Barely a year after a bitter four-day musicians' strike that cost the industry millions of dollars and untold goodwill, Broadway is holding its breath as union troubles again threaten to shut down theaters. This time it's the actors who are up in arms: In April, Actors' Equity Association set a strike deadline of June 27 -- the expiration date of the then-current contract -- if a new agreement could not be reached with the League of American Theaters and Producers. The deadline came, no new agreement emerged, and talks broke off acrimoniously after a June 30 bargaining session. Both sides were clearly ready to go to the mat, though Equity declared it would stop short of a strike, at least for the moment. Talks resumed last week.

For the source of what's tying New York in knots, look no farther than Vienna, Va., and Wolf Trap.

A few weeks ago "Oklahoma!" ambled through Wolf Trap's sprawling pavilion, offering the same sky-blue, corn-yellow look and measured disposition as the Trevor Nunn-directed show that opened on Broadway in 2001. And on Tuesday, the much-loved, seldom-seen "Oliver!" begins a six-day stint at Wolf Trap. As with "Oklahoma!," "Oliver!" is a touring version of a ballyhooed Cameron Mackintosh production that was launched in London (not the flop "Oliver!" that Mackintosh produced on Broadway 20 years ago). As with "Oklahoma!," this is the first major national tour of the production. And as with "Oklahoma!," "Oliver!" has an entirely non-Equity cast.

It suggests a sea change not just for Equity's chronically underemployed membership but also perhaps for Washington audiences. Ten years ago, Mackintosh's imported extravaganzas would have been good bets for either the Kennedy Center or the National Theatre, creating splashy downtown attractions lasting for weeks or months. But in the constant refrain sung by both sides when spinning the issue, lately the business has changed. Factors include the slow decline of such influential blockbusters as "Cats," "Les Miserables" and "Phantom of the Opera" -- all Mackintosh productions that crisscrossed the country countless times, employing tons of Equity actors over the years.

"It was the era of event theater," says Ken Gentry, founder and CEO of Networks Productions, which is producing the touring "Oklahoma!" and "Oliver!" "We just haven't gotten back to that since then." The loss of man-hours that Equity frets over, Gentry says, "is tied to that era."

At the same time, the cost of everything in labor-intensive show business has gone up, and theater owners have become skittish about paying producers the guarantees -- hundreds of thousands of dollars weekly -- it takes to book a show, especially if the production isn't sure-fire.(Guarantees cover the producers' costs; after the theaters' owners expenses have also been recouped, profits are split at a rate that Gentry says is typically in the 60-40 range, favoring the producers.) Peter Entin, vice president of the Shubert Organization, which books shows into the National Theatre, says: "The economics of theaters the size of the National and others in the less than 2,000-seat range are very difficult. . . . Unless you're a blockbuster, a 'Lion King' or 'Mamma Mia,' touring is a real struggle."

Dan Sher, executive producer of non-Equity Big League Theatricals, says: "You have a very big range of difference in box office size between your 'Lion Kings' and 'Hairsprays' and everything else. The mid-level titles just don't sell like they used to."

In this increasingly high-stakes environment, the more affordable non-Equity productions -- once strictly on the periphery -- have begun to inch toward the center of the market. "There are substantially more non-Equity attractions being offered today," says Nick Litrenta, president of BACI Management, which books shows into the Warner Theatre.

The recent abundance has made many presenters happy. Ann McPherson McKee of Wolf Trap remembers a time not so long ago when she scrambled to find an appropriate musical or two to put into the season. Now, booking agents are calling her looking for dates in 2006.

"That's never happened before," McKee says. With ticket prices that she likes to call half of the Kennedy Center's or National's (it's more like two-thirds -- a $60 top, though parking at Wolf Trap is free), she says, "We can still gross more in a week than they can in two or more weeks downtown. So producers have realized we are a prime spot."

Maria Somma, Equity's spokeswoman, puts the numbers in black and white, reporting that in 1996-97, union actors logged 44,000 workweeks. By 2002-03, the figure had dropped to 21,000 workweeks. And it's not likely to climb as long as big musicals with smashing pedigrees -- Mackintosh's "Oklahoma!" and "Oliver!" are the prime examples -- increasingly bypass Equity altogether when they come calling on major markets such as Washington.

"There is a place for non-Equity shows," Somma emphasizes. "It's a very, very important training ground. But what we're talking about is the non-Equity shows that go into major markets with no indications that they're young, inexperienced actors."

It's a recent development, taking first-class Broadway hits straight to the road with non-Equity tours. "The Music Man" was the high-stepping pioneer: The show marched directly from Tony esteem in 2000 (six nominations, including two for director-choreographer Susan Stroman) to a non-Equity tour that raised eyebrows and spawned pickets. A non-Equity tour of "The Sound of Music" caused a stink in 2001, but the issue was different -- Barry Williams, an Equity actor best known as Greg Brady in "The Brady Bunch," had broken ranks to headline the show.

"Oklahoma!" was originally understood to be an Equity tour and was even announced for the Kennedy Center. But Mackintosh asked for concessions "that were too egregious for the actors," says Somma. (The current minimum for actors on tour is the same as on Broadway: $1,354 per week, two to three times what non-Equity actors make, depending on whom you talk to. Equity actors on the road also get $770 weekly in per diem payments. Exceptions have been negotiated on occasion, but producers are looking for lower minimums and more flexibility; a tiered salary system is under discussion.) Equity planned to protest the current tour of "Oklahoma!," but decided against it as this summer's negotiations approached. "We wanted to keep the temperature down in the room," Somma says.

"Oliver!" has been a stickier problem. The 1994 West End hit may never reach New York: Mackintosh has said that the show, which teems with London urchins and outlaws, is simply too expensive to produce on Broadway, much less tour with an Equity cast. (It's worth noting that in London, both shows were powered by star performances -- Hugh Jackman's in "Oklahoma!," Jonathan Pryce's in "Oliver!" -- and that stars have not been brought in Stateside.)

The road is generally divided among venues that can sustain a show for runs of a week or longer; venues that book only split (half) weeks or five-show weekends; and, last and least, those that present one-nighters. Traditionally, licensing to non-Equity tours has been held back until after the major markets have been served. Non-Equity producers, often working with what Gentry calls "assignees" from the original creative team, then scale down the show so it can be moved more quickly among the split-week and one-night towns.

Says Gentry, whose Networks produces both Equity and non-Equity shows, "There are around 230 Broadway Series that fall into the world of one-night, two nights, five-show weekends." He estimates that roughly 70 markets are in Washington's category of one-week runs or longer.

It is Gentry's theory that the Mackintosh megamusicals of the 1980s and 1990s changed the touring landscape both literally and figuratively. "The number of theaters that have been renovated in this country because of 'Phantom' and 'Les Miz' is phenomenal," he says. "Back walls were blown out, new stage houses were put in." As that happened, places like Birmingham graduated from one-nighters to a week-long spot. "They evolved to a new level of touring," Gentry says.

That raised the general level of expectation for physical productions, narrowing the gap between first-class national tours and what were once low-grade companies. Litrenta says: "There was a time when it was obvious. The term was bus-and-truck, and the differences were gaping."

Sher, whose Big League Theatricals produced the controversial "Music Man" tour, says that he sees more talented actors delaying or opting not to join Equity because of the amount of nonunion work to be had, a dilemma that has long dogged the profession. (Washington actors have coped with this choice over the years.) But Sher adds, "We particularly have upped the ante in terms of production values. Non-Equity tours used to mean cardboard scenery."

If that sounds self-serving, he points to the current "Oklahoma!" -- Gentry's show, not his -- and says that it's "pretty lovely."

"Ken Gentry has done very fine work," says Bert Fink, vice president of public relations for the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization, which licenses rights worldwide. Fink cites "Cinderella," saying that RHO was pleased with Gentry's Equity production at the Kennedy Center and with his later, non-Equity version.

McKee, Wolf Trap's senior vice president of performing arts and education, offers the same tribute, saying, "I know Ken Gentry's not going to send me something that's shoddy or cheesy or looks like it belongs in a high school auditorium." Wolf Trap has particular demands that have to be met: The stage is wider than most, and McKee likes to maintain a certain musical standard, which means she will dip into her own budget to flesh out a touring musical's orchestra, as she did with "Oklahoma!" ("I'm gifting you," she will tell the producer.)

The fact that a show may be non-Equity?

"Honestly," McKee says, "one of the last questions I'm likely to ask is whether a show is union or nonunion."

Litrenta agrees. "That's not even a question I typically ask," he says.

So Barrett Newman, general manager of the Warner (which is owned by Clear Channel), doesn't ask it, either, when Litrenta offers him a menu of shows?

"Why would he?" Litrenta replies. "I don't know what relevance it has." A recent Equity company of "Jesus Christ Superstar" at the Warner garnered what he calls the worst review of anything he's ever presented -- proving, he says, that Equity is hardly the sole determination of quality. "It's almost always a function of directing and producing," Litrenta contends, "not a function of whether or not the actor or actress has a bargaining agent."

In other words, a show's a show, which is how they're priced this summer at Wolf Trap. Tickets will cost the same for the nonunion productions of "Oklahoma!" and "Oliver!" as for the Equity company of "The King and I" that will close the season in September. Says McKee, "It's easier on the public and easier on us to communicate the message when the message is the same."

Like the presenters, audiences don't seem to care whether Equity actors are in the show. "I'm surprised at how few calls and letters we get asking for that kind of info," McKee says. She reports that at most a half-dozen people inquire about the issue.

This vexes Equity, of course. Somma says that when presenters fail to ask whether a company is Equity or not, "they're looking at the budget, at profits. And unfortunately by not asking that question, they're actually not asking it on behalf of the ticket buyers."

That's why a PR campaign is very much on Equity's agenda. A banner on the union's Web site proclaims, "If it's not Equity, it's not Broadway," a declaration that Somma hopes can be lodged in the public mind, though it will take marketing help from the producers. "It behooves both sides to do a kind of joint branding," she says.

"Audiences are more sophisticated than they're given credit for," Somma continues. "They get the difference in performance, that the 23-year-old leads just are not as seasoned, haven't been in front of audiences that much."

Perhaps audiences get the difference, but so far they aren't demanding the cream. Gentry says he spent eight months and $80,000 casting throughout the country for "Oklahoma!," far more time and more than quadruple the money it generally takes him to cast an Equity show out of New York. He was searching, in part, for actors who genuinely looked as young as the script says the two leads, Laurey and Curly, are. He found them, and if the promising performers didn't quite have the stage presence to fill Wolf Trap, and if their voices lacked command at the climaxes of the show's luscious songs, they were forgiven. As the cast lined up and danced smartly toward the audience in a re-creation of choreographer Stroman's exuberant curtain call, the house -- full except for the farthest corners on a Saturday night -- rose in a standing ovation.

The Broadway production of "Oklahoma!," above, boasted an Equity cast. Not so the touring version.Taking first-class Broadway hits -- such as "Oliver!," left, and "Oklahoma!" -- straight to the road with non-Equity tours is a relatively recent development that has led to the shows playing in what once were second-tier venues such as Wolf Trap. Both shows bear the stamp of producer Cameron Mackintosh, below.