Indie road producers embarking on their own ventures

New York — When did the theater’s anthem — “Another op’nin’, another show” — become “Another op’nin’, another non-Equity show”?

Richard Martini, general manager of the road production of “Some Like It Hot” that went out in June under a modified Equity contract, thinks the floodgates opened in the mid-1980s, around the time producers of “State Fair” broke ranks with fellow members of the American League of Theaters & Producers and negotiated a special touring deal.

Others might say Martini helped to shake the tree when his own production of “Fame” went on the road in 1997-98 under a modified Equity contract — an “Equity Lite” contract, as these agreements are snidely referred to in the industry.

Disney provided major inspiration for disgruntled road producers when it barnstormed Broadway in the mid-1990s and proceeded to negotiate independent labor contracts on all its national touring shows. In this atmosphere of freewheeling enterprise, there was hardly a peep when Big League Theatricals sent out a non-Equity tour of “1776” in 1998.

Whatever the chain of events, the pussyfooting is over. After years of watching conglomerates like Troika and Pace/ SFX/Clear Channel gobble up prime road venues with their non-Equity shows — which some envious entrepreneurs estimate to be 40%-50% of the business — some independent road producers now are embarking openly on their own non-Equity ventures.

And it ain’t pretty. When Big League went all the way last year and used non-Equity actors in the first national tour of the Broadway production of “The Music Man,” there were pickets.

“We were compelled to do what we did with ‘The Music Man,’ ” says Michael David, who relinquished Dodgers production rights to the show, allowing Big League (which it created, but no longer has a corporate interest in) to mount the non-Equity production.

“We could either give up the rights and not do the tour at all, or go to the unions and try to create a new model. If we followed the rules under the old template, it would not be financially responsible for us to tour.”

In negotiating modified labor contracts with Equity and other unions on the upcoming national tour of “42nd Street,” the Dodgers were able to avoid another “Music Man” debacle.

Some cynics are now saying that “The Music Man” was a deliberate loss leader, calculated

to soften up the reluctance of the unions to adopt what David calls “a new template” for restructuring the old road contracts.

David says, “Everyone involved — producers, personnel, unions — agreed that the standard budget for a show this large had to be reduced.”

Experimental factors

Union boss Alan Eisenberg says: “We felt compelled, as an experiment to make a deal so that the first national tour would go out as a union show.

“We have to see how this show goes before deciding whether to repeat this sort of arrangement in the future.”

Torn between “significant pressure from the membership” not to sacrifice jobs to principles, and complaints about specific contract terms, Equity sweetened the “42nd Street” deal by negotiating a 7.5% company cut of the producer’s share in weeks when the show realizes an overage.

“The salaries are low,” Eisenberg says of these Equity Lite contracts. But not as low, he adds, as nonunion shows that expect actors to do one-night stands, eight a week, for a minimum salary of $350 per, with a per diem of $175, no benefits and no understudy.

Times are tough all over.

“Not for the presenters,” says one member of the Dramatists Guild, pointing out that very little of the income from nonunion tours, even those playing barn-sized venues, trickles down to the writers. “It’s the local presenter who takes the biggest bite. Those guys are the scourge of the industry.”

“The economics of the times are playing a huge part here,” says Pat Halloran, president of the Orpheum Theater in Memphis, Tenn., which, like many of the major road venues, balances Equity shows with nonunion attractions to fill out its extended seasons.

“You don’t have the big payday that we used to have in the ’70s and ’80s, when there used to be a percentage deal and everyone shared in the success,” Halloran says.

“Nowadays, they basically rent your building and toss you a minuscule share — a little bone for the starving animals.”

“The bus-and-truck company as we used to know it is now the non-Equity shows,” says Al Nocciolino, an East Coast presenter. And never mind the economics, his audiences love the shows.

Michael David laments the end of an era. “But those small populations were always being raped and pillaged — and they’re still getting crap,” he says.

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