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Trouble With a Capital T/Films en Espanol/Our Friends the Critics/Dirty Work

Protesters gather at the scene of The Music Man, and other challenges to Actors' Equity and the Chicago Federation of Musicians

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Trouble With a Capital T

Professor Harold Hill--the flimflam man himself--couldn't be less welcome in Chicago than the road show of The Music Man opening March 5 at the Chicago Theatre. The Actors' Equity Association and the Chicago Federation of Musicians say they'll be out in force opening night to protest this nonunion budget production, which has played small towns all over the midwest but is being sold to the Chicago public at big-city prices. The show's producer, New York-based Big League Theatricals, says ticket prices were set by the Chicago Association for the Performing Arts, the Ohio-based nonprofit that manages the Chicago Theatre. CAPA is paying Big League about $225,000 a week for the show on top of advertising and house-operating expenses. That's maybe half what an Equity production would cost. "They are paying us less than what they would have paid for a 'first-class' production," says Big League executive Dan Sher. "So should they have passed some family pricing on? I can't comment on that."

The Music Man's top box-office price of $64.50 is lower than Equity shows like Kiss Me Kate, which has a top ticket price of $75, says Chicago Theatre manager Jim Hirsch. "Last year the Chicago Theatre paid out over $1 million to union employees," Hirsch says. "This was the only Music Man offered to us, and we felt the people of Chicago would want to see it." The big-cast musical is an unusual booking for the 3,600-seat theater, which because of its shallow stage is usually "positioned more as a special-event house."

Most of the show's performers are getting less than half union wages, according to Chicago Federation of Musicians president Ed Wood. For orchestra members that means $500 a week instead of $1,200, expense allowances of $28 per day instead of $700 per week, and two-to-a-room accommodations. The unions complain that The Music Man is out of step with the rules. Kathryn V. Lamkey, regional director of Actors' Equity, says, "In years past a [touring] show would play a year or two on a national contract, then switch over to what we call 'bus and truck,' playing a night here, a few nights there. After two or three years it might go on to a non-Equity circuit, where it would play smaller communities. The disturbing change here is that it skipped that middle ground." The union realizes not every show can command a large guarantee, Lamkey says. "We recognize that and are willing to negotiate. We might not have been in the past, but we are now." But when Actors' Equity suggested it could work something out for this tour last summer, Big League wasn't interested.

Sher says this production--traveling with 38 actors, 16 musicians, 14 crew hands, 3 moms, and a tutor--isn't feasible at union scale. Cast in New York as a non-Equity show, "based on" Susan Stroman's direction of the Broadway production, and rehearsed on a University of Wisconsin stage in Whitewater to save money, The Music Man is paying what Sher calls reasonable wages "for chorus kids who are doing what they love to do." Rebekah Allan, who got her featured role in the show because she can sing, dance, and twirl two batons, says the decision to join the cast was "a personal choice" and "unions tend to slow down a fast-moving machine. [In some theaters] I can't touch my batons without someone from the union being paid their hourly wage to come in and hand them to me."

The unions have been handing out leaflets in front of the theater for weeks, and it looks like they're having some impact. At press time Sher said the way tickets are selling the Chicago run will barely cover its expenses. But The Music Man isn't the only trouble in sight for Actors' Equity: a non-Equity production of Cats is coming to town in April. "We were led to believe Cats was not going to be playing any more major markets," says Lamkey. "We were very surprised to find that Broadway in Chicago has decided to add it as an extra, that they would book it into the Shubert for a two-week run and charge $75 for tickets."

Films en Espanol

Miami-based media conglomerate Venevision International is bringing mainstream Spanish-language films to Chicago this month, with plans to expand to New York, Texas, and California later this year. Booking movies that were box-office hits in their native countries into general-audience theaters in targeted locations, the company hopes to take Spanish-language cinema beyond the art-film market, says Venevision marketing maven Pamela H. Diaz-de-Leon, a former Chicagoan who's worked for the Chicago Latino Film Festival. Venevision's deep-pockets parent company is the Cisneros Group, which is also an owner of Playboy International, DirecTV Latin America, and Univision. Its first offering, El arte de morir ("The Art of Dying"), a thriller from Spain with English subtitles, opens March 1 in ten Chicago and suburban theaters.

Our Friends the Critics

Vituperative wielders of the poison pen take note: Chicago Humanities Festival president Eileen Mackevich will announce her idea for an ongoing tribute to retiring Tribune critic Richard Christiansen at a party in his honor Monday, March 4, at Steppenwolf Theatre. Mackevich has in mind the Richard Christiansen Center for Arts Criticism, loosely modeled after the endowed program that former Medill dean Michael Janeway took with him when he left Northwestern University in 1997 for Columbia. The humanities festival is offering a program for high school students this fall with the National Book Critics Circle that could be a beginning, with a college-level program to come later. Mackevich wants to foster "positive criticism" and give people in the arts a hand in "building the next generation of critics."

Dirty Work

The advertising campaign that's been using words like "dynamic," "playful," and "powerful" to describe the Chicago Symphony Orchestra might have to add "shameless" to the lineup. In an effort to cut costs, CSO management has eliminated all rest breaks and paid sick days for its maintenance staff and reduced their lunch hour to 20 minutes. A letter to the company that provides janitors for the CSO notes that the orchestra expects to lose $4 million this year and says "no one and nothing has been spared" in the cutbacks. A CSO spokesperson says, "We did some research and found we were extending benefits beyond the contract and beyond other buildings in this area."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.

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