Show Won't Go On: Broadway Stagehands Go On Strike
From “Wicked” to “The Phantom of the Opera,” from “Mamma Mia!” to “Rent,” most shows did not go on as Broadway stagehands walked off the job, shutting down more than two dozen plays and musicals.
It was a dramatic, uncertain day in the Times Square area for disappointed theatergoers, who mingled on the streets Saturday while striking Local One stagehands picketed in an orderly fashion behind barricades and declined to talk to reporters. The union had no official comment on the walkout.
No new negotiations have been scheduled between Local One and the League of American Theatres and Producers, so the outlook for a quick settlement looks murky.
The two sides have been in contentious negotiations for more than three months. Much of their disagreements involve work rules and staffing requirements, particularly rules governing the expensive process of loading in and setting up a show. The producers want more flexibility in hiring; the stagehands don’t want to give up what they say are hard-won benefits without something in return.
“We must remain committed to achieving a fair contract,” Charlotte St. Martin, executive director of the league, said. “Our goal is simple: to pay for workers we need and for work that is actually performed.”
City officials said Saturday that it was too early to estimate the economic impact of the strike. Mayor Michael Bloomberg expressed disappointment that the two sides couldn’t settle their differences without a strike, but reiterated, “The city continues to stand ready to help in any way we can.”
The work stoppage first affected “Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas! The Musical,” a holiday attraction for families that had an early 11 a.m. matinee.
School counselor Vicki Michel, with teacher husband Pat, came to New York from their home in Puyallup, Wash., for a weekend of Broadway shows. The three shows they intended to see were all canceled: “Grinch,” “Hairspray” and “Mamma Mia!” They managed to nab tickets to “Young Frankenstein” (which was not affected by the walkout) and the “Radio City Christmas Spectacular,” and were headed to the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Saturday instead of the “Grinch.”
Outside the Gershwin Theatre where “Wicked” plays, Wanda Antonetti, of DuBois, Pa., and her daughter, Sherry Antonetti, of Dover, Del., contemplated where to shop. They arrived Saturday morning to celebrate Wanda Antonetti’s 70th birthday and did not know about the strike until they arrived at the theater. “We came a long way for lunch,” Wanda Antonetti said.
Theater employees told patrons they could expect refunds, but no rescheduled tickets. At “Wicked,” several received pamphlets for “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” which was playing next door and was open for business.
On West 52nd Street, where Tony Award-winning musicals “Jersey Boys” and “Hairspray” play on either side of the street, pickets stood behind police barricades as theatergoers received directions on how to get their refunds. The stagehands carried signs reading, “Our families are No. 1.”
The same-day discount tickets booths in Times Square and at the South Street Seaport remained open, serving all the Broadway shows unaffected by the walkout as well as all off-Broadway productions, which were up and running.
Eight Broadway shows are still performing since they are playing in theaters with separate Local One contracts. Besides “Spelling Bee,” they are “Young Frankenstein,” “Mary Poppins,” “Xanadu,” “Mauritius,” “Pygmalion,” “The Ritz” and “Cymbeline.”
The walkout occurred without much notice, two days after the parent union, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, granted Local One authorization to strike.
Both sides have been preparing for a work stoppage — with the union voting to move $1 million from its general fund to its $4.1 million emergency defense fund to aid other theatrical unions affected by a strike. The producers, meanwhile, have put together a $20 million fund to help some of the less popular shows financially weather a shutdown.
In March 2003, more than a dozen Broadway shows went dark after musicians went on a four-day strike, costing the city millions of dollars in lost revenue. Earlier this year, the musicians agreed to a new three-year contract.
The 3,000-member stagehands union, which has between 350 and 500 members working on Broadway at any given time, contends it could find employment for many of its people in television or film during a Broadway work stoppage. However, the Hollywood writers strike has shut down production on more than a dozen prime-time shows as well as late night talk shows.
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