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April 4, 2004

If `Cheap' Shows Are Broadway, Velveeta Is Cheese

By Frank Rizzo

Hartford Courant, Sunday, April 4, 2004
Copyright, Hartford Courant, Sunday, April 4, 2004
Reprinted with Permission

Now more than ever, theater fans attending Broadway touring shows are wise to remember the shopping adage: Buyer, beware.

Like quick-weight-loss programs, amazing real-estate deals and solutions for improved sexual performance, advertising come-ons for touring shows sometimes promise far more than they deliver.

They promise Broadway shows.

They lie. Some shows that are part of a "Broadway" series have as much to do with Broadway as Velveeta has to do with cheese.

Blinded by the "Broadway" moniker, familiar logos and memories of past performances, theater goers can easily be duped into thinking the show they will be getting is straight from Broadway.

Many are knock-offs, cheap shows that reflect little of the original production. Look at their programs, and in the actors' bios you'll find they are just-out-of-school kids in starring parts whose major credits include work on cruise ships, theme parks and university productions.

It would be hard to tell the difference if one were to just look at the ad for the show, which has the same logo as the original Broadway production. Theaters aren't likely to volunteer the information that they are presenting a non-union show. You probably won't find that information in most newspaper, radio or television reports in advance of the production. (The Courant attempts to indicate the quality of production whenever possible.)

In the past, there haven't been many non-union shows in the Broadway series lineup in major venues. If there is one, it's seen as an occasional lapse in programming necessitated by perilous economic times.

But non-Equity touring shows are increasing and threaten to dramatically change the theatrical landscape, and the quality of shows we see on our best stages in Connecticut.

In the past, the practice was for a Broadway hit to launch a national union tour and play large theaters in major markets, including Hartford's Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts, New Haven's Shubert Theater and Wallingford's careerbuilder.com Oakdale Theater. This would be followed by a second wave of touring - still with union performers and musicians - playing smaller markets or returning to major cities for a second, third or even fourth time.

After several years, a non-union tour finally would emerge, designed to play the hinterlands, smaller cities or less grand theaters for one- or two-night stopovers.Theater-goers at that point would know what they were getting. They knew they weren't seeing anything resembling the original Broadway production but rather a show with inferior production values and no stars but that would hopefully be entertaining. For that trade-off, they would pay considerably less for tickets.

But now there's the possibility of non-union shows of recent Broadway shows hitting major theaters in prime markets for longer runs - and at significant ticket prices.

Several years ago, Susan Stroman's revival of "The Music Man" became the first major Broadway show to hit the road directly as a non-union show. That production played the Bushnell on its tour and was met by demonstrators outside the theater. It was not a very good production. (Harold Hill looked like he had just graduated from college.) Still, the show was lucrative for producers and presenting houses across the country.

The current revival of "Oklahoma!" (which Stroman choreographed) is touring as a non-union show. That production played the Oakdale last month, and the top ticket price was $71. (That price didn't include a $2 surcharge if you bought a ticket on the day of the show. That ploy is the latest attempt to milk more bucks out of the consumer, a scam that rivals the so-called "restoration" surcharges that some theaters charge and that have nothing to do with the frescoes in the lobby.)

Many fear that more non-union shows of major Broadway productions may be in the wings, especially with the high cost of producing shows.

The unions have tried to be flexible with some shows - such as the tour of the Broadway revival of "42nd Street" - and lowered its actors' minimums. (Union actors on tour get $1,354 a week, plus a $100 per diem for housing and food. The actors also get health and pension benefits.) But these producers had to clearly demonstrate to the union that the shows could not hit the road without concessions. The union's thinking was that some show is better than no show.

Now, other producers want concessions for their shows as well.

Actors' Equity, the actors' and stage managers' union, began negotiations for a new contract last week with the League of American Theaters and Producers, the group that produces shows for Broadway and the road. Both sides want to avoid a strike like the one that shut down Broadway last spring. That labor dispute with the musicians' union centered on the minimum size of orchestras for musicals. The musicians were supported by the actors' union, and after closing down Broadway for several days, a contract was agreed upon, with the size requirement reduced but not eliminated.

It is unclear what the depth of support would be if a strike is called for June, when the contract expires. There's much at stake. Road grosses exceed $640 million annually. (Broadway grosses amount to more than $720 million.)

But what's also at stake is the quality of shows that theatergoers at places like the Bushnell and Shubert have come to expect. If future shows are done on the cheap, that might be the reason for audiences to turn their backs and seek entertainment elsewhere. And would corporate sponsors for Broadway series want to be associated with hack productions?

A new message just might emerge: Let the producers beware.

E-mail: rizzo@courant.com





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