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The contract talks must go on in New York

The deal between Broadway producers and stagehands expired Sunday. Negotiations could be complex.

July 30, 2007|Michael Kuchwara | Associated Press

NEW YORK -- How do you reconcile management's desire for lower costs with union job and wage protection, especially when negotiated against the glamorous backdrop of Broadway plays and musicals?

Welcome to what could be the most important production of the upcoming fall theater season: talks between Broadway producers and the stagehands who help put up the shows.

Their contract expired Sunday, but there doesn't seem to be any rush to resolve the issues that separate the two sides, Local One (the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees) and the League of American Theatres and Producers.

Broadway, after all, had a banner year last season -- grossing a record $939 million and playing to more than 12.3 million theatergoers.

The union and the league will meet three times this week and more meetings are scheduled for September to deal with the complicated, often Byzantine work rules that govern stagehands, carpenters, electricians, prop people and sound technicians. The union has about 2,100 members and between 350 and 500 of them work on Broadway at any given time.

"We expect negotiations to be complex because a few successful productions each year mask Broadway's challenging economic picture," says Charlotte St. Martin, the league's executive director.

"Positive attendance figures, gross revenues and playing weeks do not translate into profits. On average, 80% of Broadway shows fail to recoup the cost of producing the show."

Yet producers, hoping to duplicate the enormous financial success of such Broadway megahits as "Wicked," "Chicago" and "The Phantom of the Opera," keep trying.

It's the less-than-smash-hit show that needs help, producers say, shows such as the money-losing "Grey Gardens," which struggled to meet its operating costs and make a profit. They would like to eliminate what some of them call "pockets of inefficiency," particularly the hiring of more stagehands than the producers say they need. One area they want to deal with is the cost of "load-ins," the moving of a new show into a theater, which can add a sizable amount to production costs.

In March 2003, more than a dozen Broadway shows went dark after Local 802 of the musicians union went on a four-day strike, costing the city millions in lost revenue. This year, the musicians agreed to a new three-year contract.

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