Last week in New York, a group of very angry actors expressed their feelings to their union, Actors' Equity, about the collapse of salaries for the performers who tour with Broadway shows to cities like Chicago. It is not hard to see why they were angry.
For years, touring casts worked under the same contracts as Broadway performers, guaranteeing the actors comparable minimum weekly salaries (most recently, about $1,800 to $2,000 per week). In the low-paying world of stage work, these so-called production contracts have long been the most desirable in the industry. This pay scale has remained sacrosanct on Broadway, but that has not been the case on the road.
In essence, Actors' Equity agreed to concessions several years ago to fight off the growing trend of shows going out with non-Equity casts (which means performers without experience on Broadway or in major regional theaters). Now, I'm grossly oversimplifying a series of negotiations and contracts I've reported on for many years. But the deal was always that those concessions in actor salary would be limited to certain special circumstances, such as an unusually large dance ensemble, or a project that clearly would not otherwise be cost-effective to tour.
What has happened and what has those actors so upset, is that pretty much every show (unless you're talking "Wicked," "The Lion King" or "The Book of Mormon") is now deemed eligible to pay its core workers less. Or so its producers argue.
"Kinky Boots," a massive hit on Broadway, is not going out under the production contract, but under the new deal that pays actors several hundred dollars a week less. (Precisely how much less varies, since the weekly gross of the show has an impact on salaries under the new contract.) It's the same with "Newsies," a popular project of Disney Theatricals which, to some minds, should not be eligible for such concessions, given the success of "The Lion King" and so on.
In some ways, actors are no different from other creative professionals who have seen their incomes erode in recent years, or from autoworkers, who have gone through the same thing. The Minnesota Orchestra, for example, just agreed to a 15 percent cut in its base salary, ending a fractious dispute. Freelance writers have been similarly challenged. One might argue this is merely a matter of market forces. Indeed, in terms of musical theater, there is no question that there are far more highly competent and well-trained professionals fighting to be in these shows now than was the case 20 years ago. In an interview last month, the producer Cameron Mackintosh noted this explosion, and accredited it to the rise of talent-finding television shows and a general renewed coolness of musical theater as a career option. There is much truth to all of that. It's also a peculiarity of this industry that most shows that play in the big downtown venues are, in essence, capitalized as a separate economic venture — so they can all claim that they are risky endeavors, even if the same show is doing sold-out business on Broadway.
Still, it seems to me that actors have been taking it on the chin. And they're right to fight back against what really has been a stealth pay cut.
So why should you care? For many years, the touring actor and the Broadway actor have made comparable amounts of money. That has meant the two worlds have been interchangeable. A member of the Broadway cast of "Kinky Boots," say, might decide to hit the road for a year and see America and then go back and do another show the following season. In other words, there was no gulf in terms of quality. But if you are paying only 60 or 70 percent of the Broadway salary for a tour of the same show, logic would suggest that the pool of people willing to do such work will be more limited. Of course, show business does not follow economic logic, but still. You get what you pay for. In Chicago, where touring theater has a big economic impact on our downtown, we have a vested interest in ensuring that paychecks are competitive with those on Broadway. That's the only way we'll get to see the seasoned professionals whose skills are so crucial to a really great night out on the town.
The lower-paying union shows may still be attracting great actors, but audiences are beginning to understand the differences between Equity shows and those non-union shows that feature performers just a couple of years out of school. The producers of "Kinky Boots," folks who care about creative integrity and who like to be classy, don't want to go that route. They understand this. Actually, those beleaguered Equity actors have a lot more clout than they think.
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