Broadway, shuttered by pandemic, reaches short-term pay deal

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Broadway, shuttered by pandemic, reaches short-term pay deal
In this file photo signage of the Broadway play "The Phantom of the Opera" seen at Time Square on March 12, 2020 in New York City. Angela Weiss / AFP.

by Michael Paulson

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Broadway producers have agreed to pay hundreds of actors, musicians, stagehands and others for the first few weeks of the industry shutdown and to cover their health insurance for at least a month.

The “emergency relief agreement,” announced Friday evening, was negotiated by the Broadway League, a trade organization, with 14 labor unions representing a range of workers, from ushers to makeup artists to publicists.

The Broadway shutdown, prompted by the coronavirus pandemic, has cost thousands of people their jobs and is causing trickle-down damage to many Times Square businesses that depend on theater patrons. The industry, which was idled March 12, had initially said it hoped to resume performances April 13 but now expects a reopening is more likely to be in May or June.

Under the agreement, all unionized employees will be paid for the week that was cut short by the shutdown, and the following two weeks. For the first, partial, week, they will receive their normal salary, but there is a cap of 150% of the minimum salary for their positions as spelled out in labor contracts. For the following two weeks, everyone will be paid at the contractual minimum, meaning that those who normally earn more than the minimum will see a pay cut for those weeks.

The workers will get full benefits (health, pension and 401(k)) for those 2 1/2 weeks, and after that will get only health benefits through April 12; the two sides agreed to talk before then about whether those benefits can be further extended if the shutdown continues.

“It’s the best deal we could get under trying circumstances,” said actress Kate Shindle, the president of Actors' Equity Association, which represents 1,142 actors and stage managers working on affected productions. “We’ve been trying to find the sweet spot between getting the greatest number of benefits for our members while still trying to make sure we don’t bankrupt the individual shows in the process. Our members would like to have jobs to go back to.”

The producers argued that they could not afford to do more, given that they have no current box office revenue.

“We worked really hard with our colleagues in all 14 unions to come up with a fair and generous contract that we hope will tide everyone over until other forms of support can be developed,” said Charlotte St. Martin, the president of the Broadway League. “Our goal was also to get as many shows to come back as possible, and with the slim margins for 90% of the shows on Broadway, we had to take that into consideration.”

St. Martin said she still hoped Broadway could reopen April 13, but “it is likely that our date may be extended.”

The deal between the Broadway League and the unions is yet another indication of the financial harm the pandemic is causing for artists and arts organizations. The unions are turning their attention to a push for government assistance, saying that entertainment industry workers need help to survive.

One sign of the damage the pandemic will wreak on the Broadway economy: The producers of “Hangmen,” a new, darkly comedic play by Martin McDonagh, said they were closing the show before it opened. The play, which won the 2016 Olivier Award in Britain for best new play and received strong reviews during a 2018 off-Broadway run at the Atlantic Theater Company, had played 13 previews on Broadway but had not yet opened. Its producers said in a statement, “We do not have the economic resources to be able to continue to pay the theater owners, cast and crew through this still undefined closure period.”

The backers of Broadway’s commercial shows, although all wealthy, do not all have deep resources at their disposal. Three musicals are produced by Disney, a huge global entertainment company, and there are a handful of other highly lucrative shows, including “Hamilton,” “Wicked” and “The Book of Mormon.” But even in the best of times, Broadway has a high failure rate, and many other shows were facing uphill financial battles even before the virus struck, leaving them with little cushion to pay employees without selling tickets.

The agreement announced Friday between the unions and the Broadway League affects people working on 30 commercial shows that were running at the time Broadway closed, and another three that had not yet begun performances.

Broadway is not an entirely commercial arena: Six of the 41 theaters are operated by nonprofits, which have separate (and lower-paying) union contracts. The Broadway League deal does not apply to employees of the one nonprofit production that was running when Broadway shut down (a revival of “A Soldier’s Play,” which simply ended its run four days early) or the five that were scheduled to begin this season (one new play, “Birthday Candles,” one new musical, “Flying Over Sunset,” a musical revival, “Caroline, or Change,” and two play revivals, “How I Learned to Drive” and “Take Me Out.”)

Todd Haimes, the artistic director of the nonprofit Roundabout Theater Company, said that his organization was committed to paying four weeks’ salary and benefits to everyone on the payroll. That would apply to the cast and crew of “Birthday Candles” and “Caroline, or Change,” both Roundabout productions. The cast of “A Soldier’s Play,” also a Roundabout production, was paid through the end of the scheduled run.

Lincoln Center Theater, the producer of “Flying Over Sunset,” also paid its actors four weeks of salary.

The other nonprofits affected — Manhattan Theater Club and Second Stage Theater — have not said whether they plan to offer compensation to those affected.

The unions and the League are still attempting to reach an agreement on compensation for people who were working on touring Broadway shows around the country that were idled by the pandemic.

Broadway, of course, is only one sector — albeit the most visible — of the theater industry in America. There is also a vast network of regional and off-Broadway theaters, most of which are nonprofits. A number have said they hope to pay their employees and artists in full, but some have said they would be unable to do so.

The shutdown has also made it nearly impossible for theater workers to find jobs. Auditioning has mostly ground to a halt, although some is taking place by video, and television and film production has also largely stopped.

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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