At 3pm on Tuesday, Nov. 5, members of the Council of Actors Equity Association, the actors' union, will hold a meeting to find a way to deal with the numerous firings that will hit Broadway's Les Miserables on Jan. 27, 1997. Cast members of Les Miz are expected to attend, though Equity actors in other shows probably won't be in attendance, and press is absolutely not allowed.
The co-directors of Les Miz, John Caird and Trevor Nunn, announced Oct. 27 that most of the Broadway cast will be terminated and that the national touring company will come in to do the show for six weeks until a new 10th anniversary cast can be rehearsed for a March 12 reopening. It's been reported that only nine of the 37 current cast members were asked to stay (though the show's press office contradicts that figure, telling Playbill On-Line that of the 37 cast-members, less than 1/3 -- only 12 -- have been asked to move on.)
CBS radio news quoted union president Ron Silver as threatening not to send a newly negotiated labor contract to members for a vote. The station said that a Christmas season strike of Broadway shows could be proposed -- though there was no indication that this was more than sabre-rattling.
The New York Times reported that members plan to ask why union executive secretary Alan Eisenberg "had known of the changes for at least a month but said nothing."
Not surprisingly, Equity is being very hush-hush on the situation until after the meetings ends on Tuesday, November 5. Asked about the rumor that the newest producer/union contract -- already approved by Equity's board for sending to the general membership for a vote of ratification -- will be delayed, Executive Assistant for Policy Mary Lou Westerfield essentially said there was no connection between the Les Miz controversy and the new contract. "Even when a contract runs out," Westerfield told Playbill On Line, "Actors' Equity and the producers have always agreed on an extension."
Helaine Feldman, speaking on behalf of Equity's public relations office, Dick Moore & Associates, would not get into details of the Miz mess, but she did note that back in 1979, Annie underwent a similar crisis, when nineteen members of that cast were summarily dismissed. That led to a clause in the following union contract (too late to help the Annie axed), which required that "just cause" be given for a firing.
Asked how the Les Miserables producers got around the Just Cause clause, Feldman reminded me that Cameron Mackintosh essentially bought out the fired actors' contracts by paying the premium stipulated as the penalty for the firing. Since that's never been done before, Feldman admitted that the Equity Council now has to regroup and figure out how to keep producers who can afford this option from taking it in the future.
Not surprisingly, Marc Thibodeau, of The Publicity Office, spoke up on behalf of the producers. "The show needed a rejuvenation, and many of the people let go had been with the musical for a very long time. They're very talented people, but it was time for them to move on."
Asked whether the cast had to "re-audition" for their parts, Thibodeau replied, "It wasn't like that. The director [John Caird] came in for a couple of sessions to refresh the production. He made his decision after that period."
In a later, in-depth conversation, Thibodeau mapped out the Les Miserables reorganization. 12 actors are being replaced. 14 actors are being asked to stay with the show (up from the previously announced 9), although not necessarily in the same roles. 4 further actors are still under consideration pending re-evaluation of their status. Five children in the musical are unaffected, unless they grow too tall or (if boys) their voice changes. Finally, there are 2 "open" roles, one of which is, ironically the lead.
Why were there nine (now four) chorus roles under re-evaluation? "The musical director [Bob Billig] has never heard some of these people sing alone with the piano," Thibodeau explained. "They're always in a chorus.
Ivan Rutherford has been playing Jean Valjean for several weeks and has been asked to stay with the company, though he would be part of the ensemble rather than Valjean should he stay on for the 10th anniversary cast in March. "Craig Schulman had been doing the role for a year and a half," Thibodeaux explained. "Then he went to Hawaii and played there for a couple of weeks. He was supposed to come back but ended up changing his mind. So they'll be casting a new Jean Valjean."
Tamra Hayden, the Cosette, will be leaving the show but will stay in Mackintosh-land by taking the producer's offer to play the alternate Christine (I.e., matinees only) in a national tour of Phantom Of The Opera. Christopher Innvar has been invited to stay on as Javert.
Thibodeaux noted that, surprisingly, only three parts in Les Miz are principle roles: Jean Valjean, Javert and Fantine. Cosette, the Thenardiers, Eponine, et. Al., are considered chorus roles. This decision was not the producers' but Equity's, which sent a representative to the show when it ran in Washington DC before coming to Broadway.
"The problem with these chorus contracts," Thibodeau notes, "-- and Cameron's been fighting for years, as have the League of American Theatres [And Producers] -- is that there's no term limit. In London, there's a fifteen month limit, and then either side can leave or negotiate. Here, once an actor gets cast, they can essentially stay on until the show closes."
But what about the Just Cause clause? "That's for very concrete problems -- lateness, an actor forgets his lines -- it's not subjective. A producer can't fire an actor for being tired, or lacking vitality, yet an actor can give 4 weeks notice and leave a show for any reason at all." "But if an actor isn't presenting a major reason to be replaced," I countered, "why replace the actor?"
We have people who've been in Les Miz five, six, seven years. There are actors playing student revolutionaries and they're in their mid-40's! It's possible the show could run another five years, which means it's conceivable there'd be fifty year old students."
"I think the producers have been more than generous," Thibodeau continued. "I understand that actors have concerns about job security; they have mortgages. But the replaced actors stay with the show until mid-January, giving them three months' notice, plus each actor is getting $25,000 severance. Forget theatre, that's a better deal than anyone gets in society."
Spurred on by the Equity controversy, New York Times critic Peter Marks went to re-critique the show and posted his review Nov. 5. His opening made no bones about alluding to the controversy: " A loaf of bread can stay fresh for days...But how long can a Broadway musical sit in a theatre before it goes stale?"
"The decision was humiliating for the dismissed actors," noted Marks. "But was it arbitrary. Is Les Miz really in such bad shape? Or is the massacre mostly a publicity stunt...? ...Judging by Sunday's matinee, Mr. Caird and Mr. Mackintosh had reason for making noise: Les Miz has definitely hit the skids. You could call it `Les Zzz'."
Marks could have stopped right there. But he didn't: "Though technically proficient, and by no means embarrassing (aside from the actor who sneezed onstage during a scene on the Paris barricades), the musical seems as washed out as an old Polaroid snapshot."
Marks pointed to a general lack of energy, especially in the long first act. He also cited Ivan Rutherford and Florence Lacey's professionalism but lack of stage presence. Christopher Innvar's "virile, brooding" Javert was praised by Marks, but he was unimpressed by both Eponine (Michelle Riggs) and Marius (Tom Donoghue).
Importantly, Marks closed his review by placing a good chunk of the blame for the show's decline on Cameron Mackintosh and John Caird. "Maybe after ten years, the creative energy that fueled an original production has been spent. Maybe all that can be expected is a scrupulous museum piece... Old mega-musicals, it seems, never die. They just fade away."
See other stories in Theatre News for more details on the Les Miserables 10th anniversary plans.