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Drama behind the curtain

Nonunion touring shows complicate Equity contract talks.

June 25, 2004|Don Shirley | Times Staff Writer

Jennifer Paz wowed Los Angeles in the city's first "Miss Saigon," at the Ahmanson Theatre in 1995. Wrote The Times' Laurie Winer: "The stillness, simplicity and grace of her performance form the heart of the show, a perfect jewel in a garish setting."

Paz had joined "Miss Saigon" in 1992 without any professional experience. The show was her ticket to a membership in the Actors' Equity Assn., the stage actors' union.

Now Paz is back in town in the same role, in a touring version at the Pantages Theatre. But she is no longer a member of Equity. The tour is produced by Big League Theatricals, which has never signed a union contract. To repeat her role, Paz quit the union last year.

Paz isn't alone. At least three other members of the "Miss Saigon" company are former Equity members, she says.

They provide a human face for one of the most divisive issues in the commercial theater: non-Equity tours of Broadway-derived musicals. It propels ongoing negotiations in New York between Equity and the League of American Theatres & Producers -- the Broadway producers' organization.

The two sides are negotiating the contract that governs Broadway shows and tours. The current contract will expire Sunday. If agreement isn't reached by then, talks might be extended. Or, in the worst-case scenario, the actors could go on strike and darken not only Broadway but also such touring productions as "Thoroughly Modern Millie," at the Ahmanson.

In recent years, the number of non-Equity tours has mushroomed. This week, both the Pantages and the Orange County Performing Arts Center -- which usually book musicals with union contracts -- are hosting non-Equity productions: "Miss Saigon" in Hollywood and "Oklahoma!" in Costa Mesa.

Over the years, Equity has protested some engagements with leaflets and demonstrations. Union officials often complain that these shows appear in series with names that boast of Broadway ties -- such as "Broadway/LA" and the "Bank of America Broadway Series" -- even though the touring versions couldn't appear on Broadway, where Equity contracts are required.

They contend that the lower wages for non-Equity actors might easily translate into less seasoned performances that aren't of Broadway caliber.

Equity is not protesting either of the current engagements in the Southland. In the case of "Oklahoma!," the union and the tour's producer Ken Gentry are on relatively good terms, because Gentry uses Equity contracts as often as not.

The "Miss Saigon" tour encountered protests last fall in the East. And at the Pantages, in a separate labor dispute, "Miss Saigon" is the target of a leafleting campaign by the musicians' union, which contends that the pit orchestra is too small and too computerized to meet contractual requirements and that it includes nonunion musicians. (Martin Wiviott, managing director of the Pantages, responded in a written statement that the theater management and the musicians' union local "differ on the interpretation of the contract between the parties with regard to what is allowed and what is prohibited.")

Equity decided not to protest the Pantages production because "such action could potentially raise the heat at the negotiation table," Equity spokeswoman Maria Somma said. "And we hope that non-Equity shows will be addressed in the new contract."

Indeed, most observers believe the talks in New York are likely to yield a new contract that would provide different tiers of compensation for the actors in touring musicals, depending on the show's perceived profitability. For example, the first tour of a big hit like "The Producers" or "The Lion King" might operate with a contract identical to the Broadway versions of those shows. But shows that aren't blockbusters -- or the subsequent tours of big hits -- might operate on contracts with lower wages and benefits.

Equity has occasionally provided reduced contracts on a case-by-case basis. An upcoming "Evita" tour, produced by a company that sometimes mounts non-Equity tours, received some concessions in a special contract, prompting the producers' league to charge Equity with hypocrisy for not providing a similar deal for league members. The union responded that any such deals would require the producers to open up their books for Equity inspection, as the "Evita" producer did.

Paz isn't blaming Equity for the situation that led her to leave the union, she says. Some day she hopes to rejoin. But she quit Equity because she needed the tour's steady employment to pay her mortgage, she says. Besides, she says, "this show was going on with or without me."

Her compensation from the non-Equity tour is roughly comparable to what it was when she was in the union tour, she says. And her health benefits are comparable to Equity's recently reduced benefits package, though a key difference is that they will end when she leaves the tour.

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