"Flexibility" and "reality" were the key words that finally helped resolve Broadway's latest labor crisis, a dispute that nearly shut down Broadway over the thorny issue of nonunion tours.
"We're calling it 'the experimental touring program,' " union executive director Alan Eisenberg said Wednesday, describing that flexibility: different tiers of salaries and other compensation to reflect the different economic conditions of each show that goes out on the road.
It was part of the tentative settlement reached Monday by Actors' Equity Association and the League of American Theatres and Producers, some two weeks after their contract had expired.
Most of the discussions between the two sides dealt with the road. The touring business has changed over the years. These days only one or two shows a season, such as "The Lion King" or "The Producers," can guarantee big grosses. Others, without stars or Tony Awards, may have a more difficult time drawing audiences.
And there are a lot more theaters. Many of them were built or restored in the 1980s and 1990s, during the heyday of the British megamusical, such as "Cats," "Les Miserables," "The Phantom of the Opera" and "Miss Saigon." These shows visited cities for extended runs and then returned two or three times.
Lurking behind this glum picture was the rise of non-Equity tours, which have been gaining in popularity over the last several years. The union wanted to limit these tours, which use less experienced actors who work for a lower pay scale. The league was willing to stop licensing such tours but in exchange wanted salary concessions for tours of shows that were not ready-made blockbusters.
"One of the key goals for this negotiation, for both sides, was to recognize the economic realities of the road and to build a new model," Jed Bernstein, president of the league, said. "That's what this is an attempt to do: to put a system in place so that Equity can recover lost jobs and League producers can recover lost productions."
In a joint statement released Wednesday, Equity and the league called the new program "an innovative approach to meet the economic needs of the road. [Each tier] is . . . based on a set of criteria which includes guarantees from presenters to producers, size of company and other variables.
"The agreement also includes a provision that provides additional compensation for Equity members for successful engagements before a show recoups, and still more compensation once a show is profitable," the statement said.
Also agreed upon: an annual wage increase of 3 percent over the four-year contract, and what both sides called "meaningful" increases by the producers to health-fund contributions.
The Equity Council, the union's governing board, will review the agreement July 22 and make a recommendation. After that, the contract will be sent to a ratification group of 6,000 union members for a vote.