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Mark A. Philbrick
BYU's Young Ambassadors perform tune from "Spamalot." Songs from "Tarzan," "Mary Poppins" and "Hercules" were cut from tour.

PROVO — A licensing debate with Walt Disney Company caused Brigham Young University's show group to cut several segments of their performance just days before the Young Ambassadors left on tour to Australia.

BYU legal counsel, responding in writing to questions from the Deseret News, stated: "A law firm representing Disney has notified the university that the Young Ambassadors group may not have all the necessary permissions to perform certain Disney songs as originally scheduled to be performed in the current Young Ambassador program."

A Disney spokesman, in a phone interview with the Deseret News, said BYU did not seek a license to perform the Disney songs from "Tarzan," "Mary Poppins" and "Hercules."

"We have exclusive copyright to these performances," said Jonathan Friedland, vice president of corporate communications for Walt Disney Company.

Friedland said it's not fair to other theatrical companies that are paying for the rights to perform while others are not. He said, "Disney licenses thousands of performances annually, and we have an obligation to protect our licensees."

Friedland further explained there is a big difference between, for example, a student singing a Disney song at a school assembly and a full-fledged theatrical production of Disney numbers with a band, singing, dancing and costumes.

BYU legal counsel said the university has "various license agreements in place allowing the university to make use of copyrighted music, including blanket licenses" with the music licensing organizations ASCAP (the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers), BMI (Broadcast Music, Inc.) and SESAC (originally the Society of European Stage Authors & Composers).

The BYU Young Ambassadors perform as a show choir and incorporate music, dance and theater.

BYU legal counsel plans to have "direct discussions" with Disney Music Licensing to clarify to Disney the nature of the Young Ambassador performances in light of the university's existing licensing agreements and "see whether the parties still believe that any additional special licenses are needed for the Disney materials."

Just to be on the safe side until the legal battle is resolved, BYU administration and Young Ambassador officials decided to pull the Disney numbers from the Young Ambassador performance.

According to BYU legal representatives, three songs were cut from the Young Ambassador's 90-minute program.

Instead of the Disney numbers, some songs from the previous year are being used, since they were already choreographed and BYU still has the costumes. Some current members of the Young Ambassadors were present last year and know the old numbers.

The original Young Ambassador program took nine months of preparation. Tryouts are in May, then the group rehearses from September until school is out. Work to get the Australia tour scheduled began about two years ago, according to Young Ambassador officials.

The performers left for the Australia tour April 27. They have already performed in Brisbane, Gold Coast, Newcastle, Sydney and Canberra.

Young Ambassador officials say the bulk of the performance is music through the history of America, with songs from the 1960s to the 1980s. The songs are in the Young Ambassador's newly released album "The New American Songbook."

"The replacement performances are being very well received. The people there (in Australia) are loving it," said Rex Barrington, BYU's assistant director of performing arts management.

The Young Ambassadors aren't paid for their work. BYU funds their tour expenses, including airfare. Tickets are sold for the performances and the money goes for local ground expenses such as buses, trucks, trains and meals, according to Young Ambassador officials.

"Often, we give the proceeds to charity organizations in the local areas we visit," said Shane Wright, BYU performance coordinator. He books the BYU Young Ambassador's performances, along with other BYU groups.

Many of the students later go on to Broadway or are hired by Disney to perform in its amusement parks.

BYU legal counsel said BYU has placed many graduates with the Disney Corp. and has collaborated on various projects and productions over the years. "The university does not envision that long-standing relationship changing in any way."

The Young Ambassadors wrap up their Australia tour with a fireside in Melbourne and leave May 19 for the return trip.

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