Legal drama on Broadway as producers sue striking stagehands' union for $35m losses

Click to follow
The Independent US

The drama on Broadway this Thanksgiving holiday was mostly of the legal variety as the stagehands' stoppage kept the majority of its famed theatres closed through a second week and the producers of nine of the darkened shows hit the striking union with a $35m (£17m) lawsuit. Although a court judge on Wednesday ordered the resumption of performances of one musical – Dr Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas! – the wider battle over work rules between Local One, the stagehand's union, and The League of American Theatres and Producers was no closer to being resolved. The filing of the lawsuit by the Nederlander Producing Co promises only to make negotiations more difficult. The plaintiffs are demanding $35m in compensation for lost revenue from the union, arguing that their theatres had different contracts with the union and the strike against them is illegal.

Since it began on 10 November, the walk-out has shuttered 25 venues on the Great White Way, leaving only a handful unaffected and still filling seats. No new talks between the two sides are scheduled until Sunday amid fears that the strike could last until Christmas and even beyond.

The timing is disastrous. With Thanksgiving yesterday and the Christmas holiday season just beginning, this should be the busiest and most profitable time of the year. The League has already said its members are losing about $17m every day in lost revenue from sales of tickets and merchandise.

It is also putting a damper on the city as a whole, especially businesses in and around Broadway that rely on theatre traffic, including delis, restaurants and bus tour operators. The city comptroller's office said dwindling revenue from ticket and restaurant sales is costing New York $2m a day.

Thousands of workers in theatreland, including not only the stagehands but everyone else from musicians to box-office clerks are also affected. Most are taking home only a fraction of their normal pay as the strike goes on. "We're trying to scrimp and save," said Steve Armour, who plays the trombone in The Drowsy Chaperone. "We're looking for the cheapest flight home for the holidays." The last time Broadway was dark was during a musicians' walk-out in 2003 but that was resolved in three days.

Talks in this dispute dragged on for three months until Local One, with authorisation from its parent union, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, began the strike. At issue are demands by the League for new rules to end so-called "feather-bedding", when more stagehands are assigned to shows than are sometimes actually needed.

The effects even rippled into yesterday's Macy's Day Parade, where performers on a float for the musical version of Legally Blonde had to perform to the traditional throngs along the route without their usual costumes and props. Jerry Mitchell, the show's director, called the situation, "very disheartening".

Until now, frustrated tourists and out-of-towners intent on enjoying some theatre have had the choice either of exploring off- and off-off Broadway, which is unaffected by the strike, or scrambling for tickets for the eight shows not being picketed, which include Young Frankenstein and Mary Poppins.

Now, at least, they can see the Grinch too. Its producer, James Sanna, faced potential financial ruin because its run was set from 1 November to 6 January only. "I think the one Grinch in this city is enough," Judge Helen Freedman said announcing her decision, to which a jubilant Mr Sanna responded: "We got our miracle on 44th Street."

Comments