs of Prince that Goldsmith took in 1981. In 1984, Goldsmith’s photographs were licensed to Vanity Fair magazine to use as an artist reference, who commissioned Warhol to create an image of Prince for publication alongside an article about the musician and credited Goldsmith with the “source photograph.” Warhol ultimately created fifteen silk screens of the Prince pieces, which became known as the Prince Series. Ownership of the Prince Series belongs to the AWF, which donated four of the silk-screen prints to the Museum. The AWF also licenses the Prince Series for commercial, editorial and other museum use.

One of the Prince pieces in question.

Following Prince’s passing in 2016, the AWF once again licensed one of the Prince Series to Vanity Fair for publication in its Prince tribute issue. This time, Goldsmith received no credit as the source image. Therefore, Goldsmith notified the AWF of its alleged infringement of her copyrighted work, the AWF sued Goldsmith claiming that Warhol’s Prince Series was a “fair use” of her original photograph, while Goldsmith counter-sued the AWF for copyright infringement. After conflicting decisions from the federal district court in New York, which ruled in favor of the AWF, and the Second Circuit Court, which sided with Goldsmith, the case was brought before the Supreme Court to decide whether Warhol’s silk screen prints of Prince, infringed Goldsmith’s copyright by failing to satisfy the transformative use test under the law’s current fair use analysis. Stephanie Dangel, a Professor of Practice who currently teaches entertainment law at Pitt Law School, shared her impressions of the case. She noted, “Initially, when the Second Circuit decision came out, I think many Pittsburghers thought, ‘What does this mean for The Warhol Museum?’ because so much of his work is inspired by other artistic works and photographs.

Thankfully, Goldsmith did not challenge the original Prince Series of prints. Instead, she challenged the licensing rights related to those prints. However, the potential impact of the Supreme Court’s opinion on the work of Warhol and other appropriation artists is an open question.”

Prior to joining Pitt Law School, Professor Dangel was a law clerk for the late Supreme Justice Harry Blackmun and the former New York federal court judge, Judge Pierre Leval, who is famous for his “transformative” fair use test. Under Judge Leval’s test, an unauthorized use of copyrighted materials is more likely to be a “fair use” if it is “transformative,” or meaningfully different from the original work in terms of its message, meaning, function, or purpose.

Fair use, as Professor Dangel described, is an affirmative defense that in some circumstances allows for the unlicensed use of a copyrighted work. There are at least four factors codified in law that courts will consider in determining whether something meets the fair use threshold:

(1) purpose and character of the use, including whether the use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes,

(2) nature of the copyrighted work,

(3) amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole, and

(4) effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.

Professor Dangel, who was also a filmmaker, learned first-hand from her filmmaking experiences that the AWF can be “very protective of Warhol’s works, and understandably so, since Warhol’s work is the forms the bulk of what they own.” In a documentary Professor Dangel produced about Pittsburgh, she said, “We talked about Andy Warhol and shot in The Warhol Museum. Even though we had permission to shoot in the Museum, and we interviewed the curator at the time, some of Warhol’s artwork was in the background. The Museum flagged the legal issue for us, saying, ‘We do not own all of the rights to this artwork. The Foundation owns some of these rights.’ In using the background images in the film, we ended up relying on a law firm’s fair use opinion and errors and omission insurance to protect ourselves, but I’m not sure that would have protected us from a lawsuit by the Foundation or the original photographer, if our film had been more successful.”

Professor Dangel also noted that the film included an interview with Andy Warhol’s nephew, who at the time worked in the Warhola family scrap business on Pittsburgh’s Northside. “The nephew was a good artist, including a tattoo he designed for himself based on his uncle’s Marilyn Monroe silk-screen print. But if the Supreme Court holds that the licensing of Andy’s work is not a “fair use” of Goldsmith’s photograph, could a photographer of Monroe or the Warhol Foundation sue Andy’s nephew over his Marylin tattoo? It seems ridiculous, but who knows?”

Andy Warhol’s “Marilyn Monroe.”

Given her filmmaking experience, Professor Dangel stated that now when she talks to her students about fair use, she emphasizes this an affirmative defense. She continued, “It’s a lot of money to litigate a copyright case, for those arguing in favor and against fair use. Lynn Goldsmith learned this the hard way, as her legal fees for the lower court cases were over $400,000. The Supreme Court case may have resulted in millions of dollars in legal fees, which led her to launch a GoFundMe campaign. Given these potential litigation expenses, I tell my students that, if you can afford to license the material, you should.”

Up until two years ago, the Supreme Court had not considered a similar fair use case since 1994—nearly 30 years ago—when it adopted Judge Leval’s transformative use test. Now there have been two fair use cases brought before the Supreme Court in the past two years. In April 2021, in Google v. Oracle, the Supreme Court ruled that Google’s use of source code owned by Oracle was protected by the fair use doctrine. However, the Google and Warhol cases may signal that changing technologies could require changes in the law.

Whether such changes in the law would benefit by from judges who are also trained in the arts remains to be seen. “Interestingly,” Professor Dangel pointed out, “[Judge Leval’s] wife, Susana Torruella Leval, served as curator and director of El Museo del Barrio throughout the 1990s. So, Judge Leval is very familiar with the art world. I believe that the transformative use test for him was quite a natural extension of both his legal opinions and his personal connection to the art world.” This insight led her to “wonder how Justices like Ginsburg and Scalia, who were very big fans of artistic works, particularly opera, might have tilted their decision on fair use in one way or another…  whereas other Justices, who are not as familiar with the arts, might focus more on the commercial market for the works, rather than their transformative use. It will be interesting to see how much the personal backgrounds and interests of the Justices might play into how they approach this decision.”

Stephanie Dangel, J.D. photo credit: The University of Pittsburgh

Still, what makes this case so interesting to Professor Dangel and others in the legal and art communities is that there are artists on both sides of this case. The decision will “affect artists, both pro and con, depending on whether or not you’re the artist who created the ‘original’ work, or the artist who ‘appropriated’ the original work.” As Professor Dangel explained, “this will not be a pro- or anti-artist decision, because it depends on which artist you are representing.”

But for now, the art law world waits anxiously for the Supreme Court to speak on these issues. The Court’s opinion will likely be issued by July of this year. In the meantime, the oral argument is available here for further information and background on the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. v. Goldsmith case.

– GM