Hills alive with sounds of strife

Equity protests non-union 'Music' tour

When former “Brady Bunch” star Barry Williams signed up for Troika Entertainment’s road production of “The Sound of Music,” he expected to be giving lots of soft interviews — in major markets — in which he could also promote his new CD and his book, “Growing Up Brady.”

Instead, journalists from Pittsburgh to Cincinnati to Jacksonville have been asking Williams how it feels to be a scab.

Last week in Cleveland, for instance, Williams had to enter the Playhouse Square Center by walking past 40 local Actors’ Equity members on an “informational” picket line.

Not surprisingly, he is far from happy.

“I feel that I have been caught in the cross-hairs of this dispute,” says Williams, noting that he cannot accurately be called a “scab” since no one is on strike. “I have been singled out by the union in a most aggressive and threatening way so that the union can reach the producers. And I am crying foul.”

When the Maryland-based Troika bought the physical production elements from the first national tour of “The Sound of Music” (which initially starred Richard Chamberlain), attempts were made to strike a contract with Actors’ Equity. But negotiations fell apart and Troika eventually decided to cast the show with non-union actors — except for Williams. The name actor was offered the role of Captain Von Trapp, reportedly at a salary of more than $10,000 per week, but he would have to resign his Equity membership.

He agreed. As a result, the union has gone ballistic and Williams is up on “internal union disciplinary” charges that could preclude any future Equity work. They are also attempting to get fellow performers unions SAG and AFTRA to take disciplinary action.

“This was a blatant effort to induce an Equity actor with the promise of non-Equity work,” says Actors’ Equity executive director Alan Eisenberg. “This is an underhanded, terrible situation. It’s total bullshit.”

To press its PR case against Troika and Williams, Equity has been calling reporters in most of the cities where “The Sound of Music” has been booked (which includes some larger markets) to alert them to the show’s non-union status.

And scribes have been obliging with references to Williams’ former fame as Greg Brady (“Here’s the Story/Of a Famous Actor”) and educational stories for their readers (with headlines like “What is Equity?”). Reporters have also been reminded by the union that ticket prices are at the same level as for full-blown union shows.

“The hills are alive,” quipped the Cleveland Plain Dealer, “with the sound of picketing.”

In actuality, there is nothing new about presenters in markets like Cincinnati or Columbus sticking the odd non-union show on their seasons.

That has gone on for years, especially when a first national company has completed its run and has a set to sell.

In the past, Equity has generally looked the other way. But it has taken a much more aggressive stance with “The Sound of Music.” The reason, in part, is that while most non-Equity tours have no-name actors, this one has Williams — and thus some built-in press value. And it’s also playing some very big houses.

“They have clothed their production with an Equity actor of some significance, in terms of reputation,” Eisenberg charges. “And they pay everybody else nothing. How can you justify sending out a tour without pension and health benefits for young, aspiring actors? That should be a social contract between employer and employee. Troika thinks a part of its business practice is the exploitation of actors.”

Troika has not taken kindly to the union’s efforts to stir up the media, and recently the company filed a complaint against the union with the National Labor Relations Board, alleging that Equity “unlawfully threatened, coerced and/or restrained Barry Williams from doing his job.”

“The nuisance factor is considerable,” says producer Nick Howey. “I do whatever I can to put top quality on the stage and I could not make a (union) deal here that would allow this show to exist. The union is inflexible and blind to the real issues here. It is very frustrating.”

Howey’s argument is that Equity’s touring contracts are fine if you can amortize the costs over one or two years, but they’re unrealistic for shorter stands.

Says Howey, “They equate a six-week tour of ‘The Sound of Music’ with a two-year tour of ‘Les Miserables.’ ” (In fact the tour in question is some 30 weeks, but that’s relatively short for a national tour.)

It’s certainly true that Equity routinely accepts far lower contracts in resident than touring theater. Howey is reportedly paying most of his cast around $400 per week (plus a limited per diem), which is higher, for example, than many Chicago Area Theater and Bay Area Theater Equity contracts.

“Equity makes special financial arrangements all the time,” Howey says. “But for some reason, touring is off limits.”

The union says that’s nonsense. Eisenberg notes that generous concessions were made for the Networks Prods.’ tour of “The Civil War” and for the currently touring production of “Fame,” in which actors are paid about $700 per week (the usual touring minimum is $1,180 per week plus about $700 per week for room and board).

But all those deals came with benefits attached. And that’s the bottom line for the union.

“If he thinks we’re going to agree to a deal without benefits for our members,” Eisenberg says, “he can forget it. This is a selfish man.”

To date the tour has been very profitable for Troika. In a two-week Cincinnati stand, the show grossed in excess of $1.7 million, a sum that would make any union road show happy. Along with the producers, presenters are benefiting from the production’s lower guarantee — the basic sum the presenters pay the producers to book the show. That means the overage — the money the presenters get most of — is bigger.

It’s understandable, then, that most presenters want to stay out of the dispute, although many of them are sympathetic to Howey’s problems.

“We are not presenting an Equity or a non-Equity show but the most beloved musical of all time,” says Gina Vernaci, who booked the show at Cleveland’s Playhouse Square Center. “This is between Troika and the union.”

The union has also been attacking the tuner’s designation in promotional materials as a “Broadway” show, suggesting that only Williams has Broadway experience. But that distinction would also knock out “Fame” and a slew of other currently touring shows. And in fact, the tour is directed by the helmer of the real Broadway revival and the first national tour, Susan Schulman. Aside from the non-union actors, this is the same “Sound of Music” that actually appeared on Broadway.

Williams, of course, is taking the brunt of the attacks in each market. He argues that his old union rebuffed his attempts to negotiate and has consistently changed the rules.

“Unions should be protecting, advising, encouraging and creating alternatives for their members,” Williams says with emotion in his voice as he speaks in detail on the controversy for the first time. “I am very sorry that none of those privileges have been extended to me. They have been damning and threatening. Equity has made no attempt to encourage or guide me.”

Williams says that he is just an actor looking for work. And since he is also promoting a book, recordings and a Web site, the chance to keep all those irons in the fire for six months as he moves around the country doing personal appearances was a significant inducement that Equity should have understood — and let him make a deal.

“It was not,” he says, “like there were five national tours out there for me to choose from.”

But Equity’s Eisenberg has no intention of backing off. The union, he says, wants to turn up the heat on members (or former members) who break all the rules. It wants other entertainment unions to stop cooperating with non-Equity tours. And it has clearly realized that there is an urgent need for public education on the difference between Equity and non-Equity theater.

The union’s aggressiveness is also fueled by the increasing road popularity of pseudo-legit attractions that don’t use Equity actors. “Blast” is a major road hit this season (it plays the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., next month before moving to Broadway itself) and operates with no Equity contract. The “Gumboots” guys aren’t in the union, either.

“We are turning up the pressure,” Eisenberg says. “This is a growing trend and we have to deal with it. The message is out now that if you mess with our members, we are going to go after you, big time.”

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