The Broadway musicians’ union portrayed its recent strike against New York’s theater producers as a battle to protect the quality of musicals on the Great White Way. But the extortionate work rules and featherbedding practices that the union fought to preserve have actually been responsible for robbing Broadway of much of the vitality, freshness, and inventiveness that once made it so electrifying. Thanks to unions, today’s Broadway shows are so prohibitively expensive to mount that producers dare stage only the most commercially appealing productions, which often means revivals of tried-and-true warhorses.
Yesterday’s resolution of the four-day strike, brokered by Mayor Bloomberg, does little to change Broadway’s math. While the theater producers won some concessions that will allow them to reduce costs slightly, productions on the Great White Way will remain unnecessarily expensive under this new contract, and tickets will still top $100 at some shows. And once again the Broadway unions showed that they were willing to exact any price, including hobbling the city’s tourism industry—the one bright spot in a time of economic duress—in order to maintain their grip on the theater industry.
The musicians went on strike after theater owners demanded changes in their contract, which sets out a minimum number of musicians who must be hired for a musical, regardless of how many instruments a show’s score actually requires. The union cherishes these minimums, since over the years they have provided thousands of paychecks for dues-paying members who have done little or nothing to earn them. The practice even gave rise to a particular kind of no-show Broadway job called a “walker”—a musician who showed up at the theater every night to sign in, and then simply walked back home, yet still got paid a full salary and pension benefits as if he had performed that night.
The union claimed that “walkers” no longer exist on Broadway. But that’s only because most producers have decided that, if they must hire these extra musicians, they might as well make them work by “up scoring” their shows—that is, orchestrating them for bigger bands or finding other uses for unnecessary musicians, like entertaining patrons at intermission.
The bill for these extra musicians can be enormous. In the 1990s, for instance, the popular rock musical Tommy only needed 17 musicians, but union rules required producers to hire 25, at an additional cost of more than $500,000 a year. The 1980s musical The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas needed just nine musicians, but the rules stipulated 25, costing producers an additional $1.6 million over the course of its run. The second longest-running show in Broadway history, A Chorus Line, paid $3.2 million in salaries to superfluous musicians over the years. Under the new contracts, shows would still have to hire musicians they don’t need, but the minimum would fall—from 25, say, to 19, depending on the size of the theater.
The history of these minimums makes clear that the union’s concern is preserving a few union jobs rather than the overall health of the theater in New York. Periodically, producers of struggling shows have asked for exemptions from the minimums to keep their shows open a little longer—and keep dozens of actors, musicians, and stage hands employed—but the union has consistently turned them down to protect the principle of house minimums. After the producers of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas closed their show, they tried to reopen in a smaller theater, so as to reduce their labor costs, since the smaller theater had a lower union-mandated minimum for no-show jobs. But the union insisted on maintaining the minimums that applied when the show was in the larger house. Its only concession was to require the walkers actually to show up every night and hang around for the full performance. These work rules have made it impossible for Broadway to act like other businesses, downsizing and cutting costs to respond to shrinking yet still steady ticket sales.
Over the years, the union has thought nothing of killing not just shows, but entire theaters, with their demands. When the owner of the Jack Lawrence Theater, an Off-Broadway venue in the theater district, failed in his effort to get the union to sign off on looser work rules for his musicals, he closed his theater and sold it to a developer, who put up an apartment building on the site.
The union claims that its work rules protect the public’s interest by trying to preserve live music on Broadway. But by conspiring along with other Broadway unions—like the stagehands’ unions, whose contracts also require platoons of unnecessary workers—to drive up the cost of theater productions, the musicians have made it harder and harder to make a profit on the Great White Way.
That’s why Off-Broadway has become home to everything except the biggest budget, most commercially appealing shows, the place producers now go to mount less predictable, riskier shows like Stomp and De La Guarda. One expression of this trend in the 1990s was a great boom in Off-Broadway theater construction, as theater companies and producers rushed to invest in dozens of new venues designed to be under 499 seats—that is, just small enough so that they could operate without union work rules, but large enough to house the increasingly long list of shows that can’t make it at Broadway’s costs. In 1994, veteran Broadway producer Emanuel Azenberg estimated that it cost only $440,000 to stage off Broadway a Neil Simon comedy that would have cost $1.6 million to mount on Broadway. The labor disparities are so great that it cost merely $8,000 to load the show into its Off-Broadway theater, compared with $175,000 for the same job on Broadway. Today, Off-Broadway musicals typically spend $100,000 a week to operate, compared with between $400,000 and $500,000 for a Broadway musical.
Despite these disparities, the musicians were able to wage a successful public relations battle, casting themselves as the good guys defending live music and creative integrity. Encouraged by the city’s long history of pro-labor sentiment—which has cost New York hundreds of thousands of jobs over the years—the theatrical unions have never displayed concern for anything other than the narrowest interests of their current members. They rightly assumed that the city’s current economic woes would bring pressure on theater owners from public officials and other businesses to settle the strike quickly, without major concessions on the unions’ part—like the moustache-twirling villains who hold the leading lady for ransom.