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Broadway producer says he was fraud victim

Associated Press Modified: October 5, 2012 at 2:17 am •  Published: October 5, 2012
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NEW YORK (AP) — The psychological thriller "Rebecca" was a hit for author Daphne du Maurier and filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock. Leave it to Broadway to one-up the master of suspense.

A planned New York production of the 1938 novel as a musical collapsed this week amid questions about its financial backing, and a growing suspicion that one of its primary investors — a secretive businessman named Paul Abrams who had supposedly pledged $4.5 million, then suddenly died of malaria — never existed.

The FBI has launched an investigation. Private investigators are on the case. The full truth may take some time to come out, but the lead producer of "Rebecca," Ben Sprecher, says he now believes he was taken in by an elaborate fraud.

"I never made up any investor. I never made up Paul Abrams. I never made up any of this," Sprecher said in a brief interview with The Associated Press on Thursday.

But two months after the "death," Sprecher's lawyer, Ronald Russo, said he has concluded that Abrams and the three other investors in the musical were indeed works of stagecraft, propped up by forged documents and bogus correspondence.

"Rebecca's" troubles began last winter, when the producers postponed a planned spring opening because of problems lining up financing for the $12 million show.

It was the second setback for Sprecher, a theater veteran who is trying to produce his first big-budget Broadway show, after past work as a theater owner and manager, and producer on revivals including "A Moon for the Misbegotten" and "American Buffalo."

The musical, about a woman nearly driven mad in a gloomy English mansion by the ghostly memory of her new husband's late wife, had successful runs in Vienna and other European cities over the past six years, but Sprecher had pulled the plug on a planned London premiere last year due to production and financial problems.

Then, a white knight seemed to appear. According to Sprecher's lawyer, the producer was introduced to a Long Island stock broker and securities dealer, Mark Hotton, who said he had connections to an international businessman named Paul Abrams who might be able to raise the remaining cash.

Soon, Sprecher had a signed contract in hand in which Abrams and three of his associates had agreed to put up $4.5 million, Russo said. By May, the producers had announced the musical would open at Broadway's Broadhurst theater in November. Abrams was listed as a co-producer on the press release.

But on the eve of rehearsals, with elaborate sets already under construction, Russo said, Hotton had some startling bad news: Abrams had contracted malaria on a trip to Africa and died in London in early August.

The news threw the production's future into doubt. It also raised concerns about Sprecher's credibility.

After The New York Times noted in an article last month that it could find no record of a millionaire named Paul Abrams dying of malaria in London, Sprecher acknowledged in an interview that he had never met the man in person or even spoken to him by telephone. All of their communication had been through email, sometimes through intermediaries.

Now, Russo said he believes that Hotton is to blame for the fiasco, and that Abrams and his three supposed associate investors were all figments of his imagination.

"These four people were probably made up," Russo said, though, he added, he wasn't sure why. "I don't know what motive this guy would have to give four fictitious names."

The AP's attempts to reach Hotton this week were unsuccessful. One of his lawyers, Heath Berger, declined to comment. Several phone numbers that had been listed in Hotton's name or used by his businesses have been disconnected.

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