Three months ago I wrote a story for one of the daily newspapers about Bark!, a musical that opened October 21 and is still playing at the Chicago Center for the Performing Arts. Composed by David Troy Francis with a book by Gavin Geoffrey Dillard (who also wrote the Great Dane’s share of the lyrics), Bark! focuses on the small pleasures and major anxieties of six dogs stuck in an animal shelter. There’s a prima donna purebred, a scruffy street mutt, a couple of old veteran working dogs, a kindly maternal bitch, and Rocks, the abandoned puppy everybody would call “Kid” if this were a war movie. They laugh, they cry, they howl, and they long to be adopted. The poodle sings an aria and Rocks whizzes on stuff. It’s an eccentric but sweet–even occasionally soulful–show.

On October 27, six days after my story appeared, I received an e-mail from somebody named Mark Masi. “I am the librettist/lyricist for a musical called DogMusic,” the e-mail begins. “It is the story of five dogs in the pound trying to get adopted….

“If DogMusic sounds a lot like BARK . . .”

The e-mail goes on to claim that resemblances between the two shows aren’t coincidental, and singles out Bark! director and choreographer Kay Cole as the alleged conduit through which features of DogMusic–first produced as a one-act in 1998–found their way into the Francis/Dillard musical, which premiered in Los Angeles in 2004. Phrases like “artistic rape” and “theft of an idea” are used alongside words like “maddening” and “heartbreaking.”

“Absolutely outrageous,” replies Francis. “[Bark!] is my show.”

A pianist with special expertise in performing the work of contemporary American composers like Ned Rorem, Francis has a Scooby-Doo-ish air of enthusiasm and a fondness for wishing people “much joy.” He says the idea for Bark!, his first staged musical, came to him while writing music for a short mockumentary called Dogs, about actors who play canines in “the longest-running off-off-off-off-Broadway show in history.” He claims he’d never heard of DogMusic until late last summer, when he saw a trade notice saying the show would receive a workshop production in New York, October 20-22–as it happens, the same weekend Bark! opened here.

Francis wonders why he “never heard a word from these [DogMusic] guys” during three years of Bark! workshops or the first year of its LA run. And he argues that Cole’s influence on the script was necessarily minimal because she came on board only “about eight weeks before we opened in LA”–replacing the original director, Robert Schrock, when “the show was very close to complete.”

But nobody denies Cole had some kind of professional interaction with the DogMusic authors before she went to work on Bark! That interaction is crucial to Masi and composer Jess Platt’s case because of certain revisions that were written into Bark! in the months between its LA and Chicago openings–which is to say, during Cole’s tenure as director. The pre-Cole Bark! is essentially a plotless revue set in a doggie-day-care center; after her arrival the setting was switched to an animal shelter, and the book was expanded. The issue then is how much Cole knew about DogMusic, and what–if anything–she shared with Francis and company.

Masi states that in 2002 Cole “was aggressive in trying to connect herself” to what turned out to be an abortive LA production of DogMusic. She “sat down with me (and others),” he writes, “to discuss both script and casting in great detail.” Platt adds that she was “heavily involved. Mark had serious meetings with her regarding casting, character development, and plot lines.”

Francis says he was unaware of Cole’s connection with DogMusic until he saw the notice about the workshop in New York. Struck by the similarity of that project to his own, he mentioned the notice to Cole, who then “told me she had been involved on a very minor basis for a very short time.” By way of debunking the notion that Cole brought elements of DogMusic with her to Bark!, Francis says she argued for retaining the doggie-day-care concept while he held out for the change to the animal shelter.

Cole originated the role of Maggie in A Chorus Line 30 years ago, and now works offstage as a director and choreographer for theater, film, and TV. While protesting repeatedly that her dealings with DogMusic were too “minimal” to remember clearly, she says she and Masi “met a couple of times and we did a couple of e-mails, and I gave absolutely no creative input, and quite honestly I felt the relationship was rather insignificant.” Did she and Masi discuss the script and casting in “great detail”? “No, that’s not true,” she says–though “I did make a casting wish list with people like Elaine Stritch and Matthew Broderick: a wild wish list.” She told me she was asked to direct, said yes, “and then there was very little connection after that,” because Masi and Platt changed their plans and decided to launch the production in New York.

Masi sent me the DogMusic script, along with a CD consisting of six songs he wrote with Platt. (Francis refused to send the Bark! text for comparison, saying he didn’t want it evaluated by anyone other than a judge.) Like Bark! it’s got its show dog, its working dog, and its cute little pup a la Rocks. But it pushes its social agenda much more intensely than Bark! does, attacking dogfights, dog shows, dog abuse, dog breeding practices, and even rotten little kids who beg for dogs from their indolent, irresponsible parents. By contrast, Bark! focuses more on the internal lives of its characters.

It’s strange to watch these hyper-compassionate artists squabble over shows intended to sensitize us to the sufferings of our canine friends. But then homeless dogs are helpless–Francis, Masi, Cole, and Platt have lawyers, and they’re referring the matter to them.

Deanna Isaacs is on vacation.