Originally created 06/11/04

Broadway producers and actors union try again to reach a new labor contract



NEW YORK -- Facing a June 27 deadline, negotiations have resumed between Broadway producers and the union representing actors who perform in their shows.

The two sides had taken a break during the Tony Awards hoopla, but started talking again Thursday. They face the challenge of reaching an agreement on several thorny issues, including nonunion tours of Broadway shows and soaring health care costs.

Actors' Equity and the League of American Theatres and Producers plan all-day sessions starting Friday, and at least eight more are scheduled within the next two weeks in an effort to reach a settlement, Maria Somma, a spokeswoman for the union, said.

"The focus is definitely going to be on the two top items - touring and health," she said, adding that there would also be in-depth discussions about preventative measures that can be taken, sort of "a physical-therapy protocol," to help performers who, for example, have to work on stages with a raked or angled performance surface or fly on stage in shows such as "Peter Pan" or "Wicked."

Officials expressed some optimism about the talks.

"I think there is beginning to be a meeting of the minds on some things," Patrick Quinn, Equity president, said Thursday. "It doesn't seem to as set in concrete as it was before."

"I think both sides are going to work very hard over the next two weeks to get this to a good place for both sides," Jed Bernstein, league president, said. "There is a strong commitment to reach a resolution. Both sides realize that strikes are destructive for everybody, most importantly to audiences."

Last spring, 17 Broadway musicals shut down for four days after the musicians' union walked out, resulting in lost revenue of over $5 million.

Quinn said the current dispute over loss of work because of the nonunion tours remained a difficult issue. "Our jobs are being outsourced to another group, which is nonunion performers," he said.

In recent years, nonunion tours, which are cheaper to produce, have become more numerous, bringing such well-known shows as "The Music Man," "Cats" and "Oklahoma!" to cities outside of New York.

"The unions are concerned about what is going to happen to the artistic integrity of the Broadway brand," Quinn explained, with road audiences seeing performers who have never walked on a Broadway stage. "That may not be the best way to exemplify what Broadway is.

"The impact could come back and haunt us on Broadway, because if people don't like the live theater they are seeing where they are, they may not want to see it on Broadway."

Union tours still dominate, and Bernstein suggested that one way out could be a second-tier contract, with cheaper salaries for shows that are not in the blockbuster class of "The Producers" or "The Lion King."