Union flap may spur new road show map

More producers seek concessions for touring shows

A big battle is brewing this fall between Actors’ Equity and road show producers, and the fallout could reshape the financial future of the Broadway touring business.

The issue, once again, is union concessions, but the big news is that for the first time, four shows are negotiating together — with the help of the League of American Theaters and Producers — to get a break on actors’ salaries. The shows — “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” “Oklahoma!,” “Oliver” and “Sweet Charity” — are looking to secure major concessions from the performers’ union before their producers agree to go out on the road next season.

The showdown has been on the horizon for a while, but the precedent producers are now pointing to is the case of “42nd Street,” currently doing sock biz across the country.

Before that show hit the road, Michael David of the Dodgers argued that the musical required such a huge cast that the economics were impossible without some concessions on actors’ salaries. The union agreed to drastically reduce its usual minimums — cutting standard salaries more than in half — and the show went out under the union banner. The reviews (including the Variety review) have been boffo, and the show pulled in $900,000 during a single week in Atlanta. But the chorus is making less than $600 per week; the standard union rate is normally $1,302.

Why did the union concede? Perhaps because they got burned on “The Music Man.”

Two seasons ago, the producers of “Music Man,” a major Broadway hit on its first national tour, argued that it was impossible to create a first national tour of the tuner without concessions, pointing to that large cast of River City folk. The union wouldn’t play ball, and the notorious tour went out under the auspices of Big League Theatricals, and without any Equity contracts.

But the sky didn’t fall in: Indeed, “Music Man” was seen on many of the same best-of-Broadway susbscription series that hosted the regular union road shows, and audiences — except in the cities where the union caused a ruckus — were none the wiser. The tour was a success.

Now, with “42nd Street,” producers realize a new precedent has been set, and they’re seeking to capitalize on it. The floodgates have opened.

Every producer of a major musical can argue it’s impossible to do the show well on the road without a large cast, and the union well knows there will be plenty of member-takers for even cut-rate Equity contracts. So naturally, everyone and his uncle wants to make a special deal, excepting only the few megahits that don’t have to worry about economizing — “The Lion King,” “The Producers,” “Hairspray” and a very short list of others.

The sea change is that shows now are negotiating together. In the past, special road deals have been just that — individual arrangements conducted on a handshake with a modicum of privacy. But now the producers are working together through the League, and it’s beginning to look like the whole salary structure of the road could go up in flames.

The controversy is especially acute over “Millie,” a Tony-winning hit. The current Broadway cast has been sending petitions to the union, begging that it not allow the show to tour with drastically reduced salaries. But the “Millie” producers say they need a deal — otherwise the figures just won’t add up in today’s rough climate.

“We’re a celebration of old-fashioned musical comedy,” says Millie producer Mike Isaacson of Fox Theatricals. “We have to have a large cast. Along with these other shows, we’re presenting the union with our picture of the road today. We’re telling them what we need to hire the number of actors we really want to hire.”

Rumors of a deal for “Millie” have sent petitions circulating around Broadway theaters saying “No More Deals” — Equity says it has recently received more than 350 signatures, many of them from stars.

“The general tenor of the remarks,” says Actors’ Equity exec director Alan Eisenberg, “is that these members would rather the show went out non-union than at a pittance of a salary.”

Producers don’t agree they are offering anybody a pittance. It’s axiomatic in the business, they say, that actors, who are given a per diem in addition to their salary (of at least $763 per week), double up on hotel rooms so they save money and stash away their regular salary.

The union, which says there have been no negotiations yet, formal or otherwise, seems to be digging in its heels on “Millie.”

“I cannot imagine a Tony-winning show,” Eisenberg says, “going out on anything less than a production contract.”

Perhaps. But then again, nobody thought “The Music Man” would go out non-union. And while actors may see the producers as the enemies, there are plenty of presenters making a lot of money from non-Equity product and seeing no reason to change their ways. Heck, they’ve even booked the non-union “Miss Saigon” in Chicago next year.

So what happens now? It could be that Equity will simply clamp down on special deals — except for small tours of older material. “42nd Street” would be a historical anomaly. But the growing consensus among producers is that something’s got to give. Ultimately, pressure from them could result in a complete overhaul of the entire road salary structure.

One intriguing area of possible negotiation is the back end. Here “42nd Street” has also paved the way: The cast got a nice paycheck bump after that big week in Atlanta because the union had negotiated a share of the overage. If that share is big enough, and a show does well on the road, it effectively would turn salaried actors into investors in the show — which might not be a bad thing for the health of the road.

As Dan Sher, who runs the non-union touring producer Big League Theatricals, says, “It’s done in the corporate world through stock options. I see no reason why actors shouldn’t share in profits.”

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