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Sound of union strife surrounds Broadway Series show

Monday, November 20, 2000

By John Hayes, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

A dispute over where to draw the bottom line has fouled the air surrounding one of America's sweetest musicals, "The Sound of Music." Barry Williams, who played big brother Greg on TV's "The Brady Bunch," is at the center of a union dispute that threatens to overshadow artistic considerations in the Mellon Pittsburgh Broadway Series presentation of the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic.

At issue is the fact that this Broadway Series tour includes no members of Actors Equity Association, the national stage performers union, and in fact no cast member who has ever performed on Broadway except what Equity calls "the scab star." In order for Williams to perform in the show, in fact, he had to resign his Equity membership. Equity and at least one other supporting union may charge Williams with violating his union contracts and schedule disciplinary hearings that could result in financial penalties.

Furthermore, the non-Equity cast is being paid a fraction of what their union colleagues get for similar performances. Yet ticket prices for the Benedum Center show are in the $40 to $55 range, the same as a show with higher performers' salaries. Equity has asked its 159 Pittsburgh members to distribute informational handbills outside the Benedum, but it has avoided urging Pittsburgh's union work force to boycott the show.

Backpedaling from previous promises to stage informational picketing of the Benedum, Equity now says it is asking its Pittsburgh members to pass out informational fliers criticizing the production's use of non-Equity actors. Equity says the union "does not advocate, or intend to cause a work stoppage by any employees of [the production company] or the Benedum." Equity national president Patrick Quinn and other officials will be here to lead the protest.

On the other side of the conflict, Williams says he's more interested in art than in the sound of union disputes. Despite Equity claims to the contrary, Williams insists that he voided his contract with Equity before joining the show.

This revival of "The Sound of Music" debuted on Broadway in 1998 starring Richard Chamberlain, who then headlined the first year of the fully Equity national tour.

Tour producer Nicholas Howey of Troika Entertainment says that producers of that first post-Broadway tour asked him to take the reigns and lead the show into smaller markets. Unions representing musicians, directors and choreographers and set designers signed on with the show. But Equity and Troika couldn't reach an arrangement that would allow a second post-Broadway tour to be mounted with union acting talent.

Since opening in Florida in October, the tour has earned positive reviews while playing in Fort Myers, Jacksonville, Memphis and New Orleans, Southern cities where Equity has fewer members. The union has chosen Pittsburgh, a historically pro-union town with a high Equity membership, to kick-start its campaign against what it calls a "scab" tour. Rhetoric on both sides has been scathing, both camps accuse the other of exaggerating or lying, and national trade magazines have reported on the growing conflict.

"I hate to go into it because, who cares?" says Williams from a Florida hotel room. "It's just so much not the focus of what I'm about and what the show is about. I've been an actor my entire life. I'm not a union buster. I know there are people [in the show] committed to bringing a heightened level of entertainment to the cities we visit. This should be about the show."

Bob Bruyr, Equity's executive assistant of member education, says it's about unity.

"We don't allow Equity members to tour with the protection of Equity in otherwise non-union companies," he says. "We make sure that our members have health care and other benefits paid for by the producers of these shows. It's a part of the contract. Although we offer a couple of waivers [that allow members to perform in] nonprofit community theaters and college situations, and have several contracts for guest artists and special appearances, we distinguish clearly between commercial and noncommercial shows. No [non-union] tours. Our main objection to this going to the Benedum as a Broadway Series show is that this is not the Broadway show."

There's a reason for that, insists Troika's Howey. "['Sound of Music] is a very expensive tour to send on the road," he says. "Twenty-eight members of the cast; 18 members in the pit; four trucks bringing in the Broadway touring production of set, props, costumes. The same creative team. That first tour didn't break even. In this instance, we sat down with Equity at their request and tried to come to an agreement that would let us keep this show alive. We wanted to use the broader talent pool that Equity could have given us, but they wouldn't budge on price. It was financially impossible to keep this show alive paying Equity rates."

Howey was behind another low-budget, non-Equity tour that played Heinz Hall in the spring. The stars of Troika's "Grease," Cindy Williams and Eddie Mekka of "Laverne and Shirley" fame, quit Equity to join the tour.

Equity touring contracts ensure that actors are paid minimums of approximately $1,200 per week, plus $700 a week for housing and meals, plus fringe benefits including pensions, health coverage and individual accommodations while they're on the road, says Bruyr.

Neither Troika nor Barry Williams would comment on Williams' salary or the tour's minimum pay rates. But Equity Director of Communications David Lotz said, "I've heard the salaries are $450 per week plus some per diem on the Troika tour, and they must share accommodations on the road."

"I can tell you this," says Howey. "They're getting substantially more than they would on some Equity contracts. I'll bet there are people [on this tour] making 30 percent more than some Equity [and other entertainment union] contracts require."

Early in 2000, when the Pittsburgh Broadway Series booked "The Sound of Music," Corbin Bernsen was slated to star as the irascible Capt. Von Trapp. Bernsen subsequently backed out of the contract after Equity threatened disciplinary action.

Gideon Toeplitz, managing director of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, which co-produces the Broadway Series, told the Post-Gazette that tickets were priced before it was established that Equity would not be a part of the tour, a distinction that is disputed by Equity.

Producer Howey charges that talent costs for individual shows are inconsequential when putting together subscription packages.

"[The Broadway Series] has to balance their whole season," he says. "Give a little; lose a little. Some shows are more expensive than others, but they balance it all out to make their subscription packages work. It's not like each ticket price reflects the actual costs of each show. Our being a non-Equity show allows us to be here. Some people might interpret it as a bargain basement ... but this is what it took to stage the show here at a reasonable price."

While Benedum house musicians are not being asked to participate in the informational picketing against the show, Williams may be in hot water with his other union affiliations. A representative for the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists said the union would schedule disciplinary hearings against Williams if asked by Equity. No such request has yet been made of the Screen Actors Guild, but a representative would not rule out hearings.

Equity has asked local members of the Screen Actors Guild and American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, who recently settled a five-month commercials strike that Equity supported, to join the handbilling protest at the Benedum. Equity plans further informational protests similar to the one they're staging in Pittsburgh as the tour travels to other Northern towns.

"I don't think I'm their problem," says Williams. "I'm very proud of this cast. The audition process was extensive, [and] it's a very talented group of people. Having been a producer, [I know that] the economics are what enable a production to exist or not exist, and the economics of this tour were such that it was not possible to keep it [an Equity tour]."

"The Sound of Music," 8 p.m. tomorrow through Friday; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Sunday. $40-$55; 412-456-6666.

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