PBOL'S THEATRE WEEK IN REVIEW, March 8-15: Union Square

ICYMI   PBOL'S THEATRE WEEK IN REVIEW, March 8-15: Union Square Times Square was union square this past week. While labor continues to die a slow death as a political force elsewhere in the United States, Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians showed that Broadway unions can still put up a stiff fight.

Producers thought the players would call a strike and nobody would come, and banked that they could replace orchestras with electronic accompaniment and audiences would come—at least until the picketers' feet got tired.

Would audiences have gotten used to computer music? We'll never know. Because you can't do musicals with virtual actors and mechanized stagehands. Producers' dreams of triumph ended when both Actors' Equity and Local One of the stagehands union joined Local 802 in the strike. It was an historic moment. Musicians hadn't struck for more than 25 years; actors for even longer; the three hadn't teamed together in forever. There was nothing for producers to do but shut their musicals down (save Cabaret, which works on a different contract). There were no shows all weekend. Neither were there any talks, which was discouraging and, by Monday, beginning to get frightening (and, truth be told, a little boring).

The city—which is suffering under the triple burden of a recession, a budget shortfall and the lingering aftermath of Sept. 11— did not need a nonworking Broadway costing the town $7 million a day in lost revenue. So New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg got both sides on the phone Monday and quickly shut them up in a room at Gracie Mansion. With City Hall looking over their shoulders, Local 802 and the League of American Theatres and Producers came to an agreement in hours. No one was very surprised when the issue of "minimums"—that is, the number of musicians the union mandates producers must use for Broadway musicals—was agreed to be counted at 18-19, a compromise in the middle of the producers' last offer (the suggsted 15 in Broadway's largest houses) and the musicians' hope (24 in the pit). (One would think labor and management could have come to that conclusion without help from the mayor.)

No one cried victory. The producers succeeded in lowering minimums, which some say is what they had wanted all along. But 19 is a far cry from the elimination of the minimums clause, which was the goal at the start of the conflict. The union membership was insulted by the initial suggestion of zero minimums. Local 802 could claim they had "saved live music on Broadway," the over-repeated slogan of the strike. But they also potentially lost a third of the guaranteed jobs they had once possessed. Regardless, everyone was happy the strike had lasted only four days. Every occupied Broadway house was lit Tuesday night. The strike, though short, will have reverberations for years to come. It illustrated to producers that the theatrical unions still retain a considerable degree of power in Times Square. And the walkout will be remembered next year when Actors' Equity negotiates its own pact. The actors' union can anticipate a still resentful League, but also be sure of the support of Local 802, should push come to shove. The musicians' union's backing should have particular resonance in regard to the hot button issue of non-Equity touring shows which have been accompanied by union players. Producers like them; Equity does not (Strike, Part Two, anyone?). And, City Hall won't soon forget exactly how important Broadway is to New York economy.

Owing to the strike, there wasn't much other news from the Broadway scene this past week. But Off-Broadway kept chugging along the whole while, opening shows like Daniel Stern's comedy Barbra's Wedding, the Katherine Hepburn bio-play Tea at Five and My Life with Albertine, Richard Nelson's latest literary musical, at Playwrights Horizons. My Life with Albertine is a new musical, one of four to premiere Off-Broadway this winter. The others are Michael John LaChiusa's Little Fish, at Second Stage; Radiant Baby, the musicalized story of artist Keith Haring, at the Public Theater; and Avenue Q, at the Vineyard Theatre. During a time when nearly all the musicals scheduled for Broadway through June are either revivals or cobbled together from mostly existing music, this showing of new material is quite impressive.

So far, however, the creative effort has been applaudable only in theory. Three of the shows have opened to nothing resembling good reviews. Little Fish, based on the stories of writer Deborah Eisenberg, centers around a neurotic writer who moves to New York City, did not end its composer's losing streak with the critics. Radiant Baby, directed by none other than George C. Wolfe, and once thought a property for commercial transfer, will close a week earlier than expected, on March 16, after lackluster reviews resulted in lackluster ticket sales.

Many people admired Richard Nelson's musical adaptation of James Joyce's short story "The Dead." But in Marcel Proust—whose monumental novel "Remembrance of Things Past" is the inspiration of My Life with Albertine—the ambitious playwright-lyricist-director apparently met his match. The critical reception of the show would seem to preclude the commercial transfer James Joyce's The Dead enjoyed. As for Avenue Q, the Vineyard Theatre-The New Group co-production has not yet opened. But it has suffered a couple of mishaps. The March 12 evening performance was canceled due to a cast member's family emergency. And the show had to rework and restage the production following the injury of the main puppeteer Rick Lyon. Oh, did I mention the puppets? In Avenue Q, humans and puppets sing and dance side by side.

Suddenly a musical drawn from Proust doesn't seem like such a tough proposition after all.

(L-R) Kelli O'Hara, Laura Thompson, Aaron Lohr, Daniel Reichard, Keong Sim, Rhett George (top)
(L-R) Kelli O'Hara, Laura Thompson, Aaron Lohr, Daniel Reichard, Keong Sim, Rhett George (top) (Photo by Joan Marcus, Michal Daniel)