Broadway Actors Pushing for Profit-Sharing in Creation of Shows

Broadway performers and stage managers are demanding a share of the profits from hit shows they help to create, setting off a labor dispute that is threatening to disrupt the high-stakes development of new musicals and plays.

Actors’ Equity, a national labor union, and the Broadway League, a trade association representing producers, are at odds over the issue two years after public pressure from the original cast of “Hamilton” prompted that blockbuster show’s producers to agree to a new formula for distributing its proceeds.

Equity says the two sides are at an impasse and it is considering a limited strike in which it would bar its members from participating in any developmental work with commercial producers. The union says it is unhappy with how its members are compensated for work in developmental labs, which are generally four-week sessions in which actors and writers test out material for shows in progress. Recent productions that have used labs include “The Cher Show,” “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “Hello, Dolly!” and “Waitress.”

“After two years of wrangling and negotiating we are just at a standstill,” Mary McColl, the union’s executive director, said.

The Broadway League says there is no impasse; that the two sides are still talking and that producers still hope a deal can be reached.

“Negotiations have been going on for some time, with lots of back and forth, and we have additional proposals we’re trying to make,” the League’s president, Charlotte St. Martin, said. “We believe there will be a deal that will be beneficial for both sides.”

The dispute is intensifying at a time when Broadway is booming. Although most shows still fail, those that succeed can make hundreds of millions and, in a few cases, billions of dollars. The current tension comes just months before a broader negotiation over the general contract for Broadway performers and stage managers.

Equity estimates that about a quarter of Broadway’s new shows in recent years have employed developmental labs to work on scripts, songs and dances. According to the union, the amount of work done in labs has doubled over the last five seasons. There have been 75 labs since 2016, and about half of those have led to full productions.

In recent weeks “Lempicka” and “Jagged Little Pill” — new musicals that are retooling for Broadway after initial productions in Massachusetts — have held such sessions. And coming up are labs for stage adaptations of the films “Almost Famous” and “August Rush,” as well as for an untitled Michael Jackson jukebox musical and “Heart of Rock & Roll,” which uses the Huey Lewis songbook.

Labs began about a decade ago in an effort to keep more developmental work in New York, which can be more convenient for actors who live in the region but also helps to showcase the material. Some labs end with run-throughs of one or two acts, to which potential investors and theater owners are invited as they consider whether to get involved.

To replace an agreement that has now lapsed, Equity is asking that the next version include not only a pay raise (currently lab participants are paid about $1,000 a week) but also a provision requiring that 1 percent of any profit after a show recoups its capitalization costs be shared with lab participants, since they helped to create the show’s success. For the last several months, the union has been making its case via social media, with some of its best-known members expressing public support for the campaign.

Stephen Bogardus, an actor who serves as chairman of the union’s show development subcommittee, said the landscape had changed, and that pay should change with it.

“Everybody wants to be in at the ground floor — to create and put their stamp on something,’’ he said. “We are collaborators, and we need to be acknowledged for what we’re doing. We’re putting in more skin than we once did, and after recoupment we think it’s fair that we should be able to share in the success of the show.”

The League has thus far argued that individual producers should voluntarily decide whether to share profits with lab participants. Some big players already have, including Disney, for “Frozen”; and Lorne Michaels, for “Mean Girls.”

Kate Shindle, the union president, said the amount of money at stake is “pretty modest.” Under the union’s proposal, for every $1 million in profit made by a show, $10,000 would be set aside to be shared by the actors and stage managers who participated in the developmental labs.

Follow Michael Paulson on Twitter: @MichaelPaulson.

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