If you’ve worked on Broadway in the last five years, Sarah Galbraith probably cut your paycheck. In the field of theatrical bookkeeping, her assurance and expertise has earned the devotion of company managers and business managers. Since she founded her firm Checks and Balances in 2011, Galbraith has become the paymaster for the live-theatre industry.
Checks and Balances is the only firm to specialize in show business, writing the paychecks for shows on and Off-Broadway as well as touring shows and other theatre-related industries. Galbraith’s own career in theatre began in the financial offices of Richard Frankel, the Broadway producer of The Producers and Hairspray. She spent time in a solo practice and in public accounting, which gave her a solid grounding in bookkeeping and taxes. She also trained as a company manager. Then, to join the Association of Theatrical Press Agents and Managers (ATPAM, which includes the company managers’ union), Galbraith passed a rigorous test on the 14 unions in commercial theatre.
“I knew the union aspect from the company manager training,” says Galbraith. “And as a bookkeeper, I knew the basics of the payroll taxes—New York and federal—but I also knew the touring states. I knew what happens when you take your tour to California, or to Illinois or to Detroit. [But] the experience of dealing with payroll was really frustrating,” because conventional firms lacked the flexibility and experience needed to design a theatre payroll. “All the company managers and the general managers and the other accountants I worked with shared my frustrations. I eventually just came to the revelation that I should open a payroll service.”
Baseline Theatrical’s Andy Jones, the general manager for Hamilton and previous company manager on several other Broadway shows, believes that Galbraith’s breakthrough was her expertise in several angles of show business. “She knows all the ins and outs, as someone who’s looked at the payroll every single week, and knows all the different unions. She knows that some people [like understudies] get paid in sixths [of the contractual minimum salary], some people get paid in eighths, some people get vacations on top, some people get vacations accrued, some people get sick days on top, some people get sick days accrued.”
Galbraith had the tools to found a successful payroll service, but she also had the timing. In 2011, Albany passed the New York Stage Wage Theft Prevention Act, which mandated employers to include specific information on paystubs. She saw that companies were wasting valuable labor on this legality. “There were assistant company managers, creating labels for every single paycheck describing how the gross wage was derived. If you’re a big musical, you’re talking about a hundred people or more. To sit there and do that is just not the best use of anyone’s time. And these are people who have an enormous number of things to do.”
Galbraith designed spreadsheets specifically for theatrical bookkeeping, ones that could be adjusted for any size or type of show. “We’re designed to handle a show as big as Wicked (which is one of our clients) or a two-person piece.” For each production, her office sits down with its company manager to tailor a spreadsheet to their company, putting in the union specifics and tax guidelines.
Jones was one of Checks and Balances’ first clients, and he estimates that its payroll system has saved him half a day’s work for each week of a show’s run. “Now you can do everything in Excel,” Jones explains. “The old system was, you would have to read numbers for an hour on the phone, and you just had to hope you said the numbers right, and the other person heard them right.”
He also notes that the system’s portability has made life easier for touring productions. “It’s incredibly helpful on the road. You used to have to find a payphone in the airport to call your payroll in on. Now, even when you’re flying, you can [use] Wi-fi on the plane, send it and be done.”
“I think we have had to become more sophisticated,” explains Galbraith. “Universal, Warner Brothers, and other big companies are putting money into Broadway, and they expect a level of business acumen that’s not what has always been associated with the industry.” She laughs, “I consider that part of my job, to dispel all those myths about The Producers!”
From her vantage as bookkeeper to Broadway, Galbraith believes that the business of show business is healthy and strong: “You have great big, high-concept mega-musicals, but you also have small plays with tons of different investors each putting in a little ... because they love it. But I see both ends of the spectrum, you have more sophisticated investors coming from outside.”
In fact, Checks and Balances has been hired by a company new to Broadway: Cirque du Soleil. Paramour, the troupe’s Times Square debut has presented the office with some surprises. “Looking at the bills, I’ve never seen a company spend money on acrobatic equipment and drones. This is very much outside the box, this is not your normal Broadway show. I like a challenge!”
In the meantime, from its offices on West 44th Street, Checks and Balances will continue to distribute paychecks all over Times Square and the city, and to touring companies across the country. “We turn out payrolls for about 80 [productions] a week,” she says, “and all designed so that everybody is paid by showtime on Thursday.”
Aaron Grunfeld is a freelance arts journalist and critic in New York City.