Broadway gets its act together

On with the shows as stagehands return to their jobs

Broadway got back to business Thursday, a day after its stagehands ended the longest work stoppage on the Main Stem in more than 30 years.

All 26 shows still shuttered by the strike were back up and running by 8 p.m., except for the revival of Harold Pinter's "The Homecoming," which was closed during its rehearsal period and was to have begun its previews last week. It instead will start performances Tuesday and officially open Dec. 16.

The musical "Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas!" had been closed for 13 days before it was reopened Nov. 23 by court order.

Local One rank and file are scheduled to vote on the contract Dec. 9.

Officials for both the League of American Theatres and Producers and Local One of IATSE refused to discuss specifics of the deal, but sources indicated that management was successful in achieving one of its principal aims: reducing the number of stagehands required to work during load-ins, when shows are first installed and constructed.

Under the previous deal, which expired July 31, producers had to hire a minimum of 22 stagehands for the most elaborate musicals. With the new deal, which the New York Times reported will run for five years, a minimum of 17 is now required.

"It's a nice chunk of money we can save," said a league member and producer of a large musical running on Broadway. "It's a savings we needed, and we're grateful to have it."

The load-in can run for several weeks and become one of the most expensive elements of a production because producers are obligated to employ the same number of stagehands from the first day to the last, regardless of the amount of work to be done.

Local One president James Claffey Jr. had indicated during the three-plus months of sometimes acrimonious negotiations that he was willing to change long-standing work rules if the union received benefits of equal value. According to the Times, Local One received yearly raises that "are well above the 3.5% the league had been offering."

Officials for both sides were reluctant to even describe their feelings about the deal and did not want to entertain discussions about who may have earned the upper hand in the end. However, the strike by Local One was the second work stoppage for Broadway in less than five years, and again the league was successful in reducing the number of people it has to hire.

Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians staged a four-day walkout in 2003, also in a fight over minimums. The union wanted to keep the number of musicians required for the largest theaters at 24 to 26; the league wanted to cut the numbers in half, and the two sides agreed to reset the bar at 18 or 19.

There is no question, however, that the league lost a lot, particularly at the boxoffice. The strike, which began Nov. 10, cost two full performance weeks, including the one framing Thanksgiving, which typically is the second most lucrative of the season. With only eight out of 35 theaters operating, the Main Stem grossed a little more than $7.23 million during those two weeks. During the same chunk of November last year, it earned more than $40 million.

As for the overall New York economy, the city controller put the losses at $2 million a day, or nearly $40 million for the run of the strike. The league estimated the per-day loss at $8 million.

Other Broadway unions paid a price, too, especially Actors' Equity. In wages alone, the union might have lost upward of $3 million, based on the minimum salaries in the union's collective bargaining agreements. The number, which does not include what the producers would have contributed to Equity's health and pension funds, is probably far greater; big-name actors now on the boards, such as Hank Azaria, Jennifer Garner, Kevin Kline and David Hyde Pierce, often command much more than the weekly standard of $1,509.

However, Equity and the other unions remained behind Local One for the duration, and John Connolly, the union's executive director, was particularly vocal during a news conference on the strike's second day. "What seems so weird, so unusual in all of this is that working people will actually stand up and defend themselves," said the former president of AFTRA, his voice at times booming high off the church walls where the gathering was held. "Broadway is not Wal-Mart."

The next major contract for the league to negotiate? Equity's.

Andrew Salomon is news editor of Back Stage East.