Cast of 'Les Mis' in revolt over royalties

Original performers told that the curtain's coming down on their payments for recording sales

They made their names in the world-famous musical about revolution. Now actors from the first stage production of Les Misérables are gearing up for a revolt against the company behind the original cast recording, after discovering they will no longer get royalty payments.

Members of the original cast, including Michael Ball, who played Marius in the 1985 production, have just learnt that they will no longer receive royalties from the soundtrack recording, which has sold hundreds of thousands of copies in the UK alone. Cast members say they were unaware a contract clause stipulated royalties would only be paid for 25 years.

Equity, the performers' union, says it will take up its members' cause and is seeking legal advice. The contract was based on a template agreement reached between industry body the BPI on behalf of record companies and Equity.

First Night Records, which made the recording, insists that it has done nothing wrong and has simply abided by the terms of the recording contract agreed by Equity. Similar cast recording contracts that pay royalties to performers in successful shows such as The Phantom of the Opera will also end soon, and are expected to spark copy-cat spats.

Peter Polycarpou, who played Jean Prouvaire in the 1985 production, said that news of the loss of royalties had come as a "bit of a shock". "It's just simply not morally right to keep the royalties back after only a 25-year period," he said.

Frances Ruffelle, who played Eponine, said: "[The royalty payment] really is pennies, but to some of the cast who are ill or retired, it's a winter fuel payment or house repair," she said.

An online petition, Pay the OLC [original London cast] of Les Mis!, is calling for the original performers to be continued to be paid.

Martin Brown, Equity's assistant general secretary, said: "We made an agreement with record producers back in the 1960s that secured payments for artists for 25 years," he said. "At that time, the legal copyright was 20 years, so we secured a five-year extension to the legal copyright. First Night Records are trying to use that nearly 50-year-old contract to terminate payments at 25 years, even though the legal copyright is now much longer."

John Craig, the managing director of First Night Records, said Equity signed the same clause again in 1985 and 1994. "The beef that the players have should be with Equity and not with us," he said. "Their union signed a silly contract, and there are quite onerous clauses in that contract from our point of view, and this gives us an opportunity to renegotiate a contract with more sensible clauses."

He said that, unlike Les Misérables, most cast recordings were unsuccessful and cost a considerable amount to do but – in contrast to pop albums, where recording costs were recouped before royalties were paid – record companies had to pay royalties from the very first record sold under the Equity contract.

"I feel quite bitter that Equity sign a contract and then moan like crazy when we stand behind the terms of it," he said. He said he welcome a chance to re-negotiate the contract.

The Cameron Mackintosh production of Les Misérables has been a hit around the globe and since its London debut in 1985 has become the world's longest-running musical. Its popularity has been boosted in recent years by Susan Boyle's rendition of the song "I Dreamed a Dream" on Britain's Got Talent and will no doubt be further bolstered by the release of the Oscar-winning director Tom Hooper's film version later this year.

Nicholas Allott, the managing director of Cameron Mackintosh, said contracts for cast albums were done directly between the BPI, or its individual members, and Equity.

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