Equity's new Touring Program puts nonunion shows back on split-week track

CHICAGO — Actors’ Equity’s Experimental Touring Program is having an impact on the Broadway road that is bigger and more immediate than either side expected.

As many as eight shows in the upcoming road season including “Dr. Dolittle,” “Little Women,” “Little Shop of Horrors” and “Annie,” are taking advantage of the new arrangement, which allows producers to lower their salary costs in return for eschewing nonunion shows. Bollywood-themed “Bombay Dreams” also will be using the deal when it rolls out in 2006.

It’s a very different situation than the one imagined in the weeks after the announcement of the new contract last year, when both sides said the contract would be used sparingly.

The union, which had the most to lose in producers preferring nonunion slates, couldn’t be happier. “Recapturing the road is a triumph,’ says Equity exec director Alan Eisenberg, “most particularly for audiences throughout the United States that will benefit from the performances of the Equity membership.”

Producer Ken Gentry at Networks says the new deal is allowing him to send out more shows under a union flag. “It doesn’t solve all the problems, but it’s a positive.”

Producer Bob Boyett, who has an ongoing deal to bring shows from Blighty’s National Theater to Broadway, argues that the tiered deal was badly needed. “It is frustrating,” he says, “to see a great show with 30 people in it and know that it wouldn’t ever be affordable as a North American tour. And yet in the U.K., they tour shows like that all the time.”

Nonunion shows certainly have not gone away; the current slate of touring attractions without union contracts includes tours of “The Full Monty,” “Miss Saigon” and “Rent.” But almost all those shows are on a split-week track, where Equity long has accepted some nonunion presence.

Dan Sher, head of Big League Theatricals and a leading producer of nonunion tours, says he plans to concentrate this season on the smaller markets. “That’s our specialty.”

Sher also doesn’t write off using the new contract some time in the future.

For the most part, the controversy surrounding shows like the Susan Stroman-helmed “The Music Man” appearing in major markets seems to have come to a close. And producers now don’t have to write off mid-tier product like “Little Women,” which would have little chance of survival under the full-production contract deal.

In addition, in a case like “Little Women,” the reduction in outlay might well create a production far more profitable on the road than it was on Broadway. Without the new deal, it would have been nonunion.

Presenters, who don’t much like sneaking nonunion shows onto their slates, are happy. “We want to bring Des Moines audiences Broadway-quality shows,” says Jeff Chelesvig, president-CEO of the Civic Center of Greater Des Moines. “People are very discriminating here.”

Of course, some producers say they know little about the new deal, because their blockbuster go out under full-production contracts anyway. That’s the case with both companies of “Wicked,” as well as the new tours of “Spamalot” and “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.”

The union’s cheer at the new arrangement would dissipate if its beloved production contract felt too much under siege. But there’s no evidence that’s the case. This upcoming road season, about 15 shows are expected to be out under full-production contracts. That would make the new cheaper pact applicable to about one-third of the road fare on offer in 2005-06. That, say producers and the union, is about the right ratio.

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