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Ray Repp vs. the Superstar Copyright: Bel Air composer believes his song turned up in Lloyd Webber's "Phantom."

Ray Repp has dug his heels in, but good.

When the local songwriter took on internationally known and phenomenally successful composer Andrew Lloyd Webber, he knew things could get nasty. Things did.

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"I didn't know I was butting up against one of the richest people in England," Repp says. He was.

It was July 1990 when Repp filed a lawsuit against Lloyd Webber, claiming that the superstar composer of "Cats" and "The Phantom of the Opera" stole one of his songs. Lloyd Webber strongly denies it. He has said in court that he had never heard of Repp nor any of his music before the lawsuit. Lloyd Webber's New York lawyer dismisses the lawsuit as a nuisance. In fact, Lloyd Webber claims Repp did the dirty deed by stealing his song.

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It's been nearly eight years of court appearances, appeals, claims, counterclaims, judgments, reversals of judgments, rulings, plots, subplots and a dancing lawyer. Toss in some rousing original musical scores, and it could make one heck of an Andrew Lloyd Webber production.

Ray Repp, who lives in Bel Air, has been composing and performing liturgical music for more than 30 years. He has performed in this country, Europe, Canada and Asia and has written and published music for 11 albums.

He was born outside of St. Louis, the eldest of nine siblings, and spent 12 years in seminary school preparing for the priesthood. He had a musical conversion instead.

"Back in the '60s, a lot of young people picked up guitars and started singing 'Where have all the flowers gone?' " says Repp, on a break from his day job in the graphics department of the Harford County government administrative building.

"I had a guitar, and I played in my room," says Repp, who admits that, at the time, it was a violation of seminary rules. But times, they were a'changing. "I guess my music went through the walls, and someone said, 'Hey, why don't you play in church?' " And so he did.

After about 10 years in the seminary, he took a leave of absence and worked for a Catholic outreach service that trained college graduates to work in economically deprived areas. He continued playing his music for the 400 or so people who went through that training with him. Then it was time for the group to disperse to different cities.

"We had all become very close, and they asked if they could take my music with them," Repp says. "So, all of a sudden, 400 people all over the country had copies of my music with them. And a few weeks later, I got a call from a publisher who said he wanted to record some of my music. That's how I got started."

The other guy

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But while Repp's songs play churches, Lloyd Webber's play Broadway theaters and have made him one of the richest men in England.

Lloyd Webber's name is a household word even for people who have never stepped foot inside a theater. He is the composer whose productions include "The Phantom of the Opera," "Jesus Christ Superstar," "Cats," "Evita," "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat" and "Sunset Boulevard."

Lloyd Webber, who keeps a second home in Manhattan, has more than 300 compositions to his credit.

In Britain, where he was recently made a baron, he is referred to as "Sir Andrew."

Enough said.

In 1978, Repp wrote a song titled "Till You," which was registered with the U.S. Copyright Office. Sometime during the Christmas season of 1989, a friend gave him a CD from "The Phantom of the Opera" with "Phantom Song" on it.

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"After I heard it, I knew that something was wrong with this particular song," says Repp, grabbing his head with both hands in frustration. "I said, 'That's my song!' In the beginning, I had no idea what I was going to do."

What he did was send his song and Webber's CD to a lawyer friend in Chicago to see if he had a case. The lawyers decided to go for it, claiming copyright violation.

"Phantom" was soon to open in Chicago, so the lawsuit was filed there, in U.S. District Court, against Lloyd Webber and his company, Really Useful Group, in addition to MCA Records, Hal Leonard Publishing Corp. and Polygram Records.

Repp asked that the judge forbid performances of "Phantom Song." Punitive damages, in the amount of $1 million, were requested in addition to any benefits from the song. The lawsuit asked that the money be awarded to Repp and his company, K&R; Music Inc.

Repp estimates that more than 100,000 people have heard the song "Till You" and that Lloyd Webber had access to it.

Lloyd Webber came out swinging with a countersuit, claiming Repp stole "Till You." The tune "Phantom Song" was actually based on a version of the song "Close Every Door" from Lloyd Webber's 1968 musical "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat," the British composer said. And Repp copied "Close Every Door," Lloyd Webber claimed.

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In that lawsuit, Lloyd Webber initially asked for $78.09 in damages and that Repp cease playing and distributing the song. He estimated that was the amount Repp earned from "Till You." Lloyd Webber later dropped monetary demands. In the meantime, Lloyd Webber did succeed in getting the case transferred to New York from Chicago.

The wheels of justice squeak slowly, but in 1994, Lloyd Webber had an early victory when a district court judge in New York dismissed Repp's lawsuit, saying there was not enough evidence to go to trial. The same judge, however, refused to dismiss Webber's lawsuit against Repp.

Lloyd Webber's suit went to court on Sept. 16, 1996. The four-day, non-jury trial turned into a vocal duel between musicology experts for both sides. Enter the dancing lawyer: William R. Coulson of the Chicago firm Cherry & Flynn, one of Repp's attorneys, waltzed around the New York courtroom and then marched to show the difference in timing of the two songs.

Odds are it wasn't the dancing as much as the musicology experts who convinced U.S. District Judge Shirley Wohl Kram to rule that Lloyd Webber failed to prove Repp had copied "Till You" from "Close Every Door."

Repp wasn't about to go away. This case, he says, has become a matter of principle. He is not wealthy and manages to get by because his Chicago lawyers are working on a contingency basis and will get a percentage if he wins anything but nothing if he loses. Repp still has to pay his lawyers' travel expenses in addition to his own, plus filing fees, hotel and phone bills and the other minutiae that go along with lawsuits.

"You know, if I had a wife and kids, I would have gone away a long time ago. But I don't," says Repp, who has never married. "Emotionally, I reached my wits' end a long time ago. Now I am trying not to get so distraught over it. But I am not going away, either."

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When his lawsuit was dismissed, Repp and his lawyers filed an appeal. They scored an incremental victory. In January, a federal appeals court reversed the dismissal of Repp's lawsuit against Lloyd Webber. The same court did affirm the judgment against Lloyd Webber's counter-suit.

The epic continues.

"Welcome to my life," says Lloyd Webber lawyer Jane G. Stevens. Stevens is confident that, when the final curtain drops, her client will be vindicated.

"We don't think this guy has a case," says the New York attorney. "The district court agreed with the appellate court that he has a right to have this weak evidence heard. It was a procedural motion. He has a weak case."

Much to be proved

The strength of Repp's case will depend on whether his lawyers can establish that Lloyd Webber heard "Till You," says Washington patent attorney Robert E. Bushnell.

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If a person writes a song, it can be copyrighted whether or not it is distributed, says Bushnell, a 1974 graduate of the University of Maryland Law School. "It becomes an issue of access whether or not Lloyd Webber had access to the song. It is also an issue of how close it is. Copyright experts will make a line-by-line or scene-by-scene comparison."

If the similarity is overwhelming, and if there was access, it is up to a judge or a jury to make the final call, he says. Such cases are difficult to prove.

Maybe, just maybe, Repp will get his day in court and a jury will write the ending to this story. "Maybe" because Stevens has filed a petition to get the appeals court to reconsider its decision.

Repp's life, in the meantime, is no longer on intermission. He is back performing and composing music. He recently performed at a benefit concert at the College of Notre Dame in Maryland.

"I'm starting to accept invitations again, which is exciting," he says. "When you get up in front of an audience, speaking or singing, it takes an awful lot of energy, and I just didn't have the energy before but had to find it."

The lawsuit, however, is never far from his thoughts.

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"I want a jury of my peers to listen to me; that's all I want," he says. "And if they say I am wrong, then I will go away. But I have dug my heels in."

Pub Date: 2/17/98


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