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Musicians Fume Over Musicals

September 22, 1996|Don Shirley | Don Shirley is a Times staff writer

The nearly two-week run of "La Cage aux Folles," which closes today at Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center, was picketed by members of Professional Musicians Local 47. Union fliers distributed to theatergoers accused the producer, Civic Light Opera of South Bay Cities, of asking orchestra members to take a 50% pay cut.

Meanwhile, inside the theater, the Civic Light Opera's executive director, James Blackman, delivered sardonic pre-curtain remarks about the situation to his customers. Last Sunday, for example, Blackman saluted the nonunion musicians in the pit for "crawling on their stomachs through a line of bullet fire" and boasted that "You're nobody till somebody pickets you."

The union wanted his organization to "increase orchestra services by 50%," Blackman contended. "But we don't want to jack the ticket prices up."

That 50%, cited by both sides, depends on when you start calculating. In 1995, its first season with a union band, South Bay paid $75 per performance to each musician, plus benefits to the union. For the first two shows of 1996--"The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas" and "Nunsense"--Blackman said that he agreed to an "interim" pay scale of $99 plus benefits because the shows did not require large bands, but he said both parties agreed to return to the table during the summer.

When they did, the union offered $81 plus benefits for the next year. South Bay responded with an offer of $55 with no benefits--an offer that rose to $60 before talks broke off on Aug. 30.

So when Blackman refers to increased union demands, he's comparing them to 1995 requirements. When the union refers to a proposed pay cut, the comparison is to figures from earlier in 1996.

A larger issue is at stake than just the dollars, however. Blackman said he would pay the union players more if he didn't have to hire so many of them and could augment them with lesser-paid musicians. But the union has a long-standing policy against allowing members to perform side by side with nonunion players.

Blackman contrasted this policy to that of Actors' Equity, which allows nonunion actors to perform alongside union members in developing companies like South Bay, as long as a certain number of union members are hired per show or per season. In fact, the "La Cage" company includes Equity vice president Carol Swarbrick and board member Frank Stancati, as well as 13 other Equity members--plus 15 actors who aren't in Equity.

"Equity is interested in keeping us open. They walk the walk and talk the talk," Blackman said.

But Equity Western Regional Director George Ives said that this is a comparison of "apples and oranges," because actors require much more rehearsal time and therefore cost more than musicians. Equity is "forced" to permit nonunion actors to work at these companies because of these relatively high costs, Ives said. (The Equity contract at South Bay prohibits Equity members from honoring another union's strike, so the Equity members continued performing despite the musicians' strike. However, vocal director and musicians' union member Dennis Castellano, who was slated to lead the band, withdrew and was replaced in the pit by the show's director, Irv Kimber.)

Local 47 vice president Hal Espinosa also noted that because musicians have minimal rehearsal time, a professional ability to sight read and perform up to snuff without much rehearsing is vital. But Blackman responded that the abilities of the union and nonunion musicians are not significantly different in that regard.

The musicians' union suggested that South Bay reduce the size of the "La Cage" orchestra from the recommended 22 to 16 in order to cut costs, but Blackman refused. "I don't want thinned-out orchestras," he said. "I want to do it the way it was done on Broadway."

The union also charged, in a complaint filed with the National Labor Relations Board, that South Bay hired its nonunion band before talks had broken down. Blackman denied it.

This dispute isn't likely to be the theatrical season's only labor squabble. Equity has vowed to picket a nonunion "42nd Street" that's slated for Pasadena Civic Auditorium next month, and Espinosa said the musicians' union may join that picket line as well, if reports that the production won't use a union band turn out to be true.

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