Little Erica Hoffmann of Laurel Springs, N.J., gazed up at Harvey Fierstein, looking as forlorn as she could be. "She so wanted to see you dress up," her mother, Roxane, said to the actor as they stood today in front of the Neil Simon Theater, where Fierstein is appearing as a homebound housewife in "Hairspray," the biggest musical hit of the season.
Fierstein, never one to shy from a schmaltzy moment, took Erica by the shoulders as her mother snapped a picture. It was the least he could do as one of hundreds of actors honoring the picket lines set up on Friday by Broadway's musicians union, staging the first strike to shut down Broadway theaters in almost 30 years.
"We're going to get new tickets now," the mom said consolingly to her daughter, as Fierstein gave Erica yet another reassuring hug. "What I refuse to do," he said to them, "is to go into that building and let you listen to one of those Casio keyboards. We would not go on with an electric orchestra."
Scenes like this were repeated under the marquees of 17 other Broadway theaters where musicals covered by a contract with Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians are running. And from one end of a weirdly subdued Times Square to the other, producers and city officials were fretting about the potential havoc on a struggling city that a prolonged walkout could wreak.
At a news conference today, Jed Bernstein, president of the League of American Theatres and Producers, said that collectively, Broadway houses were forfeiting $1.2 million in gross revenue per performance, and that the city stood to lose between $50 million and $60 million a week in ancillary income, from hotel and restaurant tabs to cab fares.
"Broadway has a very strong emotional bond with its theatergoers, and the compact is broken now," Bernstein said. "I know one thing for sure: Theatergoers are the ultimate losers."
How talks between producers and the union devolved so rapidly had many on Broadway shaking their heads -- and stranded theater lovers scrounging for something to do with new blocks of free time. "It was a ghost town this morning," said Betsy Brininger, a choral director from Baltimore who had arrived in New York today after taking a 6:30 a.m. charter bus with 50 other disappointed "Hairspray" ticket holders. "It looked scary."
Brininger and her friend, Debbie Smith, a Baltimore music teacher, filled the day with a trip to the planetarium at the Museum of Natural History. They made an impulse buy of tickets to "Take Me Out," one of the handful of straight plays running on Broadway and thus unaffected by the strike. They knew little about the play, including the fact that for a lot of it, the men portraying the ballplayers stand naked in a dugout shower room.
Anecdotes about bereft fans floated about the theater district like confetti. High school students from Oregon shut out of "42nd Street." A sweet-16 party ruined, because "The Lion King" ceased to roar. A group of 9- and 10-year-olds from a dance school in Fort Worth, who had washed cars and baked cakes for the money for a trip to both "Lion King" and "42nd Street," staring at dark lobbies. "We're trying to find them something else to do, like get them backstage at the Rockettes," said Jessica Turner, director of communications for NYC & Company, the city's convention and visitors bureau.
It was the backing of the musicians by Actors Equity, the powerful actors union, and the stagehands local that forced producers to abandon plans to replace the musicians with recorded music. And actors walking picket lines expressed solidarity with both their colleagues in the orchestra pit and their paying supporters in the orchestra seats.
For the most part, the musicians were devoting their time to the job action, not to finding other jobs, walking the picket lines and staging a march through Times Square with their instruments blaring.
Marissa Jaret Winokur, one of the stars of "Hairspray," stood by the stage door of the theater on West 52nd Street, receiving compliments from passersby and hugs from fellow cast members. Friday night, she and her pals in the cast sat in a Times Square restaurant, where the mood swung from lightheartedness to brooding, as the reality of the situation sank in. "We all literally sat there saying, 'Oh, a night off,' and then it was, 'This sucks. It's so sad.' "
Broadway actors are not likely to feel much pain, unless the strike is a drawn-out affair. Producers made the decision to close the 18 musicals -- a 19th, "Cabaret," continued to run because its theater, the former Studio 54, is not covered by the contract -- through the weekend. The soonest that many of them could start up again would be Tuesday. But with no talks scheduled, it remains unclear whether the strike will rival a similar action in 1975 that closed nine musicals for three weeks.
This being the flamboyant world of the theater, a business in which no one is very good at keeping a secret, both sides have taken to revealing their bargaining positions publicly, a rarity in the closed-door universe of labor negotiations. The dispute comes down to one issue and, at this point, two numbers: 15 and 24. Those are the figures that each side has proposed as mandatory minimums for the number of musicians' slots in the orchestras of the affected Broadway houses. Producers, of course, have offered the lower figure.
Minimums have long been a way of guaranteeing a certain quality of sound -- and a certain volume of employment for trombonists and violinists, drummers and pianists. For years, producers have wanted to do away with the requirement (and, in fact, the union has issued waivers of the minimum for some shows, such as the rock opera "Rent"). But the union argues that if left to the discretion of those who set the budgets for Broadway shows, live sound in the theater would quickly get the hook.
"They used to put signs in front of the old theaters that said, 'Live Entertainment,' " recalled Linda Hart, an actress in "Hairspray" who is perhaps best known to moviegoers for her appearance in the film "Tin Cup" with Kevin Costner. "That was the birth of musical theater, and it should be preserved."
How a protracted shuttering of the musicals -- and for many theatergoers, particularly tourists, it is the musicals that define Broadway -- would affect the ticket-buying habit remains to be seen. It is the worry in the theater district that some theatergoers who feel burned by the strike may not be inclined to come again. "This is a negative message New York can't afford right now," said Cristyne Lategano, president and chair of NYC & Company.
Bernstein, of the producers league, says he is aware that there may be some backlash from the public, given New York's intense campaign to encourage people to return to Broadway after Sept. 11, 2001. "I'm smart enough to know that if you monkey around with the implicit contract between you and your fans for very long, you can't do that without some resentment," he said.
At the moment, there is a sense of deflation, not ire, in Times Square. Traffic is light, the straight plays are doing bang-up business, and despite the disappointment of all the Erica Hoffmanns, there is a feeling that this, too, shall pass. A middle-aged woman in attention-getting plaid slacks walked up to Fierstein today, promising to return when the show reopens.
Fierstein eyed her with mock suspicion. "When you do come back," he said, "don't wear those pants. Even if we had two times the number of people in the pit, those pants would be louder."