Mixed blessings for Broadway actors

Long runs mean job security, a creative drain

The phrases “Broadway actor” and “job security” don’t usually go together. While landing a job in a hit show is a stage actor’s dream, appearing in a long-running show is a mixed blessing. It provides a year or two of economic stability, which is always welcome, especially in these tough times.

But it can also be a drain on everything from creative energy to health. How do you keep delivering 100% when you’ve delivered the same lines and songs eight times a week, for months on end? And let’s not even start on five-show holiday weekends.

And financially, the long-term payoffs aren’t there. “If you get a decent film or television gig, you’ll get residuals for years after that,” explains Danny Burstein, who plays Luther Billis in Lincoln Center’s “South Pacific” revival and stayed in the role of Aldolpho for the full run of “The Drowsy Chaperone” — close to two years. “If you do theater, you’re finished that week.”

Even cast recordings, Burstein says, rarely pay more than a one-time fee. So he’s relieved to have a role in “South Pacific,” which has stayed recession-proof thus far.

“Every actor, except maybe Meryl Streep, wonders if they’re ever going to work again,” observes Tony-winning “Gypsy” lead Patti LuPone, who has been putting herself through the emotional wringer for eight months as Mama Rose, and will continue in the role through March, when the revival shutters.

“I’ve fantasized about having a bailout,” jokes “Young Frankenstein” star Roger Bart, who celebrated his first anniversary in Mel Brooks’ musical a few weeks ago. When the tuner shutters Jan. 4, Bart will have starred in the show for its entire Rialto run.

And as for health care, the Actors Equity program is more rigorous than other acting unions. Eligibility in the Equity program requires at least 12 weeks of employment in the last year. That means few thesps can depend on that coverage, so they need a backup plan, whether it’s SAG or a private fund.

So the fiscal advantages of a long run are obvious, but the performance schedule creates its own health perils — especially on a musical, which tends to be more physically demanding than a straight play.

“During the holiday schedules, you just want to shoot your producers,” says LuPone. “One must learn how to economize without sacrificing energy or vitality, including during the parts in which you just want to die.”

Burstein’s wife, Rebecca Luker, who recently marked her second anniversary as Winifred Banks in “Mary Poppins,” admits, “In the middle of the second show on Sunday, you start to kind of flag. You have to love the show you’re in.”

Many actors say taking care of their voices, eating enough and getting exercise are as important to their craft as any acting training. Bart lists the basic requirements: “Making sure you’re in shape and trying to leave your insanity at the door.”

There are exceptions, of course: “I’ve had friends on tours and in shows, who would literally go out every night and smoke and drink and still hit high C’s and B flats,” recalls “Little Mermaid” thesp Norm Lewis, who’s been playing King Triton since the show opened in January. “I’d just think, ‘God bless you. Wish I had that.’ ”

Howard McGillin joined “The Phantom of the Opera” in the title role in 1999 and has played the same part on and off ever since. The actor has seen the chandelier fall more than 2,300 times in the last nine years, occasionally taking a break or a sabbatical to do other shows

McGillin says the producers have been a big help to him in that regard — he’s taken vacations, he’s taken hiatuses to do movies, and he doesn’t feel like he has to keep it under his hat when he goes to daytime auditions before the show.

To many actors, one of the key factors in accepting a role is the ability to stretch their acting muscles in other venues. Several thesps say Disney Theatrical in particular is lenient on leave time, but less likely to offer the highest salary. So while an actor may not be thrilled with his “Lion King” paycheck, he’s compensated by having the freedom to go shoot a movie for a couple of weeks without necessarily relinquishing his long-term wage.

“It’s a blessing and a curse to be in a long run,” McGillin says. “On the one hand, there’s no such thing as security or stability, and I don’t want to take anything for granted. That’s part of what keeps me going — I have enough insecurity that when I go out there every night, I still feel like I’m proving myself again. But the flip side is that you feel like you’ve dropped off the map in terms of what’s current.”

But for some actors, a long run is helpful exposure — Lewis says his profile since doing “The Little Mermaid” is a little higher, if anything.

For Todd Michel Smith, who moved to Gotham 15 years ago, one long run was his entire Broadway career. Over the more than five years he’s spent in the ensemble of “Hairspray,” the actor has gotten married, had a daughter, completed his college education and “accomplished everything I came here to do.” When “Hairspray” closes in January, he’s retiring from the theater.

“Being a dancer is really a younger person’s job,” says Smith. “And while it’s definitely do-able to have a family and be in this business, it’s time for me to move on. My decisions weren’t a reflection of what’s going on in the economy, but they’ve been validated by it.”

“I’m not certain that when people are laid off, they’re going to go buy a $115 Broadway ticket,” offers LuPone. “If it becomes a popular sport like it did during the Great Depression, we’ll all have jobs. But they’re going to have to lower the prices.”

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