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Road show actors seek higher pay

by PATRICK HEALY New York Times News Service on January 28, 2014 10:50 AM

Actors call them “luxury tours”: the road productions of “Wicked,” “The Lion King” and other blockbuster hit musicals with the money to bring Broadway across the United States in style. No tours pay better for Actors’ Equity union members — at least $1,807 a week, with leads earning up to $6,000 — and none have better perks, like physical therapy at a moment’s notice.

“I’ve been able to pay off my student loans and put money away to buy a home someday,” said Ryan Jackson, who has been to 60 cities in the last four years in the ensemble of “Wicked.”

Yet these tours, once the norm, have become fewer in recent years, thanks to revised Equity contracts that let producers steeply reduce actors’ pay for non-blockbuster tours. Actors have grumbled about this for years, but a furor has erupted now over the recent news that “Kinky Boots” — the fourth-highest-grossing show on Broadway each week — will not pay actors the top rates when its tour begins in September; instead, weekly salaries will start at $976. (The three highest-grossing shows, “Wicked,” “The Lion King,” and “The Book of Mormon,” all pay luxury tour rates.)

On social media and through petitions, actors were aiming to mobilize members of their 49,000-strong union to flood an Equity town hall meeting in New York on Monday. They were seeking higher compensation for non-luxury tours, which typically pay 60 percent less than the top tier.

“We’re Broadway-caliber performers, and our show is advertised as straight from Broadway, but our livelihood is a far cry from Broadway standards,” said Tony Howell, a member of the “Evita” ensemble, who is currently sharing a room in a Denver hotel (with crummy Wi-Fi service to boot).

“Sometimes, we go four weeks without a true day off, because nonperformances days are usually spent on buses,” he added. “We’re tired of this being acceptable, while producers make money.”

From the heyday of traveling musicals in the 1950s and ’60s, and through the 1990s, virtually all Broadway tours paid similar salaries, and New York actors were the toasts of the town. But as touring costs and other entertainment options increased, producers had a harder time making money, so they began mounting cheaper nonunion tours.

By 2004, so many road shows were doing this that Actors’ Equity intervened, introducing new contracts with wages as low as $500 a week. These concessions won back jobs for the union, but they have undercut the high-paying tours that pay $1,807 or more. Of the 23 Equity tours this season, only six pay luxury rates (the three top blockbusters as well as “Jersey Boys,” “Once” and “The Phantom of the Opera”).

In their frustration, actors are feeling much like members of other unions who have seen concessions made to management. And the situation has implications for audiences across the country. If, as many actors want, Equity pushes for higher tour salaries in its next contract negotiations with producers in 2015, several producers say they will have no choice but to mount nonunion tours with less-experienced performers or to delay tours altogether. Some musical producers are already doing that: “American Idiot” and “Mamma Mia!” are on low-budget nonunion tours, even as they charge roughly the same ticket prices as some Equity tours do.

Producers sharply deny they are being greedy. Rather, they note, all but the biggest hits struggle to sell tickets, forcing them to keep costs down.

“It’s about building a Broadway-level tour where I have a chance of paying back my investors and making a little bit more,” said Sue Frost, a Broadway producer who did just that with the recent two-year, low-wage Equity tour of her Tony Award-winning musical “Memphis.”

Equity and nonunion tours together gross roughly $1.5 billion a year, producers estimate. Tour revenue is crucial to Broadway producers and investors, some of whom make money on the road after flopping in New York, as did “Legally Blonde.”

The economics are complex. Most producers link actor salaries to the box office payments that road presenters guarantee. The higher the guarantees, the higher the salaries — but the problem, producers said, is that guarantees have been stagnant for years. Presenters mostly justify those low guarantees by citing uneven ticket sales.

“Out here, we’re fighting a declining audience subscription base,” said Randy Weeks, president of the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, a popular stop for tours. “And in most cases, it’s impossible to predict if a hit on Broadway will be a hit on the road.”

Touring salaries drew a spotlight in late December after a blogger, writing anonymously on annoyingactorfriend.com, noted that “Kinky Boots” and another popular Broadway musical, Disney’s “Newsies,” would use less-generous Equity contracts. (The “Newsies” salary minimum will be $1,091 a week.)

Hal Luftig, a lead producer of “Kinky Boots,” said the salaries were low because he accepted a $298,000 guarantee from presenters, a very modest amount for a highly profitable hit like this one. Luftig told presenters that he would swallow that amount in order to get them simply to book the show, which features a black British drag queen as the heroine — a story that may be risky beyond New York.

“‘I wasn’t going to ask for a $350,000 guarantee, because I knew I’d lose cities,” Luftig said. The low guarantee, he added, helped satisfy Broadway Across America, the most powerful tour presenter, which operates in 40 cities and was among the presenters uncertain about a “Kinky Boots” tour.

Broadway Across America executives declined to comment.

“Newsies” producers negotiated a $330,000 guarantee, low enough to avoid luxury tour salaries. If they had to pay them, “we couldn’t do the tour,” said David Schrader, executive vice president for Disney Theatrical Productions.

Equity leaders are sympathetic to restive members — two dozen of whom would speak only on condition of anonymity for fear of antagonizing producers who might want to hire them in the future — but also want to explain to younger members why low-wage contracts came to be. Many of those pushing for better pay, including a growing new group of rank-and-file Equity members called ACT: Actors Coming Together, are in their 20s and 30s and weren’t working when more tours were going nonunion.

“I’d like to see presenters and producers raise ticket prices, for one thing, to make more money, so they can offer higher guarantees and pay our members more,” said Nick Wyman, the president of Equity. “At the same time, we don’t want to go backwards.”

But road presenters said higher ticket prices would only hurt sales. “My average ticket price is $60, and I know my blue-collar marketplace well enough to know the prices it will bear,” said Albert Nocciolino, a presenter who brings tours to Buffalo and other upstate New York cities.

Actors on low-wage tours do receive salary increases of 17 percent if a tour recoups its capitalization, and they also receive overages — a piece of the profits when a tour exceeds revenue projections. But these bumps do not come close to salaries on high-end tours.

“I received one overage on ‘Evita’ for about $400, which was nice,” said Howell. “The other was approximately $27.”

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