‘Music Man’ tour irks union brass

First national company is non-Equity

CHICAGO — There’s more trouble afoot in River City.

The first national company of the current Broadway revival of “The Music Man” is getting ready to roll, and it’s going to be a non-Equity company. Big union trouble may be brewin’ on the road.

Slated to open in Des Moines, Iowa on Oct. 2, “The Music Man” has already booked more than 45 weeks, including such big markets as Detroit, Cleveland, Philadelphia and Atlanta.

Non-Equity touring shows are hardly unknown quantities on the road, but they usually feature product — like “Annie” or “Cats” — that’s well past its first blush of popularity.

Aside from pseudo-legit offerings in the vein of “Stomp,” it’s highly unusual for a major, high-profile Broadway hit to move directly into non-union status for its first hinterland outing.

Producer Dan Sher of Big League Theatricals would not comment on the record for this story, but the main reasons for the decision to proceed in this fashion are, unsurprisingly, financial. In order to re-create Susan Stroman’s expansive Broadway production, an unusually large cast is needed with an emphasis on cheap-to-hire youth.

And yet this traditional show’s prime market arguably is smaller cities, where guarantees in the $400,000 range would negatively impact bookings.

The producers are banking on the title and Stroman’s white-hot, post-Tony reputation to render name performers unnecessary in the title roles.

By going the non-union route, the show is making itself available for only a guarantee of $225,000 plus 5% of the till. It makes a very attractive proposition for presenters.

“We’re finding that demand is very strong and we expect to book the show into next season,” said Ed Strong of Dodgers Touring, who is booking the attraction. “Presenters really like this title.”

That may all come to a crashing halt if Actors’ Equity starts making people’s lives miserable. The union has been increasingly aggressive over non-union product in recent months, mounting a fierce campaign against Barry Williams’ decision to star in the non-Equity version of “The Sound of Music.”

Much of the union’s anger and publicity machine was directed at its former member — but even then, “The Sound of Music” had already played major road markets in its union incarnation.

This time around, it’s looking like a non-union affair right from the start, which is arguably even more damaging to the union’s interests.

At press time, Sher and Equity prexy Alan Eisenberg were still negotiating a potential deal. But Eisenberg said he was not optimistic.

Last week, non-union auditions were continuing (final casting details have not yet been released). And the producers had let it be known that wobbly Equity sympathizers need not apply.

“We have reached out to the producers in the hope of getting a contract for our membership,” Eisenberg said, noting that the union was willing to discuss concessions. “If there is no movement, then certainly we will take action to protect the integrity of the production contract.”

And that may mean the River City Boys Band will be walking past pickets.