“The Lion King” is among the touring Broadway musicals that use full production contracts.

Joan Marcus,

Actors' Equity members discuss two-tier wages for Broadway tours

  • Article by: PATRICK HEALY
  • New York Times
  • January 29, 2014 - 3:38 PM

The Actors’ Equity union, which represents thousands of theater performers, laid groundwork on Monday afternoon for its next round of contract negotiations with producers, in 2015, by holding a town hall meeting in New York City about rank-and-file concerns over low salaries for several Equity tours of Broadway musicals.

According to three Equity members who attended the town hall, and who spoke on condition of anonymity to share details about a confidential meeting, much of the discussion was about the differences between two types of Equity tours: those using full production contracts, which pay a minimum of $1,807 a week to actors, and those using so-called Short Engagement Touring Agreements, which pay a minimum salary of $550 to $900 a week.

Six hit Broadway musicals, including “Wicked” and “The Lion King,” use full production contracts; these shows are considered to be luxury tours compared with those using the low-wage agreements that pay 60 to 70 percent less, such as “Chicago,” “Evita,” “Hello, Dolly!,” “Million Dollar Quartet,” “Sister Act” and “The Gersh­wins’ Porgy and Bess.”

Some of the shows that appear in the Twin Cities are non-Equity. “Mamma Mia” and “Ghost,” for example, will be in the Hennepin Theatre Trust season. “Catch Me If You Can” was a previous instance.

“This doesn’t mean they are less quality,” said Karen Nelson, a spokeswoman for the Trust. “The producers are the ones setting and monitoring the tour costs, and they are all ‘budget-conscious.’ ”

Nelson added that generally there is a mix of productions, depending on the season.

The low-wage Equity tours have become more standard in recent years, after Equity began permitting them in hopes of dissuading producers from mounting cheap nonunion tours.

The town hall, which lasted four hours and drew more than 400 members from the 49,000-strong union, began with a PowerPoint presentation by union leaders describing the history of touring musicals, the threats posed over the years by nonunion tours, and the complex economics that have led some successful Broadway musicals to mount low-wage tours.

The recent revelation that two highly profitable Broadway musicals, “Kinky Boots” and “Newsies,” were planning budget-conscious tours was the impetus for the town hall; “Kinky Boots” plans to pay minimum weekly salaries of $976, while the rate is $1,091 for “Newsies.”

Actors shared personal stories about life on tour and financial challenges, but there were no formal proposals or negotiating strategies offered that might lead to higher salaries, according to the three members at the meeting.

They said the discussion was calm and generally positive, which had been the hope of Equity leaders, who entered the town hall with the goal of informing members about the reasons behind the low-wage tours — both the economics and the threat of nonunion musicals — and letting actors speak out and cool off after becoming frustrated over the “Kinky Boots” and “Newsies” salaries.

Equity leaders did not reveal much about their negotiating goals, other than plans to survey members as they try to set priorities for the next contract.

A spokeswoman for Equity declined to comment after the meeting, citing its confidential nature.


Staff writer Graydon Royce contributed to this report.

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