Producers of the Broadway revival of Chicago have hired attorney Judd Burstein to launch an independent investigation into the events leading up to the death of longtime cast member Jeff Loeffelholz, who took his own life June 29.
Loeffelholz’s friends and family state that he was harassed by Chicago music director Leslie Stifelman and Walter Bobbie, the revival’s Tony-winning director, during a June 22 company rehearsal in an attempt to oust him from his contract after 22 years in the Broadway production.
A member of the revival’s original cast since it opened in 1996, Loeffelholz was still signed to his original run-of-show contract—a standard agreement found in all Broadway production contracts meant to protect jobs for members of a show’s original cast. These contracts can only be terminated if the actor chooses to leave the show, through a predetermined buyout, or if producers are able to prove “just cause” in firing the actor.
Loeffelholz’s file was empty and there were no warnings or notes on record, according to his partner, Peter De La Cruz. He believes that the production was attempting to intimidate Loeffelholz into quitting while building a case to terminate his contract.
According to De La Cruz, Loeffelholz was anxious about the June 22 rehearsal with Bobbie, which, after 22 years, was to be the first time he had ever rehearsed with the show's original director.
Loeffelholz kept detailed notes from the rehearsal, documenting feedback from Bobbie and Stiflema. Loeffelholz's notes state that at one point after he had sung Mary Sunshine's soprano number "A Little Bit of Good" six times, Bobbie walked out of the theatre, saying, "This is so disappointing." Bobbie later returned, allegedly saying that they had already wasted enough time and he didn't need to hear any more.
In the days leading up to his death, Loeffelholz met with a representative at Actors Equity Association to document what occurred and turned over the notes he had written, including the handwritten account of his treatment that he wrote down during the rehearsal.
"Our thoughts are with the cast and all those affected by this tragic situation," a representative for Actors Equity Association said in a statement. "Equity has and will continue to engage with the cast and monitor the situation, but due to a pending investigation by the employer, it would not be appropriate to comment further at this time."
As the standby for Mary Sunshine, Loeffelholz did not perform in the show on a nightly basis. He was contracted to call in prior to every show and remain available for the duration of the performance in the event he had to go on. Standbys are paid the same as any other actor who performs eight shows a week, and earn an increase if they go on.
Chicago’s producers previously offered Loeffelholz the chance to take over the role of Mary Sunshine full-time—a move requiring him to end the run-of-show contract that protected his employment—and sign a new term contract that would expire six months to a year. Loeffelholz repeatedly declined the offer.
“Our company is deeply saddened by the loss of Jeff Loeffelholz, a 22-year member of our Chicago family," the show's producers said in a statement. "We're aware there are concerns about a rehearsal preceding his passing. In light of that, with the support of Actors' Equity, an independent attorney was hired to do an investigation. Until we learn the findings, we don't have anything else to share.
"Our focus at the moment is on healing. We called company members when we learned of Jeff's passing to offer grief counseling. Along with many who loved him, we continue to mourn the great loss of a beloved cast member.”
Burstein has contacted the cast and crew seeking information on the events of June 22, clarifying that he is not employed as counsel for the producers but rather as an independent investigator. "I wish to speak to everyone who had knowledge of what occurred with respect to Mr. Loeffelholz’s death, as well as to anyone who wants to speak to me about anything else concerning Chicago," he writes. "I have further informed them that I will never reveal the identity of anyone who speaks with me if he or she wants to speak confidentially."
A memorial for Loeffelholz will be held August 7 at St. Malachy's.