The lights go out all over Broadway

Producers count the cost as strike by New York stagehands all but shuts down the city's theatre district
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The lights of Broadway fell dark yesterday as stagehands in New York went on strike, shutting down a string of famous musicals and big-budget productions.

Theatregoers were met with picket lines as they arrived for shows, and the only thing box offices had to count was the cost of refunding customers. Shows such as Les Misérables, Chicago, Hairspray and The Lion King were all at risk of missing out.

The protest comes at the busiest and most profitable time of the year and, worryingly for producers, it is unclear how long the walkout will last.

Local One, which represents the majority of stagehands in Broadway theatres, wants its staff to be paid a regular wage rather than just for particular jobs, such as the installing of stages at the start of a show's run.

Negotiations to avert the strike broke down on Friday after two days of talks between Local One and the League of American Theatres and Producers, the body of theatre chiefs that organises the majority of work contracts on Broadway.

Up to the last minute, it was unclear how wide the strike would be – and the peace talks were wrapped in mystery. Local One declined to comment officially, although members said that the action was likely to run for more than just one night.

Lisa Linden, a spokeswoman for the League of American Theatres and Producers, said: "It would be shocking if they would hurt the theatre-going public by shutting down Broadway without notice."

Only shows where stagehands have signed separate contracts not negotiated by union officials will go on, but they are few in number. Mary Poppins was one of the survivors, along with Young Frankenstein, Xanadu, Pygmalion and some others. Off-Broadway shows remain unaffected by the strike.

The financial danger of allowing a strike to run on and on is well known among Broadway's theatre bosses. They lost millions of pounds in a four-day strike by the musicians' union in March 2003.

On that occasion, more than a dozen Broadway shows went dark, but the walkout acted as a warning, and producers are said to have stockpiled part of their ticket sales so that they could weather any future industrial action.

Local One, in response, is thought to have built up its own battle fund – worth around $4m (£2m) – to see its members through the strike period.

The Local One president, James J Claffey, yesterday rejected an offer from New York's Mayor, Michael Bloomberg, to help with the negotiations as concerns rose about the negative effect that the strike could have on tourism.