Theaters won't give inch on waiver for 'Grinch'

Producer fights to save holiday show

NEW YORK -- An expected reprieve for a show shut down by the Broadway stagehands strike turned into a legal fight Monday when a producer for "How the Grinch Stole Christmas!" said he would file a lawsuit against a theater owner for refusing to allow the musical to resume production.

The producer, James Sanna, reached a deal Sunday night with James Claffey Jr., president of Local One of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, to remove the picket line in front of the St. James Theatre, one of 27 houses that have been closed by the strike, now in its 10th day. Sanna, who is not a member of the League of American Theatres and Producers, has a separate contract with Local One. However, "Grinch" is running at a venue owned by Jujamcyn Amusement Corp., a league member.

After word leaked in the morning that "Grinch" would reopen, Jay Libin, producing director for Jujamcyn, sent a news release in the afternoon stating that the show "would not reopen until the union signs agreements and ends the strike at all theatres."

It was then that Sanna decided to file a lawsuit, which he announced at a news conference at the Hilton Theatre, a nonleague venue unaffected by the strike.

"We appreciate that Local One has recognized our pre-existing agreement and has lifted the strike on 'The Grinch' in spite of their differences with the league," Sanna said. "We are going to court (today) to seek an injunction to require Jujamcyn to open the doors."

Sanna did not say in which court the injunction would be sought. A spokeswoman for Libin did not return a call seeking comment, and league spokesman Alan Cohen said the owners and producers' organization also would have no comment.

The stagehands' contract with the league expired July 31. Producers and theater owners want to change work rules that require them to hire a minimum number of stagehands and for certain lengths of time. Local One has said it was willing to change some rules, but not without benefits of equal value. Before the strike, the league declared an impasse and implemented some new work rules unilaterally.

The two sides returned to the table Saturday and Sunday, but talks broke down for the third time in five weeks, and all shows are canceled at least through Nov. 25. That wipes out Thanksgiving week, traditionally the second-most lucrative of the Broadway season, and puts its highest grossing week -- the one between Christmas and New Year's -- in jeopardy.

As for Local One relenting for "Grinch," a producer and league member who requested anonymity said: "Why should this show be given special treatment? 'Cyrano' is a limited engagement. 'The Seafarer' is a limited engagement.

"Because of the unique nature of this limited engagement, particularly its inability to extend beyond the holiday season, Local One supports 'The Grinch' in its efforts to open its doors," Claffey said in a news release. "Our members are ready and willing to go back to work at the St. James Theatre."

Asked why the union struck "Grinch" at all, Local One spokesman Bruce Cohen said, "We had instructions to strike to Nederlander, Jujamcyn, and Shubert theaters. After the recent round of negotiations, we came to the conclusion that producers of 'The Grinch' are not part of the $20 million fund used to attack the stagehands. They did not implement horrendous work rules when they could have."

The league has a $20 million strike fund, but Sanna said he and his partners were not receiving any money from it. He said his losses so far were significant, though he did not specify them.

Andrew Salomon is the news editor for Back Stage East.