National Theatre’s latest shows part of non-Equity trend

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said that the Broadway musicals “Kinky Boots” and “Newsies” will tour under an Actors’ ­Equity contract category known as Short Engagement Touring (SET) agreements. The shows will tour under “tiered” contracts that pay actors less than the Broadway rate but more than the rates under SET agreements. This version has been corrected.


West Side Story at The National Theatre. (Amy Boyle Photography)

The National Theatre spectacularly broke out of its years-long funk last fall with “If/Then,” a splashy Broadway tryout of a major new musical showcasing a genuine star in Idina Menzel.

The typically empty theater has worked at keeping busy ever since. “Porgy and Bess” played a week in December, followed by the local premiere of the Green Day musical “American Idiot” and the return of “Mamma Mia!

Hang on: The last two were non-Equity shows, a cheaper brand of tour that typically hasn’t been seen much at the National (and never at its friendly rival, the Kennedy Center).

So what does that make the new National — a glamorous launching pad to Broadway, where “If/Then” is in previews? Or the umpteenth stop on an itinerary with Wausau, Wis.; Sioux Falls, S.D.; and Elmira, N.Y.? The answer: both.

“Washington is not changing at a different rate than any other major market in the country,” says Steve Traxler, president and co-founder of Jam Theatricals. Jam is the Chicago-based presenting group that in 2012 took charge of booking the National, in cooperation with Philadelphia-based presenter SMG.

Non-Equity tours of Broadway musicals aren’t new here, but they’ve typically been at Wolf Trap or the Warner, not the National — at least not until “The Color Purple” in 2011, when the Broadway-based Shubert Organization was running things (as it had done since the 1980s).

But touring isn’t cheap, and as producers looked to cut costs in the early 2000s, non-Equity tours established a serious toehold on the road. The Actors’ Equity Association, the performers’ union, took note and negotiated a change. For certain shows, producers would no longer have to pay actors the Broadway minimum salary on tour.

“We gave them other options,” says Paige Price, first vice president of AEA. “So if they didn’t want first class, they didn’t have to jump right to non-union.”

The “first class” that Price mentions, mandating the Broadway minimum, is called a production contract. Actors on a production contract, anywhere on Broadway or on tour in big hits such as “Wicked,” “The Lion King” and “The Book of Mormon,” make a minimum of $1,807 a week.

Since 2004, that’s often been cut that by half, or more. For road shows with big costs and/or potentially lower income, Equity allows six levels of lesser contracts, called Short Engagement Touring (SET) Agreements. They pay actors anywhere from $548 to $890 a week — figures that may not exactly have a performer crooning “Hakuna Matata” for joy, even with housing and per diems added on.

Still, that has to be better than non-Equity, right?

Actually, on the lowest end, it’s close. Online audition notices for the non-Equity “Mamma Mia!” have posted $500 as the weekly salary. For the non-Equity “West Side Story,” due at the National in June, ads have posted a wage of $455 per week.

Not all Equity shows are sterling quality, of course. And on the other side, Price allows, “I’m not saying all non-union shows are no good.”

But the old wisdom was that seasoned performers who had earned union cards and were enticed/rewarded by Broadway-scale salaries were likely to flash more polish onstage. Now, who can tell?

This brings us to Traxler’s situation as he tries to jump-start the National after years of underuse.

“As a presenter, we don’t control what contracts shows tour under,” Traxler says. “Our goal is to present the best mix of entertainment we can, and to keep the stage as busy as possible.”

He adds, “As it happens, every production in the 2014-15 season is Equity, but that’s less by design than by circumstance.” (The new season will be announced in a few weeks.) “Had there been a great title that audiences wanted to see, we would not have hesitated to include it in the season, regardless of what type of contract it’s touring under.”

What that means in D.C., as nearly everywhere else, is that the same venue is more likely than ever to house both “first class” tours and what used to be called “bus and truck” shows operating on budgets that may have been drastically slashed. The “Mamma Mia!” non-Equity tour that’s playing full weeks in Washington, Philadelphia and San Francisco is also playing one-night stands in Lima, Ohio. and Fargo, N.D. “West Side Story” will barnstorm through 16 cities in April and 10 in May before arriving here June 3. The schedule is almost as daunting for the Equity “Hello, Dolly!” with Sally Struthers that’s full of one-nighters as it tours out west.

From May 6-11, the “West Side Story” cast will play four towns in five states. Top ticket prices are $49 for the one-nighter in Cape Girardeau, Mo., and $98 at the National.

Whatever the contractual deal, audiences won’t know. Nobody advertises a show as “Equity” or “non-union,” much less as “full production” or “SET.” (Worth noting: actors “participate in the overage” when SET shows make money, Price says; a recent “Les Miserables” cast got significant salary bumps this way.) But the deals between AEA and producers expire over the next two years, and in January, Equity held a meeting with its nervous members, who were worried that there may never be another full production road contract again.

“Pippin” is going out as an SET show. “Annie” and “Nice Work If You Can Get It” are hitting the road as non-Equity ventures. Two current Broadway hits — “Kinky Boots” and “Newsies” — both announced tours on less than full production contracts, will tour under “tiered” contracts that pay actors less than the Broadway rate but more than the rates under SET agreements. (“Newsies” has been announced for the National next spring.)

Price describes the “fear and bewilderment” that rippled through the acting ranks as the profitable “Newsies” and the Tony-winning “Kinky Boots” opted for lower-cost tours. The questions, Price says, were basic: “Where are we going? How am I going to survive?”

It turns out that presenters across the country are power players in the touring equation. It’s up to them to pay producers the “guarantees” that cover weekly costs, typically between $250,000 and $450,000 a week. For a smash, it’s worth it. Already the word from the heartland about “Kinky Boots” seems to be, “Not so much” — something that triggers the lower SET wages.

According to Price, “Ohio says, ‘I don’t know about “Kinky Boots.” I’ll give you less than for “Wicked.” ’ They tell producers what they’ll pay for it. And producers run budgets based on guarantees they can get.”

If producers can’t bank on much of a guarantee, chances are Equity will agree that they don’t have to pony up for a full production contract. But AEA is concerned that the path to cheaper contracts may now be too easy. The upcoming negotiations will determine whether AEA can raise the bar — and if it does, whether that means even more productions end up as non-Equity.

So let’s say you’re catching a musical at the National. Does all this mean that you need to study the Dickens-length contracts on the AEA webpage? Of course not. Does it mean you should boycott non-Equity shows? Nobody’s calling for that, even at the National, which is almost entirely a union house when it comes to stagehands and musicians.

But you might watch to see whether performance standards remain high. During big song and dance numbers, take a moment and isolate one or two actors in the chorus. See how refined they are.

The great “West Side Story” is as demanding as musicals come. How will the soaring love song “Maria” sound? How exacting — not just exuberant — will the cast be with the saucy “America” and that jazzy mambo? Have the producers scrimped too much on the set and the orchestra?

If the non-Equity performances don’t gleam, and if even the lower-cost Equity tours of shows such as “Newsies” seem like markdowns in quality, ticket buyers here — close enough to New York to know what’s what, and with long-established professional theaters all over town — may take an interest in contracts after all.

First Post byline, 1992; covering theater for the Post since 1999. His book "American Playwriting and the Anti-Political Prejudice" will be published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2014.
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