Sounding a sour note

They say the neon lights are bright on Broadway, but -- according to the nation's largest union of stage actors -- the Great White Way casts a dark shadow when some of its biggest shows take to the road for dates in cities such as Orlando. Case in point: the current national tour of the revival of Meredith Willson's "The Music Man," which opened a six-day run at the Bob Carr Performing Arts Centre this week.

Audiences here and at other stops on the tour are getting a raw deal, charges the 38,000-member, New York-based Actors' Equity Association. That's because they're being asked to pay top dollar to see a show that is promoted as Broadway caliber but features non-union actors who receive much lower wages with fewer benefits than Equity actors would receive. Actors' Equity has called for a boycott of "The Music Man," and local members planned to protest the Jan. 8 Orlando premiere by passing out handbills at the Carr Centre. (The Central Florida Musicians' Association also said it would join in the demonstration.)

Even though the touring cast was recruited in New York, the use of non-union performers particularly irks the 600 Equity members in Orlando, nearly two-thirds of whom are without work on any given day. (Disney World is the largest employer of Equity actors locally, with about 200, despite cutting loose approximately half that many last year. Equity actors also perform regularly at Mark Two Dinner Theater, Orlando Theatre Project and the Orlando-UCF Shakespeare Festival.) The cast members of the non-Equity "Music Man" tour are being paid $450 a week plus a $250 per diem; their housing is provided. A full Equity production would pay $1,250 a week and a $750 per diem, to include housing.

The Florida Theatrical Association (FTA), which booked "The Music Man" as part of its Broadway in Orlando series, argues that the high cost of mounting such a lavish show would make it nearly impossible for theaters to earn a profit if the actors were paid union wages. With a cast of 54 actors and musicians, most theaters "would have to sell out at 95 percent for an Equity production of this kind to break even," says Ron Legler, executive director of the Orlando-based association. "That's not realistic."

"Then they shouldn't advertise it to the public as professional Broadway theater," counters George Hamrah of the Actor's Equity branch office in Orlando. "The audiences are not getting their money's worth. They're paying about the same price locally for "Music Man" `$35-$59 per ticket` as they did to see an Equity production of Cats, but this is a nonprofessional company. Ã? We don't have many hobby lawyers out there, but we do have hobby actors."

Legler disagrees. "The actors who take on these roles want very much to please audiences. Unlike on Broadway, where a play is reviewed only once `when it opens`, these actors are getting report cards in different cities almost every week. They take the reviews very seriously."

Besides, he says, "It's not Equity players who create the magnificence of a musical like "The Music Man."" Audiences love the show because of its music, large ensemble cast, colorful costumes and glamorous stage sets, he says, pointing out that costumes and sets are the same as those on Broadway. Legler also notes that the production Orlando audiences are seeing is directed by the Broadway assistant director, Ray Roderick (an Equity member), and is choreographed by Susan Stroman, who received the 2000 New York Critics Circle award for her work on the revival. ("The Music Man" recently closed in New York after a run of more than two years). Stroman, who currently has two other Broadway hits, "certainly wouldn't lend her name to a show if it wasn't top quality," Legler argues.

Since there is no national Equity tour of "The Music Man," Legler says the only alternative would be not to offer local fans the opportunity to see it. "That would do Orlando an injustice," he says.

And many people here apparently do want to see the show. According to an FTA survey of ticket buyers, "The Music Man" was the second-most requested title, behind "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas" (which recently played here as an Equity production, with comparable ticket prices of $35 to $60).

Representatives of both sides in the feud agree on two things -- that many performers in non-Equity productions are indeed talented, and that the use of non-union actors for Broadway tours has become a significant trend in recent years. Traditionally, successful Broadway shows would hit the road first with Equity casts, stopping in major cities like Tampa and Orlando. After awhile, secondary "bus and truck" companies without union performers would travel to smaller markets, such as Melbourne. Now, businesses such as New York's Big League Theatricals, which contracts with Broadway producers to mount tours -- including the current "Titanic," "Footloose" and "Music Man" -- sometimes eliminate the Equity portions of the tours because they often lose money.

"Showboat," for example, set sail as an Equity tour a couple of seasons back, but -- with a 75-member cast -- soon sank under the weight of expenses. Last year, "The Full Monty" was booked for a 45-week national Equity tour, but was quickly called home because of losses (it couldn't have been the costume budget). The producers now plan to launch another tour of Monty without union actors.

In Orlando, along with numerous Equity productions, the FTA previously has brought in non-union tours of "Kiss of the Spider Woman" and "Jesus Christ Superstar," the latter of which also drew pro-union protesters in 1996. For its live shows, Disney World employs both Equity and non-union performers, but even those who aren't union members are covered by Equity's contract.

Nationally, Actor's Equity has seen a 40 percent decrease in the number of workweeks for its members during the last four years. (A workweek is defined as one actor employed for five days). "The reason for the decrease is primarily due to these non-Equity tours," charges the union's director of communications, David Lotz. He says that, with 85 percent of its members currently unemployed, his union has learned to be flexible in its representation of actors and tries to "negotiate special contracts" with tour companies whenever "there is a need." He points to "Guys and Dolls" as a current tour operating under "special agreements," or concessions, from the union. But efforts to reach a compromise with Big League Theatricals regarding "The Music Man" failed, he says: "They never took our efforts to negotiate seriously."

"It's a shame that Equity and producers can't work things out," says the FTA's Legler. "But that has nothing to do with the quality of the show that's here in Orlando. I've had a few subscribers voice concern, people whose son or daughter may be Equity. But I say, if we put two singers on stage, one Equity and one not, and they both sing 'Oh, What a Beautiful Morning' and both are great, would you complain that one wasn't Equity?"

Well, the Equity singer would.


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