When a show’s a Broad­way hit, says Ac­tors’ Eq­uity, pay the try­out folks

Chicago Tribune (Sunday) - - A + E - Chris Jones Tri­bune the­ater critic

Broad­way an­nounced some stun­ning fi­nan­cial re­sults over the hol­i­days: “Wicked” pulled in $3.4 mil­lion in a sin­gle week; $2.6 mil­lion thawed the ice at “Frozen”; $3.7 mil­lion cir­cled back to “The Lion King”; an eye­pop­ping $4 mil­lion hap­pened in a sin­gle New York week of “Hamil­ton.” These are profit mar­gins of 300 to 400 per­cent or more.

You didn’t even need to be a mu­si­cal: Aaron Sorkin’s new drama­ti­za­tion of “To Kill a Mock­ing­bird” took in $1.7 mil­lion. In a week. At­ti­cus Finch would have fallen off his porch.

The post-Christ­mas pe­riod long has been prime time on Broad­way. But this year’s re­sults still turned heads. The cu­mu­la­tive gross was close to $58 mil­lion — if ev­ery week sold like that, and they do not, Broad­way would be a $3 bil­lion in­dus­try. And they told you there was no money in the the­ater.

Why those huge num­bers? Fewer and fewer peo­ple now work be­tween Christ­mas and New Year (this is true through­out the de­vel­oped world, if you’re talk­ing about those with the abil­ity to fly to New York), so ev­ery­one wants to see shows at the same time. And pro­duc­ers have be­come far more so­phis­ti­cated at rais­ing ticket prices ac­cord­ing to de­mand — they are no longer squea­mish about charg­ing what the mar­ket will stand on a peak night, be­cause such dras­tic

vari­ance in price is no longer so fer­vently re­sisted by the likes of you and me. The same is­sues are in play if you want to fly from Chicago to Florida on Amer­i­can Air­lines on Dec. 26. Like the­aters, air­lines don’t sig­nif­i­cantly change their ca­pac­ity. They just charge a small for­tune for the avail­able seats. And their pay­roll costs don’t change ei­ther. Cha-ching!

But no sooner had the Broad­way pro­duc­ers popped the cham­pagne corks than the party-poop­ers at Ac­tors Eq­uity As­so­ci­a­tion an­nounced that they wanted their mem­bers, the peo­ple who per­form those shows, to get a big­ger piece of the ac­tion. Se­cur­ing more com­pen­sa­tion and bet­ter ben­e­fits for its mem­bers is a union’s job, of course, but the de­mands, ac­com­pa­nied by a do-not-work — or strike — no­tice, were not about an in­crease in weekly wages but ac­tors get­ting a foot into the so­called roy­alty pool and snag­ging a share of the prof­its.

Eq­uity wasn’t re­fer­ring to the cur­rent cast mem­bers of the afore­men­tioned Broad­way shows, which are not threat­ened by in­dus­trial ac­tion (yet), but the ac­tors who de­velop new projects through so-called labs, or work­shops. Broad­way shows do not just sud­denly hap­pen — they are shaped and honed over months, some­times years, through a va­ri­ety of small-scale stag­ings and try­outs, often in Chicago. Ac­tors crave those gigs be­cause they get in on the ground floor and a show might run for years. But they are poorly com­pen­sated — labs pay only about $1,000 a week, a fig­ure that has gone un­changed since 2007 and is no longer a liv­ing wage in New York City, es­pe­cially if you don’t work ev­ery week.

Con­sider: There you are, toil­ing away on the very early stages of a hot new mu­si­cal, freely giv­ing of your ideas that some­one at the back of the house may well be typ­ing into a lap­top. You walk away with a thou­sand bucks for help­ing a show that even­tu­ally makes hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars. Then they move on to some­one else but keep some of your ideas. You’re miffed ev­ery time you read the grosses. Eq­uity this week came up with a cute tagline for its cam­paign: #NotALabRat.

“Hamil­ton” has changed much on Broad­way — and it has been a key player in this is­sue, too. Back in 2016, the orig­i­nal cast of the hit mu­si­cal, per­form­ers who said they had con­trib­uted to the fi­nal cre­ative prod­uct dur­ing preBroad­way pro­duc­tions, de­manded a share of the prof­its — a col­lec­tive roy­alty or “point,” put­ting them in the same cat­e­gory as au­thors, com­posers, di­rec­tors and de­sign­ers. They won out and, shortly af­ter­wards, Dis­ney Theatri­cals an­nounced a sim­i­lar deal for ac­tors who have helped them de­velop “Frozen.”

Of course, most shows that have labs aren’t on the level of a “Wicked” or a “Frozen.” Many will never see Broad­way at all — or, if they do, their ar­rival will come at sub­stan­tial risk to their in­vestors. Ac­tors don’t have to risk those losses — they get their $1,000 a week, af­ter all. So how is it fair that they should reap a piece of the prof­its? And if too many peo­ple are in that roy­alty pool, then the re­turns to in­vestors, the peo­ple risk­ing cold, hard cash, be­comes dis­si­pated, mean­ing that in­vest­ing in Broad­way is an even riskier propo­si­tion, put­ting a chill on com­mer­cial creativ­ity.

The dis­pute will set­tle soon, I sus­pect, labs be­ing too im­por­tant to the Broad­way process for their ex­is­tence to be threat­ened. But the most in­ter­est­ing is­sue here in­volves the tran­si­tion of ac­tors from non-ex­empt hourly work­ers, in essence, to en­trepreneurs.

Is this a good thing for these Amer­i­can work­ers?

It’s com­pli­cated. In many in­dus­tries, unions fight against the tran­si­tion to the so-called gig econ­omy, where work­ers have fewer work­place pro­tec­tions and their com­pen­sa­tion is tied to com­pa­nies do­ing well, and, even then, hardly rises at the rate of their bonus-snag­ging man­agers. Dur­ing the “Hamil­ton” is­sue, Eq­uity sup­ported those cast mem­bers, but the union was in a tough spot con­trac­tu­ally, since its con­tracts his­tor­i­cally have fought for bet­ter wages, not in­vest­ments. For years and with the ex­cep­tion of ma­jor stars, Eq­uity has cam­paigned for in­creased weekly pay­checks and railed against any such at­tempt to tie that com­pen­sa­tion to a show’s fis­cal per­for­mance. And you can see why.

But here’s the thing. Never has the tru­ism that you can’t make a liv­ing in the the­ater, but you can make a killing, been more true.

These are boom times for Broad­way hits (peo­ple still have money to spend on tick­ets) and, in some cases, the big win­ners are mak­ing such mas­sive amounts of money over such a long time that it all feels un­fair. Shows like “Wicked” ap­pear to be able to run for decades — such is the new power of their brands, and their abil­ity to at­tract both new cus­tomers and re­peat busi­ness.

Eq­uity, though, has to pro­tect its mem­bers who have rent to pay whether or not their new show is ever likely to be in the black. If the labs be­come en­tirely linked to fu­ture prof­its, a lot of ac­tors will be work­ing for free. And as any worker who fume while their com­pany makes what seem like ter­ri­ble de­ci­sions well knows, there is noth­ing more galling that be­ing a pas­sive hu­man en­tity when your liveli­hood is tied to profit. And to some­one else’s lousy choices.

So. Ac­tors would prob­a­bly be ill-ad­vised to nix their guar­an­teed weekly min­i­mum salaries; they do not have enough con­trol over key de­ci­sions that af­fect prof­itabil­ity, which is rarer than it ap­pears. A hy­brid of wages and a piece of the ac­tion is the ideal out­come for them. In the case of these block­busters — a se­lect group — fair­ness clearly de­mands that ev­ery­one in­volved in their cre­ation gets a share of the mas­sive over­ages. I’d ar­gue that the time for more profit-shar­ing on Broad­way has come. Ac­tors who brought in mil­lions in a week de­serve a Christ­mas bonus, be they “lab rats” or not.

Of course you don’t know in ad­vance what will be a hit. If you did, we’d all have one. If ac­tors want a share of the spoils from the hits, they’ll have to take some risks with their time on the flops. It’s only fair. Broad­way is look­ing more and more like a slot ma­chine with a pro­gres­sive jack­pot. Ac­tors de­serve far more than they get, but they also will have to ex­am­ine their per­sonal tol­er­ance for risk. GET YOUR BOOKS HERE ... Sun­day books cov­er­age is com­ing to A+E. Start­ing Jan. 20, look for book re­views, au­thor pro­files, John Warner’s weekly Bi­b­lio­r­a­cle col­umn and more in this sec­tion.


Over the hol­i­days “Frozen” pulled in $2.6 mil­lion in a sin­gle week.


In a week, Aaron Sorkin’s “To Kill a Mock­ing­bird” took in $1.7 mil­lion.


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