Non-Equity shows hit road block

Guild has kept up pressure to kill non-union tuners in certain markets

CHICAGO — Whither the non-Equity roadshow? At least as far as big cities are concerned, the controversial, much-lamented phenom seems to have vanished as quickly as it arrived.

Only a couple of years ago, almost every Broadway show that wasn’t a megahit was going out non-union if at all. Now the road has suddenly rediscovered the pleasures of organization.

“Little Women” — which hardly qualifies for megahit status — is going out Equity. Even Networks Prods.’ upcoming revival of “Annie” comes replete with Equity contracts for those cute orphans.

“There are no new non-Equity tours playing major markets this fall,” says Equity prexy Alan Eisenberg. “They’ve gone away.”

On the face of it, this looks like a victory for the union — or at least for the faction (including Eisenberg) that readily supported the newly codified “tiered” production contract allowing shows like “Little Women” to go out with somewhat lower salaries.

“The new arrangement,” says “Little Women” producer Ken Gentry, “has been very helpful.”

Gentry wouldn’t speculate on whether the tuner would have gone non-Equity if the new deal had not been in place. But past practice suggests that as a likely outcome.

The turnaround is not entirely a consequence of the new contract. Over the last 24 months or so, Equity has heaped on pressure to kill the non-union tuner in the markets it cares about.

From “Oklahoma!” to “Oliver!” to “Miss Saigon,” hinterland tuners bumped up against sidewalk pickets (especially in union-friendly towns); supportive union musicians were enlisted in the cause; and Equity flacks started persuading local theater critics that they really needed to educate their readers on the difference between Equity and non-Equity theater.

Chagrined by subpar shows, many critics happily obliged. Countless papers — from the Orlando (Fla.) Sentinel to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette — ran stories on the topic of whether non-union shows can be touring Broadway. And suddenly, the local punters began to learn that if a legit actor over 40 is any good, he or she probably is in the union.

In other words, it became nearly impossible to sneak a non-union show, under the radar, even if it read “Cameron Mackintosh presents” above the title. That, in turn, has now put pressure on presenters not to book non-union shows in markets like Denver (which did the non-union “Oklahoma!”) or Minneapolis (which did the non-union “Oliver!”).

“It’s a complicated question,” says Randy Weeks of the Denver Center. “I can rail on both sides. And I don’t know how much the consumer cares. But I would prefer always to operate with our friends at Actors’ Equity. As long as there is progress in making it financially feasible to do shows that you have a prayer of presenting and actually covering costs, then let’s proceed. And they do seem to have reached some kind of common ground.”

So is the non-Equity show dead? Hardly. The split-week and one-night markets long have relied on non-union productions, and that’s not going away. Shows like “Rent,” “The Full Monty” and “Miss Saigon” still exist in a non-union configuration.

Producers like Gentry argue that’s no bad thing. “If you did away with that,” he said, “that would mean something like 190 markets wouldn’t have a Broadway season. And that means people would lose interest in the art form. That would be devastating to the whole theatrical industry.”

Gentry has a point. Furthermore, the whole controversy has been shot through with hypocrisy on both sides. For years, Equity turned a blind eye to non-union shows, just as long as they didn’t play anywhere important. And special deals were made for some producers, while others were frozen out.

And if non-union shows are no good in Detroit, then surely they’re equally no good in Kalamazoo, Mich. And if they’re good in Kalamazoo, they also should be good in Detroit. Economics aside, no one has ever really offered a good artistic reason why people in smaller cities should receive a lower legit standard.

On the other hand, plenty of producers who also support the union have made money from non-union shows — the immensely profitable “Rent” is a prime example.

And despite the protestations that the union is a determinant of quality, there has always been a free flow of talent between the two sectors — Disney’s “The Lion King” recently recruited at least one principal from the non-union ranks of Big League’s “Miss Saigon.” That would imply the much-ballyhooed difference in the cast ain’t so great after all.

The efficacy of the new contract remains to be seen — “Little Women” is pretty much the first show to go out under the newly codified deal. But for now, all of those newly ubiquitous actor bios that begin with the words “Proud Equity Member Since …” certainly appear to have paid off.

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