Theatre is such an ephemeral, ethereal art, and is so often described as being in its death throes, that it's easy to forget that many of its practitioners are protected by some of the most powerful, and often cantankerous, unions in the nation. But this past week, in which union management conflicts seemed to crop up left and right, served as a bracing reminder of the fact. Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians waged battle with Broadway's Blast! and Off- Broadway's Love, Janis, while the National Actors Theatre production of Judgment at Nuremberg made a difficult decision regarding the company's Actors' Equity contract. Meanwhile, the most significant theatrical labor skirmish in the country is in Chicago, where the Goodman Theatre's stand off with local stage workers continues.
The Nuremberg situation proved the most clear-cut and easily resolved. The play — which is struggling to find an audience — has been working under a less costly "LORT A" contract since opening on March 26 and was scheduled to switch to the full-freight Production Contract on April 22. But on April 11, the actors voted unanimously to postpone their pay increase until June 17 — no doubt, hoping to afford the play its best shot at commercial survival.
The other threes battles all center on the unions' desire to stake out new territory. Love, Janis, a new musical about blues-rock singer Janis Joplin, began previews April 10 at the Village Theater in downtown Manhattan, a venue owned by Eric Nederlander. That same night, Local 802 began picketing the show. The union alleges two musicians were fired from the Love, Janis band after it was learned they were members of Local 802. Management denies the charge and also notes that the Village Theater is not a union theatre and not bound to labor contracts. The Broadway Theatre, where Blast! is playing its limited run, is a union house, but not one of the Indiana-bred drum and bugle kids who make up the cast of the entertainment belongs to the musicians union (not much labor strife in Bloomington, IN, apparently). Local 802 doesn't like that and has begun talks with the Shubert Organization, which owns the theatre, and Dodger Theatricals, which is the executive producer.
But it is at the Goodman Theatre that theatre unions have the most to gain and theatre institutions have the most to lose. Last year, some 14 longtime Goodman stage employees organized under IATSE. Theatre management began by cooperating, but soon found itself faced with demands of $23 an hour, roughly a 100 percent hike over what it had been paying. Seven months of negotiations broke down in February, a strike was called, and, on March 4, union workers began picketing the Goodman, accompanied by the unusual sight (at a theatre, anyway) of the labor world's ubiquitous mascot, a giant inflatable rat.
IATSE's goals seem to be tied to the recent opening of the Goodman's brand new theatre complex in the North Loop Theatre District. Goodman officials claim the union's wage demands are meant to bring the company in line with the Oriental Palace and Shubert Theatre — commercial houses with seating capacities of 2,300 and 1,700, respectively. The Goodman is a non-profit theatre with 856 seats. In response to this, a union spokesman said “They’re with the Big Boys now. They should have taken into consideration that costs were going to go up when they moved there.” Several parties have recently noted that the struggle could affect the Goodman's coming season, which includes two Broadway-bound productions: the musical The Visit and the revival of a Long Day's Journey Into Night. The theatre denies that the strike has had an adverse impact on operations. However, Goodman executive director Schulfer said “All I can say is we can’t find people who will come here to work, union or not. We can’t find people who are willing to cross the picket line.” Perhaps someone should mention to these unions that, if they're looking for money, the theatre is probably not the best place to start the search.
A number of shows managed to open this week without having a complaint filed against them with the National Labor Relations Board. The first-ever Broadway revival of the 1956 musical Bells Are Ringing starring Faith Prince, opened on April 12 to reviews positive and not-so positive. King Hedley II, the latest August Wilson play, began previews on Broadway on April 10, coinciding with the publication of a very long, very flattering John Lahr-penned profile of the playwright in The New Yorker. Eli's Comin', a musical interpolating the music of the '60s and '70s singer-songwriter Laura Nyro, began previews at the Vineyard Theatre. The Off Broadway debut of the West End hit, Richard Nelson's Madame Melville, starring Macauley Culkin, had its first preview to April 10. And the U.S. tour of the acclaimed London production of the Simon Russell Beale Hamlet began in Boston on April 11.
The McCarter Theatre of Princeton, NJ, can boast that three fourths of the cast of its next production are Tony-approved. Blair Brown, L. Scott Caldwell and John Glover, all Tony recipients, will star in Athol Fugard's new drama, Sorrows and Rejoicing, which will begin previews on April 23. Further north, the Williamstown Theatre Festival unveiled some eyebrow-raising casting choices (but then, WTF always has an unexpected name or two up its sleeve). Mary Tyler Moore and Mike Myers will make rare theatre appearances there this summer, in, respectively, Buffalo Girl, a new play by A.R. Gurney, and The Latent Heterosexual by Paddy Chayefsky.
Mercedes Ruehl and Alec Baldwin will be summering in the Hamptons this years. Ruehl will star in a new play by Jenny Lyn Bader, Manhattan Casanova at East Hampton, Long Island's Guild Hall, Aug. 23-Sept. 9. Meanwhile, about ten minutes up the road, Alec Baldwin will star in Gross Points, a new comedy by Ira Lewis, at the Bay Street Theatre of Sag Harbor.
Finally, City Center's Encores! revealed that among the tribe in its upcoming concert revival of the counter-culture classic Hair will be that wild and woolly, high-intensity, former Rent-er Idina Menzel. I'd only have been surprised is she hadn't been cast.