The Playgoer: November 2007

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Friday, November 30, 2007

Post-Strike Space Crunch

For some shows, the start-up is worse than the strike! The overcrowding of delayed B'way openings that has now ensued in early December is forcing a crunch on not tickets, but media space.

Arts editors have already warned producers that because of the tight schedule, they won’t be able to run feature stories on productions like The Seafarer or August: Osage County, meaning the only press these plays will get will be critical reviews.
The horror!

Of course, editors could simply give more space to theatre.

Just kidding.

The Big Picture

From today's Riedel, once again excellently sourced:

The seeds of the showdown were planted more than 10 years ago, when a group of aggressive producers, appalled at the amount of money it cost them to put on a show, decided it was time to take on the unions one by one.

They launched their first attack in 2003 against the musicians. After a four-day strike, the producers were able to reduce - but not eliminate - the number of players they had to hire for a show.

Three years ago, they went after the actors in an attempt to reduce the cost of touring companies. There was no strike, but the negotiations were nasty and protracted.

On the sidelines, watching these clashes were the stagehands - the toughest union of all.

They knew they were next.

See a pattern?

Turns out a League-Equity "rematch" is on its way. That contract is up in just 6 months...

While They Were Striking...

Congrats to blogger George Hunka for making his way to the Guardian theatre blogs, for what looks like at least an occasional gig. Check out this post of his, where he is eager to reassure our friends across the pond that the Broadway strike hardly shut down the real American theatre.

Over the past few weeks I've been making my usual rounds of the off-off-Broadway theatres and the parties to which theatre artists are inevitably drawn, and within these two weeks I don't think I've heard one word about the strike uptown. Down here, it's business as usual: performances, hundreds of them each week, in theatres ranging from well-appointed performance arenas to grungy black-box theatres and basement spaces.
Indeed, downtown, life--and a lot of great work--has gone on. I admit to being somewhat singleminded about the strike the last few weeks. Honestly, I do think it's an important story informing how theatre--at least some theatre, the well-advertised kind--gets made in this country. But obviously it's not the whole story.

Truth is, when you blog as a hobby, and often have time for only one or two posts a day, you --okay, I--tend to post about what feels most urgent, immediately available. But enough defensiveness!

It is also true--as we've repeatedly seen the last few weeks--that the larger media's fixation (forget the blogosphere!) on the strike, while flattering they're paying attention at all, only served to reinforce that Broadway (esp. musicals a la Grinch)=American theatre. And we haven't seen major outlets like the Times take advantage the lull on the Rialto to shine the spotlight elsewhere. Yes, the Times covered some Off and Off-Off shows, but not more than usual it seemed. Not to mention encouraging Broadway ticket holders to go do some shopping instead of some Shopping & Fucking, as it were.

So let's make sure on this site we ignore this no longer! What shows did you see the past 19 days that were running that made you forget there ever was a Broadway?

I'll go first: Lulu at BAM (by Frankfurt's Thalia Theater); Adam Rapp's Bingo with the Indians at the Flea; Farquhar's 1699 The Constant Couple at The Pearl. Actually I had very mixed feelings about all 3. (And 2 of them were reviewing gigs I didn't choose.) But all of them were vital and alive evenings of theatre--created by artists under 40, I'll add--with tickets available for under $35.*

But I'm sure there were even better things going on. Tell us!

*Correction: I previously said "most tickets under $35, but I suppose that may not be technically true in all cases. In BAM just the Balcony, really (especially with a subscription). And the Pearl is only affordable in previews, unfortunately. (Given it's the Pearl....)

Thursday, November 29, 2007

REVIEW: "The Constant Couple"

My review in Time Out today of a rare occasion: a Restoration comedy production that doesn't suck.

It's The Constant Couple, a 1699 hit by George (Recruiting Officer, Beaux Stratagem) Farquhar. Reportedly it was also the hit of the Restoration, setting all box office records until The Beggar's Opera surpassed it in 1728. Of course it didn't receive its NY premiere

Anyway it's no masterpiece, and no laugh-out-loud riot. And there are some hit or miss choices. But it's easily the best production of a classical play I've seen at the Pearl Theatre in a long, long time. (Before their promising foray into 20th Century US Drama last year I had almost given up on them.) Kudos to hiring a smart outside director, Jean Randich, to helm this one.

Post-Strike Round-Up

For video footage, check out NY1. Last night they had live post-handshake interviews, so hopefully they kept the footage.

Also: Variety. And Playbill, who also reports that surprisingly everyone, every single show, will be back up and running tonight! (Hopefully actors have been running lines the last few weeks. Anyone know the Equity stipulations on rehearsals during the strike?)

I must say, for once, the Times is better sourced today on the details than Riedel. Campbell Robertson gets the goods on some of the not-yet-for-public-release final terms:

But among the changes the league was able to achieve, according to officials involved in the talks, was a daily minimum of 17 stagehands on the load-in, the lengthy and costly period when a production is loaded into a theater. In the recently expired contract, producers would set a number of stagehands needed for a load-in — say, 35 — and all of them would have to stay every day for the entirety of the load-in, an arrangement that producers said often left large groups of stagehands with nothing to do.

The league was also able to gain an extra hour on the continuity call, the hour before or after a performance when stagehands perform duties related to that performance. In the old contract, any work that took longer than one hour required a minimum four-hour work call. In the tentative deal, stagehands can be called for two hours before a performance or for an hour before and after, though they would earn double for the hour after the show.

In return for these changes and others, union members would get yearly raises well above the 3.5 percent that the league had been offering.
So what we have here is clearly some major work-rule concessions from the union, despite the image of them being totally intractable. League prez Charlotte St. Martin may have even meant it when she announced last night, "“the contract is a good compromise that serves our industry.” One can only imagine some of these compromises were attainable weeks ago, when St. Martin was then calling the union totally indifferent to industry demands.

Other highlights:

Under the just in case you were wondering category:
The sides met for three long days at the law offices of Proskauer Rose, the firm representing the league, where they calculated the value of each other’s offers and went back and forth in old-fashioned horse trading to arrive at a series of wage increases that both sides could live with.
And, for the record:
The strike, the first in the union’s 121-year history, darkened 31 theaters, shuttering 27 shows and one Duran Duran concert, which moved elsewhere.
I know there's a Duran Duran joke there somewhere.

And, finally, I was tantalized by this aside at the bottom of Riedel & co.:
The producers lost at least $19 million, because theaters were dark during Thanksgiving, the second most profitable period for Broadway.
Wow. Lucky for that $20 million "strike fund" the producers had raised....Hey, wait a minute!

Strike Settled

as of 10:30 last night.

Over to Riedel.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Class Conflict ain't just for Off Stage

Broadway, chockablock with tourist trash, hasn't been a particularly hospitable environment for trenchant social vision lately. Blame it on the impossible cost of doing business, which has caused some to hold striking stagehands responsible. No parent should have to shell out 500 bucks to take the family to see a musical. But let's not kid ourselves into thinking that the producers of Mel Brooks' "Young Frankenstein," one of the nine Broadway shows left running, as Mammon would have it, will lower their premium ticket prices of $450 if they could get cheaper labor.


The game, in short, is broken on all ends. Still, when the salaries of stagehands, which admittedly seem high compared to those of measly journalists, are tossed around as evidence of union extortion, it's worth considering that few of these skilled workers could afford to live in one of the high-rises recently erected in the now-desirable Times Square-Hell's Kitchen neighborhood where they work.
-Charles McNulty, telling it like it is, in the LA Times.

The rest of his trenchant essay exhorts playwrights to take up the artistic challenge posed by
the strike: to actually tell the story on stage of the socio-economic upheavals going on off stage--i.e. in our real lives.

Strike's End in Sight

From the New York Post.

Riedel reports optimism today, as talks enter what could be their final round.
"It's down to money and one or two work-rule issues," one source said. "But there is definitely a deal here."
But don't assume they're all becoming friends now. The attacks still fly, but reason looks like (?) it may just prevail.

Here is the Post's own graphic outlining the final compromises. Keep in mind this is Murdoch's NY Post, but even so, this seems relatively fair, based on what I know. And Riedel's reporting on this has, to my mind, been utterly fair and balanced in the good way.

One producer's priceless parting shot:

"We've got more flexibility, though we'll probably still have to carry some guys who don't do very much," one producer says.
Yeah, I'm sure that's what they say when they job-in Huey Lewis for Chicago, too.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Press Release of the Day

As a Tom Waits fan, I don't know whether to be pleased or horrified by this new Guthrie studio show:

Warm Beer Cold Women, according to press notes, "lays out gritty truths like dirty laundry on the clothesline, with some rarely heard soliloquies laced in for his aficionados. For those unfamiliar with the bard of bum, the piece is a great introduction to some of Waits' best known works."

A Tom Waits jukebox musical. Never thought I'd live to see the day...

No Deal

At least, not yet.

Over to Crain's:

With no new talks scheduled as of Tuesday morning, Broadway performances through Wednesday’s matinĂ©es were canceled.

Broadway producers and the stagehands' union wound up another night of talks at 7:30 a.m. Tuesday without reaching a deal but officials say they have made some progress.

So the nail-biting continues. And probably no hope of struck shows resuming until this weekend at the earliest.

ADDENDUM: Robertson's NYT piece adds some minor news re: Grinch. Jujamcyn is giving up its appeal of the court injunction and letting the show run its course. Whew!

I say, at the earliest. Imagine, even if strike officially is over Thursday, how long it could take to get a show, a big show, up and running again after a two-week hiatus?

And once again, to repeat, the point of contention is no longer the load-in.

Monday, November 26, 2007

The Canon According to Mendes

BBC does the complete Shakespeare, again. This time with Sam Mendes in charge.

Nice to know Sam hasn't given up classical theatre entirely. Perhaps it's the perfect meld for him of his theatrical flair and movie savvy. Personally, I count myself a fan. But far more of his theatre work than films, at least so far.

Strike Talks Continue Tonight

The latest this morning from Campbell Robertson:

Talks in the Broadway strike were adjourned at 6.30 a.m. this morning between the league representing the theater owners and producers and the union representing the stagehands.

After negotiating through the night, the two sides announced that they would adjourn, and the union said they would meet again at 6.30 p.m. this evening.

Bruce Cohen, a spokesman for the union, said: “We are closer than we were twelve hours ago but not close enough to have a deal.”

Continued here.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Strike Talks Back On

No word as of late Sunday afternoon on the new round of strike negotiations. Perhaps tonight or tomorrow a.m. It's tempting to predict a settlement. But if it's gone on this long, why not a little longer, eh?

Meanwhile, if you can stand to read one more article about it all, then make it this one, tucked away in the Times Sunday Metro section. A fruitful collaborative piece between Campbell Robertson's nose-to-the-ground theatre reportage with Steven Greehnouse's incisive labor/business analysis.

Lots of detail, reminding us all once again this is about a lot more than the load-in "featherbedding" issue. There's the 4-hour overtime minimum, for instance, which the producers have also used to paint the stagehands as unreasonable. Maybe in a normal job. But did they think we forgot that working "overtime" on a Broadway show usually means working past 11pm?

One of the work rules that management is eager to change involves what is known as the continuity call. A continuity call happens when the stagehands who are working on a running show are called for an hour’s work before or after a performance to do work relating to that performance. Any work that goes beyond that hour requires a costly four-hour work call.

The league says it is wasteful to pay for a four-hour work call just because it had already called for an hour’s work before the performance. But Mr. Cohen said the four-hour work call makes sense because it discourages theaters from ordering stagehands to continue working until midnight or 1 a.m. For the many stagehands who supplement their income working day jobs like loading in other Broadway shows, setting up trade shows at hotels or working at other cultural institutions like Lincoln Center, late nights can be troublesome, he said.

“They want all this great flexibility after a performance,” Mr. Cohen said. “They want us to work one hour, two hours, three hours after a performance. We want to go home and make our train. We live in the suburbs, and we want to make the last train out of Penn Station, and they don’t seem to recognize that.”

No doubt (or, at least, I assume) the League is offering to increase the hourly overtime pay, so that one hour means more money than before. Still, as the union says, this about "discouraging" overtime. Maybe it would be better to speak the business jargon of the producers and call it a "disincentive."

Speaking of business jargon, imagine public reaction to this strike if we called the producer's stance what it is: downsizing. Sure it sounds like a no-brainer when the producers appeal to the sense of "no pay for no work." But when bosses come into other workplaces in America, and start reducing the workforce down to "essential employees," even if it means putting lifelong workers out of employment, I think the public is right to urge caution and moderation. And the League, looking at its balance sheets, is clearly in the mood to downsize Broadway as much as possible.

Funny enough, the expense of stagehand labor is hardly the biggest expense they have these days. And the League's insistence on keeping the strike going for the sake of a relatively small piece of the pie--relative to the stagehands' indispensability--is actually what's giving the stagehands their leverage. According to labor experts, at least.
Lois Gray, a professor of labor management relations at Cornell University, said the teachings of Alfred Marshall, the British economist, show that the roughly 350 stagehands who are on strike have a lot of bargaining leverage.

“The stagehands have classic bargaining power,” she said. “They’re essential to the production. They cannot be replaced in the short run, and they are a relatively small percentage of total costs. That puts them in a very strong position.”

In this way, she said, the stagehands are like airline pilots. A small number of workers can shut down an industry, and it rarely pays for management to endure a long strike because those workers represent only a small fraction of overall costs — and management can often pass the increased cost on to consumers. For Broadway producers, the cost of the stagehands’ labor is far outweighed by the cost of advertising and theater rent.

Ha! But you won't see the strike blamed on stratospheric ad rates. At least not in the pages of the New York Times...

Friday, November 23, 2007

Baitz vs Isherwood, and all that is implied

"The Times critics present themselves as advocates for consumers, and not as advocates for the theater itself... I suggest that [they] re-read Tynan, for instance, who was funny and could be ruthless, but was always on the side of the artist, and never innocently hid behind the pretense of being in the hire of the cultural wing of Consumer Reports."

-Jon Robin Baitz, blogging on HuffingtonPost.

I think I'm one of the last theatre geeks to finally get to this terrific invective by Robbie Baitz that he posted last week on Huffington. (Where he's regular blogger. You can subscribe to his feed here.) But here's a pretty mainstream playwright--and now Hollywood/TV writer--making a very blogger-esque argument.

I mean, you think you've seen anti-Isherwood tracts here? Try Robbie. His piece is inspired by a something Isherwood wrote earlier this month, calling for strike-sidelined theatre exiles to return East. As a reminder of the bi-coastal divide of our dramatic talent it was welcome. But its deductions and prescriptions were highly suspect.

First, there was the already cliched use of Clifford Odets as the ultimate Hollywood sell-out. As an Odets scholar I thought maybe just me and the other two would care. But thankfully Baitz sets the record straight on that one:

In fact, Mr. Odets, far from being hooked on the money, had given so much of it away to the Group Theater, et al over the years, that he had very little choice but to turn to Hollywood. Particularly after he grew ever so slightly cold in the eyes of the fickle New York critics. He had children to bring up, and that cost money then as it does now. (Mr. Isherwood, whom I do not dislike at all , has, I note with a degree of idleness, no such obligations, as far as I know.)

Um, I'll refrain from explicating that last parenthetical. Just keep in mind Baitz himself is an openly gay man. Also keep in mind that Baitz conducted a very moving interview with the publicity shy Walt Odets (the playwright's son) in the Lincoln Center Theatre Review for their Awake and Sing production, where the sadness of the Hollywood years are poignantly brought out.

Baitz is worth reading in full, so if you haven't yet, do so. It even made Riedel's column today, reporting on the dust-up, with some implied responses from the Ish himself. Also quoted, backing Baitz up, is fellow bicoastal playwright Warren Leight:
"Charles Isherwood asking playwrights to return to the stage is kind of like Ted Bundy wondering why no one hitchhikes anymore."

And you thought bloggers had it in for the guy!

Okay, so playwrights don't like critics. What's new, you ask? Well, I may be reading too much into this, but I sense a kind of "critical mass" is now building around not just the Times second-string critic, but the overall coverage of theatre at said paper.

I've heard bloggers incessantly criticized for resorting too easily (and often) to Times-bashing. Fair point. And rather than fixate on offending details in the prose of Mssrs Brantley and Isherwood, I prefer to shine the light on the editors above them who call the shots: namely arts editor Sam Sifton and theatre editor Rick Lyman.

Now I do agree it's pointless to try to shame or lecture the Times into better coverage. Hey, they're a business and they have their reasons for doing what they do, not what bloggers like me would want them to do. But if I do have an agenda in my indulgence in "media criticism" with them, it is to do my little part in chipping away at this false mantle they're erected as "the arbiter of culture." So many--so, so many--New Yorkers and culture-loving people around the country really do still look to that paper as the authority on theatre. It's really still true. It's probably based on those days past when they were a little more convincing an "arbiter." But now that the theatre as a whole--as an artform--is not being well served by the paper, it is incumbent upon anyone who cares to steer readers who care elsewhere. It is indeed time to call out: The Grey Lady has no clothes.

What's compounding this increased feeling of exasperation is yet another(!) Isherwood column pre-Thanksgiving. Assigned (presumably) to guide readers on theatrical alternatives to strike-shuttered Broadway, rather than use his precious space to champion artists Off and Off-Off the average Times reader's radar, he basically (albeit humorously) suggested you're better off people-watching at Trader Joe's. I'm not exaggerating.

I'll leave it to the passionate Isaac Butler to call this for what it was: an insult. But I can't decide to whom--to the theatre, or the reader?

While Isaac has now had it with the man and basically argues the prosecution for his removal, I again prefer to focus on the bigger editorial approach. I have no doubt Isherwood (and Brantley, too, for that matter) are doing exactly the job they are being paid for. Hence the one line of Isaac's I agree most with:
It seems that only theatre that can afford advertising in the Times' pages has any value to most of its reviewers.

Case in point. Today's Arts, Briefly section (emphasis on the "briefly") offered what could charitably be called a concession to the protests against Isherwood's blowing off of alternative theatre in favor of alternatives to theatre, as well as to their general failure to take advantage of the strike to--in the immortal words of the Times--"remember the needy" when it came to theatre. (I myself last week proposed they "send Brantley to the Brick, and Isherwood to Inwood" but alas my call was not heeded.) So finally, the rest of the community gets some props:

Off Off Broadway Offerings

Despite the stagehands’ strike, there are dozens of theater options available for those willing to venture farther off Broadway. Among them are the Amoralists’ production of “The Pied Pipers of the Lower East Side” ( at the Gene Frankel Theater and the Actors Company Theater’s ( revival of “The Runner Stumbles” by Milan Stitt. There’s also a one-night-only gay play festival, “Instant Play Insanity,” at the Wings Theater on Christopher Street tomorrow ( Five short plays will be written, cast and rehearsed in the 24 hours before showtime at 8 p.m. Other options are listed at and, most with ticket prices of $20 or less.

What do you make of this account of what's happening Off Off? Would this be the selection of titles that would first come to your mind? Notice two of the productions are "one night only." Frankly these titles seem to me chosen purely as personal/professional favors to the pr reps of these particular shows. Or else conforming to some typical middlebrow view of what Off Off Broadway was in the 60s (i.e. where they do those "gay" plays).

I'm all for giving a shoutout to NY Innovative Theatre Awards, but picking unitedstages over Clearly not an informed choice. (Also notice the gesture of: we don't really know what's going on Off Off, so just go look on the web somewhere.)

In this context, I must say I'm very thankful for Brantley's apparently personal commitment to promoting Richard Maxwell's career. Otherwise an opening as exciting to downtowners as "Ode to the Man Who Kneels" might never have been reviewed at all! (Or, like Adam Rapp's latest, relegated to a Saturday review.)

The bottom line, of course, is...the bottom line. Isaac is absolutely right to tie the apparent policies here to advertising revenue. It's not just that direct, but the ethos in the paper's pages are more commercial (or simply celebrity-driven) than ever. This all reflects conscious editorial policy, I believe. If there's been one obvious change in the Times over the last five or six years it has been a very conspicuous targeting of a wealthier readership. Note all the new sections added to the print edition: "Escapes," "Dining In" and "Dining Out." Now do you actually read those sections, or like me do you file them directly into recycling under "can't afford that"? The dirty little secret of these innovations (ok, not so secret) is it's not about the content, it's about the ads. NYT sells ad space in such "premium" supplements (what Colbert calls "Gold Edition") for a bundle, on the promise of delivering upper-income-bracket eyes.

It's a sensible move from a business standpoint. The Newspaper business is in crisis. NYT's strategy has become pure, naked snob appeal. Or not even "snob" (that implies taste)--just rich. You see it on the front pages (more stories about high-end shopping and Ivy League colleges than ever) and in the arts. In the internet age when anyone can read NYT content for free, the only people left subscribing to the dead-tree version will be those with money to burn. (Especially now that TimesSelect imploded.)

Has it always been thus? I guess so. But as a native New Yorker, I can honestly say I remember a time when regardless of the Times' privileged status, any New Yorker felt they could pick up the paper and find something for them. Now I'm not so sure of that.

Yes, the playwright always will be the natural enemy of the critic. But I take Baitz at his word that what he wants is not just a nicer critic, but a critic--nay, a newspaper--that actively engages with the theatre as a living artform. Not just nostalgically waxes for simpler times, or reduces it to a consumer service. Bad reviews would be more palatable and less destructive to the profession if it were accompanied by coverage that aggressively supports the endeavor of theatre, on all levels. That supports it against the taint of consumerism, as opposed to confirm such anti-theatrical prejudices. That challenges the reader to broaden beyond Broadway.

Of course, the time that a newspaper could do that profitably (and with support from corporate headquarters) is coming to an end. And so I say: Welcome to the blogosphere, Robbie Baitz! I hope others will join you out here.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

REVIEWS: "Bingo with the Indians" & "Rebel Voices"

Need a break from turkey and/or family today?

Then check out not one, but two bite-sized reviews of mine in this week's Voice and Time Out:

Adam Rapp's Bingo with the Indians and the Culture Project's Rebel Voices.

Let's just say that of the two, the first is more "rebellious" and the latter more bingo-family-friendly.

Happy Football Day to all.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

How the Grinch Stole Thanksgiving

...from the League of American Theatres and Producers, that is.

While some (me included!) were hastily declaring the Grinch producers had no right to settle privately with the stagehands union and re-open without permission of their theatre owners, the Jujamcyns...A NY State Surpreme Court judge(!) has ruled otherwise.

Breaking news from New York 1:

"I'm going to grant the injunction,” state Supreme Court Justice Helen Freedman said Wednesday. "I think one Grinch in town in enough."

A sense of humor, Your Honor.

Well, the League isn't laughing. Not only is the break in ranks bad pr, but the little green goblin is about to run off with a bunch of the Thanksgiving holiday stash! There being little competition and all...

Turned out the Grinch's ace in the hole was not just the argument that they were uniquely affected due to their announced limited holiday-season run. Ironically it was that crazy 12-15 performance/week union exemption contract the show negotiated back in 2006! Thanks to that, they were able to claim separate party status, or something.

The key, of course, was that the union agreed to treat the Grinch differently. (Just like the Disney and nonprofit theatres.) Which was smart pr on their part.

What this decision means for the union is leverage. It's a war of attrition now, and the union just proved they can wait it out longer, especially now that a few less tourists will be accusing them of ruining their family show experience. And the producers' losses just theoretically increase every time their potential customers buy a consolation ticket to The Grinch.

Such leverage is important going into a weekend when the two sides were supposed to meet on Sunday. That was the plan, at least, until Riedel reported today that the League was sending signals they have nothing to talk about unless the union is willing to settle. I imagine the union feels a little less pressure now. We'll see if the League decides to show up Sunday after all.

In other news, the Nederlanders--remember them? the theatre owners/producers who technically have a separate contract with the stagehands and thus originally signalled they might not be a party to the strike but then were?--the same Nederlanders are suing, yes suing Local 1 stagehands union. For $35 mil of damages in lost ticket sales. Total bluff, if you ask me.

The Jujamcyns said they're appealing the injunction decision by the way. Of course they won't get a hearing until next week--after Grinchey rakes in a bucketload this weekend.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Strike Quotes: Day 10

“The league kept saying for two days, ‘Keep giving us more, keep giving us more.’ We modified or agreed on 9 or 10 things over two days, and we got nothing.”
-James J. Claffey Jr., president of Local 1.

“At the very end, we gave them what we thought was our very bottom line.”
-Charlotte St. Martin, executive director of the League of American Theatres and Producers.


“A lot of people think all of Broadway is closed."
-Chris Boneau of the nonprofit Manhattan Theatre Club, explaining why the Broadway survivors are still not seeing much of an uptick. Too hard to explain, I guess.

What They're Still Fighting Over

Campbell Robertson explains why the strike marches on:

According to people involved with the negotiations on both sides, the league and the union had found common ground on the rules that apply to the load-in, the lengthy period when shows are moving into theaters. But Local 1 did not agree [on Sunday night] to the league’s proposed changes to the rules governing shows that are up and running.

In the recently expired contract, stagehands could be called for one “continuity hour” to do work before or after a show; any extra work beyond that required a four-hour work call. The producers had made various proposals to loosen this requirement.

The league had also been trying to change rules that limited the kind of work stagehands are allowed to do during certain work calls. A package of proposed raises was contingent on how much flexibility the league achieved.

Repeat: it's not about the load-in anymore.

On Feeds & Feedburner

Note to anyone gracious enough to "subscribe" to a Playgoer via RSS or other "feeds."

I now with Feedburner. So if you need to, you can adjust your sets to:

We thank you for your support.

(Since I'm still pretty much web-illiterate myself, sorry I won't be able to guide you through any tech difficulties myself. All they said was post that link.)

The Grinch Story... getting hilarious.

At least in Riedel's telling today.

Turns out, the producers who tried to get their own dispensation from the union to reopen the show? Totally had no authority to do so. Not without the ok of the Jujamcyn company who owns the theatre, and is still very much a party to the strike.

A source close to Jujamcyn said the company, whose other theaters have been shut down by the strike, would not allow the union to use “The Grinch" to score a victory.
Thing is, the union already wins that one. Now both they and the Grinch people can point the finger at Jujamcyn and the League for shutting the kids out of Whoville.

I don't doubt the union already knew all this, though, when "agreeing" to take down the Grinch picket line. Surely they know who they're up against.

And I guess it shouldn't be surprising that the League is really circling the wagons here, and sees the Grinch team as basically interlopers--dropping into town during the peak season with their 12 shows a week, stealing away "family entertainment" business from all the other shows. Don't be surprised to see Grinch show up next year at Madison Square Garden, or Jersey, or some other "nonconventional venue."

Meanwhile, further negotiations have been set for Sunday.

Monday, November 19, 2007

A Tale of Two Strikes: The Business Perspective

Here are some excerpts from two interesting analyses from two NYT business/media columnists, comparing the current entertainment industry battles on the two coasts.

First David Carr gives the stagehands the edge in clout, thanks to the (relative) liveness of the medium.

On the surface, the writers would seem to have all the cards, and the stagehands few....But the stagehands, who began striking almost a week after the writers, are most likely the ones who will be heading back to work first. The writers still confront the stalemate over distribution of revenues from digital content. So how will 400 or so (mostly) beefy guys in Manhattan accomplish what currently seems beyond the reach of the 12,000 members of the writers’ guild?

Begin with the fact that the stagehands have actual leverage — the ability to shut down moneymaking entertainment that occurs at a specific time and place. Writers are increasingly part of a digital economy, where entertainment comes from every direction, and shutting off the spigot is next to impossible....


Although back-channel efforts by talent agents, politicians and media executives may push the writers’ talks back to the table, the pressure to settle is more intense on Broadway, where millions of dollars immediately started going by the wayside each night the lights were out.

“With Broadway and the stagehands, the value chain begins and ends pretty much with the theaters themselves,” said Ronald L. Seeber, a professor of industrial relations at Cornell. “It’s much more akin to what the auto workers have been fighting about — the number of warm bodies, manning requirements and job duties.”

“The writers want to participate in profits that come from the creative process,” he added. “It has a much longer tail. Right now, I am using a DVD of ‘Twelve Angry Men’ in my classes, a film that is 50 years old and demonstrates the power and longevity of what was created.”


The stagehands may have what writers want — a working settlement — but the outlook for unions remains grim, whether in pixels or plays.

“Both unions are operating from a defensive position, whether they will admit it or not,” said Peter J. Rachleff, a professor of history at Macalester College. “We are living in a political economy that assumes workers are going to go backwards in almost every instance.”

Oh and just to further depress the writers out there...

The News Corporation [aka Rupert Murdoch] has a significant hedge because it has a huge hit in “American Idol,” a lucrative franchise that could be stretched to cover a multitude of shortfalls. Peter Chernin, the president of the News Corporation, said in a conference call about earnings last week that the walkout is “probably a positive” for the company. “We save more money in term deals, and story costs, and probably the lack of making pilots than we lose in potential advertising.”

And here's Steven Greenhouse confirming my hunch last week that this all marks a new chapter in cracking down on Labor's cost to the profit margin.

Do the walkouts portend a resurgence of labor, even a new union militancy? The answer, for various reasons, appears to be no.

Harley Shaiken, a labor relations expert at the University of California, Berkeley, said the disputes showed that unions, although weaker than before and going on strike far less frequently than before, will not shrink from some battles.

“To paraphrase Mark Twain, all this shows that reports of the death of strikes are greatly exaggerated,” he said. But many labor experts said the strikes resulted not from a newfound aggressiveness, but from a defensive effort by unions to hold onto what they have.

When 350 stagehands went on strike last Saturday, closing down 27 Broadway shows, it was after the producers announced a policy that would reduce the number of stagehands per production as well as the overtime that stagehands would receive. The theater producers complained that the old union contract had unreasonably increased their costs on many shows by calling for more workers than necessary.

In Detroit, G.M. and Chrysler workers went on strike after the automakers, with higher labor costs than their Japanese competitors, demanded a less costly health plan for retirees and a lower wage scale for new hires. Some auto workers said union leaders had orchestrated short strikes to try to convince the rank and file that they had fought their hardest; the union leaders described the strikes as effective bargaining tactics.

“These aren’t strikes to explore new territory, but rather to protect past gains — to prevent deterioration in working conditions and job security,” said Gary Chaison, a professor of industrial relations at Clark University in Worcester, Mass. “All this shows that management is getting stronger and much more confrontational.”


“In all these situations, management basically said you do what we want you to do or you have to stage a strike, and the union viewed a strike as a good piece of strategic leverage,” said Richard W. Hurd, a professor of labor relations at Cornell University.

He saw an important parallel between the disputes in Hollywood and Detroit. “The unions there are struggling to keep up with the changing structure of the industry,” Mr. Hurd said.

So, note that management in all these cases sees a "changing industry" (and indeed the changes are many) and demands labor play along. But the purpose of unions is to make sure labor has a say in changing practices. You realize in this context how good a position the stagehands are still in due to their true indispensability. It's the "talent" that now has to worry more in the entertainment biz:

Mr. Shaiken suggested that the stagehands had more leverage than the writers. “The stagehands have darkened the theaters. Period. With the writers, it’s a long test of wills,” he said. “The TV networks can always show reruns, but the strike will exact a long-term toll in a volatile industry.”

Greenhouse also adds this note of optimism for the theatre:

“Broadway producers can’t simply move a play to a theater in Mexico and have a New York audience watch it there."

Oh yeah? Watch them.

I can see it now: 4 Days & 3 Nights of snorkling, sunbathing, and song! That's right--Mama Mia in Mexico! We'll fly you down, feed you, pamper you, and entertain you with B'way-Quality* (*road company) stars assisted by local technicians for an Abba-rific Fiesta of Mex-ical Theatre you'll never forget!

Not So Fast, Grinch!

...said the Who's of Jujamcyn.
As long as we shut out those nasty stage-hands,
You'll sit tight and live off your own green eggs and ham!

(NYT updates: "the Jujamcyn theater chain, which owns the St. James, said that its theaters would remain dark until a settlement was reached with the stagehands.")

UPDATE: Steve on Broadway is right! (See Comments). This is real in-fighting.

From Steve's blog post:

Grinch producer James Sanna apparently is not willing to take Jujamcyn's decision lying down. He's ready to fight this battle in court.
According to WABC-TV Eyewitness News:
"This is unbelievable that this show is not going to happen because of this larger dispute," Sanna said. "We really need to take action tomorrow, so what we are going to do is go to court and try to get our show open."
So there you have it folks, a tale of a production -- ironically about greed and stealing Christmas away from the children -- fighting to perform just in time for the throngs who have already purchased their tickets for the show.

Uh Oh...

Thanksgiving has been canceled.

On Broadway, at least.

Those last minute "nick of time" talks this weekend that were to rescue what's left of the holiday season...Well, they didn't go too well. Walking out of the Westin Hotel last night after 9pm, both sides implied nothing had changed. Even though new offers were made in both directions.

So the League--lest more tourists be "disappointed"--has gone ahead and canceled all affected shows straight through next weekend, assuming no one will want to negotiate over the holiday.

Unbeknownst to them, though, The Grinch has broken from the pack (those hucksters from Whoville) and made a separate peace!

The union has ordered that the picket line come down for “Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas!,” which is playing at the St. James Theater, said James Sanna, one of the show’s producers.

“Grinch,” which runs on an unusual 12-performances-a-week schedule, had negotiated a special arrangement with Local 1 last year, said Mr. Sanna, who argued that arrangement put it outside the current negotiations. Mr. Sanna, who is not a member of the league, said he expected the show to be up and running for the Tuesday evening performance.

The league said last night that it had not been informed of the decision to reopen “Grinch.”

Yeah, you heard that right: 12 shows a week. Ironic that perhaps the most union-unfriendly show gets the break! (I linked to their loopholes regarding around this time last year.)

Get ready for the Long Hard Slog of the Great White Way...

CORRECTION: In my haste to post I forgot to link to the Times article I quoted from. Apologies.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Strike Denoument?

Disney to the rescue?

The word is that hopes are high for this weekend's resumed negotiations, because Disney (not a party to the strike) has allowed its chief labor negotiator to work with the League. Yes that's right, Disney has been more successful--and is surprisingly more respected by the Local One union--than the rest of the established (and presumably more Broadway-savvy) producers.

Naturally pressure's on to try to salvage something out of what's left of the holiday season. (You didn't know it started already? Look at your snowflaked Starbucks cup!) If this has to wait until, say, Tuesday, or even Monday to be resolved, then most shows can kiss Thanksgiving goodbye. For it's going to take more than a few hours notice, let's just say, to get productions back on their feet after over a week of inactivity. (Campbell Robertson gives some idea of the obstacles here today.)

Meanwhile, I just want to pause and reflect on a missed opportunity in the press. I was glad to see some added attention to Off Broadway, usually under the heading of "Look at this! There's some other theatre going on!" But did you notice that it was usually Altar Boyz and the "other" Frankenstein that topped the list? In other words, not so much Off Broadway was "Mini-Broadway"--utterly commercial product just in smaller venues at (slightly) lower prices.

Wasn't this a golden opportunity for major outlets like NYT to shine a brand new light on the theatre in this town that gets no press and no attention? Yes, Times did print perhaps more Off and Off-Off reviews than usual. (One of them, though, was "High School Musical on Ice.") But why not take your top 2 critics, get the word on the street on who's the new writers/performers/companies to watch (preferably folks who can't even afford press reps), and just buy their own ticket so they can show up and check it out. Send Brantley to the Brick! Isherwood to Inwood! Maybe they don't review every show, but give them a big column at the end of the week to muse on what they saw. Wouldn't that be kinda cool?

Oh yeah, that would entail actually seeing your mission as an Arts section as enlightening readers on the true state of the artform. As opposed to Celbrity Tabloid: Highbrow Edition.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Insert Strike Updates Here

I'm traveling the next couple of days, and still able to post. But just in case I miss anything, please feel free to post any strike updates here in Comments. Or just continue the dialogue, share links, etc. Thanks.

For the Record

In case you were wondering how well the non-striking shows are doing...

The one silver lining in the overall box-office tumble was that seven of the shows not hit by the strike (Young Frankenstein does not reveal its grosses to the League) have seen a bump in attendance. Attendance for the Nov. 5-11 week was up for each of these productions: Cymbeline (67.3%, up from 57.5% the previous week), Mary Poppins (96.7%, from 72.4%), Mauritius (76.3%, from 72.0%), Pygmalion (94.8%, from 91.4%), The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (77.3%, from 68.8%), The Ritz (81.0%, from 67.5%) and Xanadu (75.5%, from 55.2%).

The lesson? No one ever, ever wants to sit through Cymbeline.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Strike Update: Talks to Resume

This story is probably in lots of places now, but here's Crain's NY Business:

“Talks have been scheduled between Local One and the League of American Theaters and Producers beginning this weekend, at an undisclosed place and time,” the two organizations wrote in a collective statement. Spokespeople for both sides declined further comment.
Such cooperation doesn't quite square with earlier bravado like the statement Riedel quoted today, attributed to an anonymous producer:
"Right now, there's euphoria out there [i.e. on the picket lines].... They've defied us, and they're united with the musicians and the actors. But let's see how they feel when there's blood on the street."
Actually the reference to the other unions is important, since, according to Riedel, Equity may not hold in as long if actors--especially younger, less established ones--get antsy about missing pay checks.

Still, blood in the streets?

Man the barricades!

Strike Facts

Finally--someone in the press taking the time to actually educate the reader on what the strike is really about. Without resorting to anti-labor shortcuts like "featherbedding". Or for that matter, anti-producer simplifications like "profit-hording MBA's."

Kudos to the intrepid Campbell Robertson for getting enough NYT space today for this must-read primer.

What's striking here is how even within Robertson's strict NYT standards and practices, you see that the union side has been utterly reasonable. Perhaps unrealistic in today's economic landscape. But reasonable. The article does a good job showing the stagehand's potential flexibility, even if we still don't know all the exact terms ($'s & #'s) they're still not willing to accept.

I also can't help pointing out an observation that seems to confirm my hunches yesterday about a new stridently anti-union game plan for the producers' league.

The league is somewhat of a self-contradictory organization, made of producers and the theater owners to whom they pay rent. Producers, who provide the money for salaries, even though the owners are technically the employers, had grumbled for years that the owners had been too willing to sign labor contracts that were costly and inefficient.

But a younger generation of producers decided that the contract now up for renewal would be the one in which they pushed for big changes, and the theater owners are, this time, pushing with them. By taking a few cents out of each ticket over several years, the league amassed a $20 million fund in preparation for a strike like this one.

The League acted shocked, shocked on Saturday that stagehands would all of a sudden ambush them without warning. And that word got passed out to the media and to turned away ticketbuyers on the street. But I wonder what those endlessly "disappointed" tourists and crying children would say if they knew this strike was "several years" in the making--by the producers themselves.

By the way, those "few cents out of each ticket" couldn't have anything to do with those "Theatre Restoration Fees," could it...?

I don't have time to paraphrase all the important facts in the article, so if you want to know what's going on--read it. And the more you do, you might find yourself, like me, realizing what's at stake here is defining the nature of "work." The producer position (and I mean the official League position--not some Fox News spin) is that all the union is fighting for is the right to be paid for doing nothing. They might as well tell "How Many Stagehands Does it Take to Screw in a Light Bulb" jokes. I don't doubt that many stagehands on any given days end up not doing any lifting, moving or screwing (light bulbs, that is.) But the reasons for these provisions are well known to producers (as opposed to Ms. "we were duped!" St. Martin) and aim to provide full employment to the membership at large regardless of how large or how small the particular shows on Broadway in a given season may be. The union leadership is looking out for union members first, which means guaranteeing steady employment. That's their job. If the producers can't respect and address that need, then no wonder these negotiations aren't getting anywhere.

One more point from Robertson that echoes something I was saying yesterday, is how unusual it is in labor negotiations to completely overhaul labor-management relations in one fell swoop.

Union officials also said that these rules were the result of years of bargaining, and that the league could not expect to rewrite the entire book, or even a large part of it, in one contract.

League officials said that the current contract was far out of line with industry practices in the rest of the country and that they would not sign another one with these provisions.

I'm curious which "industry practices in the rest of the country"--and where--they're referring to. Non-Equity tours? Dinner theatres? Ok, I wouldn't be surprised if the union stipulations in other cities are not as demanding. But, hey this is Broadway. It's a larger workforce, and, in case you didn't notice, a much higher standard of living. Of course labor will have different demands.

(On a related note: here's a NY Post story singing the praises of the "weaker" West End unions. What goes unsaid is how those London stagehands can afford to be less demanding. They live in a welfare state.)

Hey, if you think I'm just one-sided, please do give us the other side. But if you simply counter with "no more something for nothing," I'm only going to ask in return: "And does no one at the Shubert Organization get paid for doing nothing?"

BTW: Steve On Broadway has some interesting resources: including a video of Monday's Local One press conference and some revealing stats.

PS. For more hard facts, I also still recommend a summary from a while ago on what the producers started implementing once the old contract expired. This gives some more indication of what the most hotly negotiated items were outside of just the "load-in" issue.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Theatre of the Right

Excellent--and long--"think piece" in the Guardian by Jay Rayner on Where are the Right Wing Playwrights? Or even just conservative playwrights.

One of the dying breed, Julian ("Gosford Park") Fellowes sizes things up:

'Very simply put,' he says, 'after the Second World War the avant-garde became the establishment. That meant that no one was poking fun at the establishment any more because they approved of it.'

So is it a conspiracy? 'Absolutely not. I don't want to give the impression that there's some plot going on. It's just become impossible not to be a socialist within the artistic community these days.' He recalls emerging from drama school in the Seventies and realising he didn't fit in. 'Suddenly being young meant being left-wing, because if you were to the right you were a boring old fart.' And that, he says, has not changed despite changes in government. The problem, he says, isn't too much theatre from the left: it's a simple lack of it from the right. 'There's something profoundly non-intellectual about it. Any reasonably free society must allow for a range of views, and we don't have that.'

Here, here, I think.

I'm glad Michael Billington is quoted to remind us that conservativism does at least have one representative left in the theatre. And he happens to be still probably the most beloved playwright in the English language. His name is Tom Stoppard.

My theory has always been that somewhere after the 60s, conservatives simply felt dissuaded enough from entering theatre, or the arts, that they're just not writing and/or submitting the plays. I also have to wonder if conservatives are on average less willing to toil away for no money and no reward? (Then again, once you assume conservatives are wealthier or value money more, then why aren't they at least taking up playwriting as a leisurely hobby!)

Then again, you do have to wonder, how many NYC Artistic Directors would green-light a script that, say, attacked the Democratic Party...from the right. Or that questioned the welfare state. That faulted unions for the working man's lot?

Hey, I would attack all these positions in my review. But I wouldn't mind seeing the plays!

Strike Quotes: He Said, She Said

Right now if you have 32 stagehands on a load-in . . . it requires if you start the call at 8 am and you go to midnight, all 32 stay on from 8 to midnight. We said at 5 o'clock, you can reduce that number to a minimum number that we've decided. They want that minimum number to be lower.

We have made [other] compromises. It's just never enough. We've granted 9 or 10 things. They want 30 or 40. They cannot go through our contract after 121 years in one negotiation and just annihilate us.
James J. Claffey, Jr., President of Local One stagehands union.
(hat tip: SOB)
[the stagehands] refused to budge on nearly every issue, protecting wasteful, costly and indefensible rules that are embedded like dead weights in contracts so obscure and old that no one truly remembers how, when or why they were introduced.
Charlotte St. Martin, Executive Director of the League of American Theaters and Producers.

Make no mistake. The producers have quite strategically decided to play hardball on this strike. Maybe because they know we live (still) in a right-wing, pro-business, anti-labor political climate and they don't care about the sympathy of average workers.

But it's also clear that new president Charlotte St. Martin has ushered in a new era in Broadway business relations. For starters, she comes from the mega-corporate hotel management--I'm sorry, "Hospitality" sector. The hotel services employees union is famously huge and powerful--but because it's huge I imagine St. Martin is used to dealing with labor impersonally and ruthlessly.

Also, if St. Martin was brought into the League (as an outsider, a non-producer remember) it was to shake things up, no? And to crack down on anything getting in the way of producer profit, I imagine. More stridently than the relatively artist and worker-friendly Jed Bernstein. Perhaps the 2003 musicians strike--where the League was perceived (by members, at least) to have caved to the musicians demand to insist on (can you believe!) live human beings in the pit
--marked a turning point, leading soon to Bernstein's resignation and St. Martin's hiring last year. No more Mr. Nice Guy? Aside from whatever concerns producers genuinely have about the stagehands, you can imagine the intended message sent to other unions--namely Equity & Musicians. Don't fuck with us, there's a new sheriff in town.

I raise this specifically in reference to St. Martin's shockingly impolitic comment above about all previous stagehand contracts being "obscure" and, implicitly, negotiated under either duress or crack and forced upon unwitting producers. The provisions the League is currently so digging its heels in against have basically stood for about 100 years, it seems.

Sure it's reasonable to expect the union to adjust gradually along with the producers to changing economic realities. But, let's face it, there doesn't seem to be anything gradual about the League's demands here at all. St. Martin and her team has virtually declared, by fiat, a whole new way of working. That's why this stand off--even for a labor stand off--is particularly nasty and intractable.

No matter how this ends, I predict she will be a longterm loser out of this--even if she is, for now, feted by her producer-peers.

Monday, November 12, 2007

"What About The Children! Will Someone Please Think of the Children!"

Well I wish I could say I was on sympathy strike, but truly just took Sunday off and had too busy a Monday to follow the story.

Hopefully I'll be back to blogging Tuesday. Meanwhile, I just want to point out something funny about the press coverage of the strike.

Remember how a few weeks ago we heard from the producers' side some ominous pronouncement about stagehands being haunted by disappointed tourists and the bitter tears of their children if they dare not let the show go on?

Well guess what the news was all weekend? Crying children and "disappointed" tourists! I say "disappointed" since the word seems to appear on cue, repeatedly, in all the articles. Articles which seem to have no other point than some tourists are..."disappointed."

For a video taste check out the NY1 story that aired Saturday. "This is one experience some of these children will never have again," says one interviewee. "Some of them will never even be even get to be in New York City ever again and see a Broadway show." Funny, you'd never know there are actually eight of those once-in-a-lifetime Broadway shows still running--just not The Grinch. Oh, by the way, just for balance....the Grinch producer is interviewed, too. But no stagehands or union reps.

(Today's NY1 story is here.)

My favorite quote was from an Irish woman who seemed only mildly fazed over not seeing Mama Mia as planned. "Perhaps I'll get to see it here after all. Perhaps I'll see it in Ireland" Indeed, I'm sure she will have that choice.

My beef is not that I hate crying children or tourists who plan their entire trip (and spend billions I may add) around 4 tickets to Grease. But only that these initial stories showed no other side. For instance--not one stagehand or union rep interviewed. That's all I ask. Standard journalistic "balance." So that the not so hidden message doesn't become: Stagehands want to kill your children.

Or something like that.

And it just is a little weird the story played out just as the League wanted. I'm not saying the press is that obviously in collusion, though. Just that they could not resist playing the sentimental angle, even when it did nothing to enlighten readers (including said disappointed ones) as to why there is a strike. Other than that evil stagehands want to kill children, of course.

Ok, how about: too lazy to stop their greedy union bosses from making children cry?

Anyway, it was good to see the Times make some redress today with, finally, the picketer's perspective. (Or at least some quotes from them.)*

Meanwhile, I'll leave you with some links to those who are keeping up with this and offering some alternative perspectives.

For the view from the frontlines, two stagehand blogs--thankfully referred to me in the Comments: Humble Nailbanger and One NYC Stagehand.

And for another "regular" blogger, that SOB Steve On Broadway. (his epithet, not mine)

Oh, and in case it's not clear yet: I'm with the stagehands, not the producers. And not ashamed. I'll explain more why in a future post....If it's the other side you want, stay with the MSM.

*CORRECTION: The Times article I meant to link to was this (from Sunday's Metro section) which does actually give the union their say.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

It's On!

2/3 of Broadway now shut down.

Stagehands pull out the pickets early Saturday morning, just in time to cancel the first of five Grinch matinees.

Expect surprise box office surges at Mauritius.

Stay tuned.

Thanks to stagehand David for tipping us off here in Comments 10pm last night.

Friday, November 09, 2007

"'a lot of "f--- yous"' flying back and forth"

That's how well the producer-stagehand labor negotiations are going. According to Riedel today.

You may remember a couple of weeks ago the momentary optimism surrounding IATSE head Tom Short's separate meeting with producer rep's, that it would finally head off a strike. How'd that go?

a strike now appears to be a certainty, sources said.
Short--in short--um, politely declined the League's final offer, closing the last door by formally giving IATSE's stamp of approval to the strike action already voted by the Local 1 chapter. In fact a stagehands meeting last night was not about if, but when--"whether to strike before the weekend or wait until Tuesday, out of fairness to ticket holders."

So prepare, B'way. The end is nigh.

All except for Disney, of course. And the nonprofits Lincoln Center Theatre, Manhattan Theatre Club, and the Roundabout.

Oh, and perhaps the biggest winner out of all this, Young Frankenstein, comfy in its separately-contracted Hilton Theatre. After this review today, they're gonna need as little competition on the Rialto as possible.

More context and fleshing out from Playbill.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Photo of the Day

photo by Richard Hein
Set Design: Daniel Ostling, Costumes: Ana Kuzmanic, Lights: John Culbert

Mary Zimmerman's latest: Argonautika. About Jason and the you know who...

At Berkely Rep.

PS Holy Shit! Watch the "Trailer"!

Green Theatre

You may have read some headlines recently about London Mayor Ken Livingston calling upon the West End to get more eco-friendly. Now Stage Directions magazine shows us here in the US how our theatres are, um, warming to the idea. From simple things like switching to flourescent bulbs to "natural convection ventilation systems." Subscribers at Philly's Stagecrafters have been asked to volunteer a few extra bucks for a "green subscription."

Then there's this about Stagecrafters: "The theatre plans to buy wind power from its local utility with the money raised from the green subscription." As opposed to just putting on more Tom Stoppard plays.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

REVIEW: Spain (Village Voice)

In today's Voice, my review of the negligible new play, Spain, picked up--inexplicably--by MCC after last year's Summer Play Festival.

I must say I'm struck by how unanimous the reception has been so far. My web-friend Rob Kendt puts it best: "Spainful."

Robert Goulet: End of The "Road"?

Riedel today reminds us of a larger metaphorical significance in the passing of Robert Goulet:

Where he made his mark (and his millions) was on the road - in "Man of La Mancha," "South Pacific" and, of course, countless tours of "Camelot."

Goulet was, in fact, the last of the touring stars, an elite circle that once included Mary Martin, Yul Brynner and Carol Channing.

These musical theater brand names guaranteed sold-out houses from Buffalo to Seattle, San Diego to Baltimore.

Those days pretty much ended in the '90s, when the shows themselves became the stars. "Les Miserables" and "Miss Saigon" didn't need Robert Goulet to sell tickets.

True. Think of it: who are our nationally known theatrical stars any more? And I don't mean Hollywood stars imported to star on Broadway.

Speaking of Goulet, no tribute would be complete without some, I'm sure well-intentioned, ribbing from Will Ferrell...

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Sweeney without Singers

Okay well, one reason the Sweeney Todd trailer may hide the fact it's a musical might be if the lead performers can't sing!

He [Tim Burton] gave Mr. Depp the album and asked, “Would you ever think about doing something like this?” He said Mr. Depp listened and responded, “I may sound like a strangled cat.” Mr. Burton took that as a yes.....

The plan was for him to work with a vocal coach, “do the scales and all that stuff.” But “it started to dawn on me that I [Depp] knew what Sweeney sounded like before, and I knew that it was up to me to go far away from that,” he said. “He needed to be, for lack of a better word, slightly more punk rock.”
Otherwise, Tim Burton tells NYT his film is definitely a musical and definitely Sondheim's--with even more music (augmented orchestra, full underscoring) and yet fewer songs. "Ballad of Sweeney Todd"? Cut. But Burton proves himself to be a real fan, and brought old Steve on board for approval every step of the way.

Some previews of Burton's approach:
“I always felt it was like a silent movie with music in it — those old black and white horror movies"...He talked with Mr. Depp, also a silents fan, about the approach; their touchstones were Lon Chaney, Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi and Peter Lorre, especially, Mr. Depp said, Lorre’s “creepy but sympathetic” surgeon in the 1935 thriller “Mad Love.” ...Mr. Burton asked the designer, Dante Ferretti, to recreate not Victorian London but horror-movie London.
But what am I personally looking forward to the most?
The red liquid latex [Depp's] razor sent spurting from the necks of Sweeney’s victims during the 50-day shoot last winter was, well, thicker than water. “You see it, you feel it, you hear it,” he said. “It wasn’t subtle.”
Punk rock & blood? There's some mention in the article of studio grumbling over an R-rated musical. I say, this might finally be a musical people who like movies will want to see!

"Demographics of the B'way Audience"

A good day for theatre market research buffs. The League has released their latest study of the Broadway audience for the 2006-2007 season. (That's June-May, fyi.) Gordon Cox provides a useful digest in Variety. Meanwhile, here's what I see as some standout stats so far:

  • About 2/3rds (65%) of the B'way audience are from outside the NYC area. (As per recent trends.)
  • About 2/3rds (64%) of the B'way audience are women. Plus, adds Cox: "women remain the major decisionmakers when it comes to ticket buying." Make of that what you will.
  • Survey boasts an all-time high in non-white attendance: 26%! People are saying this may have something to do with The Color Purple. But we also shouldn't be surprised that as the population as a whole becomes less white (and not necessarily more black, but also Latino, Middle Eastern and Asian), so does the audience for popular middlebrow entertainment, no matter how expensive.
  • The average B'way attendee got a whole year younger. (41.2 yrs old.) Some say this might have something to do with the perfect storm of Wicked, Mary Poppins, Legally Blonde, and Spring Awakening.
  • The average annual household income of the audience has gone down(!) to $98,900. (From just over $100,000 last year.) I'm not sure what to make of this actually. Note that's not saying every seat encases someone making 6 figures. If you think of it as family income then you can imagine a husband and wife making 50 grand each. If that's the case, then this is encouraging. Then again, god knows how they afford those 3-figure tickets!
  • Plays vs Musicals: Here's some surprises. People who go to musicals see on average four a year. People who go to plays (on B'way, mind you) see seven. Do they even produce seven plays on Broadway anymore?.... Also, less surprisingly, critics still matter for plays. But for musicals "word of mouth" was cited as a bigger influence on show-selection.
  • 35% of respondents answered Yes to changing the 8:00 curtain time. Most preferred earlier. Make it so, Lords of the League. Make it so.
  • And my favorite random item: "38% of respondents said they arrived at the theatre by foot, implying that they either lived or worked nearby, or were staying in an area hotel." So I'm alone in fighting my way through the NYC transit system?!

Finally, what to make of this statement by League prez Charlotte St. Martin:
“With our goal to make Broadway a stronger national brand, we do believe that the increased attendance from visitors to New York City reflects that these efforts are working. And a stronger national brand will not only assist the New York City Broadway audience, but all of the shows that are touring throughout the country.”
Say what? I'm not quite sure what is meant by "assist" here. Does she mean that a "strong national brand" makes theatre more prosperous and thus able to give New Yorkers what they want, too, in addition to the Disney fare for the tourists? "Assist" us in allowing more ticket discounts? Or does this just mean...nothing. Empty PR gobbledygook.

The "national brand" meme has been floated in League statements before and has become a mantra for St. Martin in particular. So watch for it.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Contextomy: As Old As the Republic Itself

Or at least our modern theatre industry.

As much as I support the current movement within the Drama Critics circle to rein in some wild recent examples of distorting critic-quotations, I can't help being amused by this piece of history I uncovered by chance in an old Saturday Evening Post I was researching.

From March 14, 1925:


"A fair play, not as enjoyable
and stimulating as some
wonderful ones I have seen."
"...Enjoyable and Stimulating

"Good plot, but lacking in
genuine thrills and
interpreted half-heartedly"
"Good plot....
..... Genuine thrills"

"Magnificent hokum.
Brilliant audience was
half asleep."
"Magnificent...Brilliant audience"

Magnificent hokum indeed.

(The credited humorist, for those interested, is one Arthur L. Lippman.)

The Sliding Scale of B'way Tkts

In recent years, the norm for a Rialto play's top ticket price has slowly inched up to $100. This fall alone, "Cyrano de Bergerac" tops out at $100, "August: Osage County" at $99.50, "Rock 'n' Roll" at $98.50 and "Pygmalion" at $96.25. Even Chazz Palminteri's single-set solo show, "A Bronx Tale," goes for a cool $96.50.

But as the high end is on the rise, the average amount paid by playgoers has actually gone down, thanks to the increasing prevalence of discounts and special offers. Last season, the paid average for a play slid $2.50 to about $64.

Well $64 still seems high to me. (At least I try never to pay that much, even for plays I really, really want to see.) But read on, as Variety's Gordon Cox walks us through the totally legit "black market" for legit.

Interesting side note about the new business model for all the variable pricing:

Broadway used to shy away from offering ticket discounts, for fear that auds would never pay top prices again. In practice, however, a more flexible pricing scale has increased traffic both at the high and the low ends of the price spectrum. (The airline ticket industry is the model most often cited as inspiration.)

That's right, think airlines. And think of $450 "Premium" seats as "First Class." (But, hey, where's the private tv and la-z boy chair?).

Incidentally, though:

Still, without the benefits of those super-elevated premiums, it remains tough for a play to climb into the black.

So as long as anyone wants to put non-musical drama on Broadway, the Premium's here to stay.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Brustein, Bentley, Kauffmann: together again

Great weekend viewing...

The little known Philoctetes Society here in NYC (devoted to, um, "Multidisciplinary Study of the Imagination") hosted a roundtable last week of three old-time critic legends: Robert Brustein, Stanley Kauffmann, and some guy named Eric Bentley.

I'd say all were octogenarians, but Bentley is in his 90s I believe.

Luckily Philoctetes films and posts all their sessions. So sit back and watch them dish!

I haven't watched it myself yet, so feel free to debrief us here.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Frankenstein Monstrosity?

Who couldn't see this dud coming...

With nary a shriek, of either humor or horror, in its drably earnest two hours of throaty sturm und drang, [Frankenstein the musical] will probably not get much of an updraft from Mr. Brooks’s coattails either.

It is only fair to note that unmingled wretchedness is, like beauty, in the eye and ear of the beholder. For those who sorely miss the halcyon days when Frank Wildhorn ruled Broadway — or at least arrived there with mystifying regularity — “Frankenstein,” with music by Mark Baron and book and lyrics by Jeffrey Jackson, will perhaps come as a big, bellowing hunk of musical manna.

Exactly. This thing had Wildhorn written all over it. Talk about Bad Ideas for Musicals. It's even playing at the cursed 37 Arts complex.

Yet the Times still devoted a hefty feature to it earlier this week. I'm glad Isherwood sideswipes the piece in his review:

The musical’s creators (the director is Bill Fennelly) have pointedly said that their goal was to return the story to its uncorrupted roots in the Shelley novel....Such loyalty does not quite qualify as virtuous, however, because the histrionic tone is wearying to the point of silliness, and the excess of first-person narration means little is dramatized. Mostly the characters just shuffle around a gloomily dark stage, each in firm possession of his or her own shaft of smoky light, and recount in musical soliloquy their perspectives on this woeful tale of human overreaching.

To amend a previous post, just because someone is spending a lot of money Off-Broadway doesn't make it art either.

Lament of the Day

"It is, I suspect, difficult to the point of impossibility for the average reader under the age of forty to imagine a time when high-quality arts criticism could be found in most big-city newspapers. Yet a considerable number of the most significant collections of criticism published in the 20th century, including Virgil Thomson’s The Musical Scene (1945), Edwin Denby’s Looking at the Dance (1949), Kenneth Tynan’s Curtains (1961), and Hilton Kramer’s The Age of the Avant-Garde (1973) consisted in large part of newspaper reviews. To read such books today is to marvel at the fact that their erudite contents were once deemed suitable for publication in general-circulation dailies."

-Terry Teachout. The bulk of his article is a tribute to now-forgotten British music critic, Neville Cardus of the Manchester Guardian.

Marco Barricelli

Spend any time with a playgoer from the Bay Area or Pacific Northwest, and just count the minutes before they mention Marco Barricelli. A former member of the permanent acting company at ACT, and a frequent Oregon Shakes star, I have heard Barricelli described as the finest American classical stage actor not known in NY (even though he lives here!), a generous man of the theatre, and also, "hot." I've never even seen the guy and I already admire him.

Well good news to Marco fans--he's recently been named the new AD of Shakespeare Santa Cruz. So, welcome him back home. For the rest of us, we have a new stop on our theatre tours of "No-Cal."

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Impeach Bush? Try Theatre!

"At a time when there appears to be no leadership in government to hold officials responsible for their actions, we are proceeding by way of a 'trial by theater,'­ the most compelling means at our disposal to offer the concerned citizens of this country a public platform to hold their government to account."

-Alan Buchman, director of The Culture Project, announcing "A Question of Impeachment"--a five-week festival of debates, readings, and lectures about firing and recasting the "leads" in this flop of a show we call the US of A.

Gotta hand it to the guy for always trying out new ways to do political theatre in this city.

Check it out. The list of speakers (both show people and talking heads) is quite...eclectic.