Theatres turn away thousands as Broadway stagehands strike

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The Independent US

The lights have gone out on Broadway after a strike by stagehands forced producers to shut down their New York shows and bitterly disappoint thousands of tourists who had tickets that could not be honoured.

The strike, which began on Saturday, brought scenes of confusion and anger to the Great White Way as union members formed picket lines outside the locked doors of scores of theatres and long-faced tourists sought information on refunds.

"I don't know what we're going to do," lamented Marian Thompson, who had brought several young children to see their first musical on Broadway. "It's such a shame, especially at this time of the year, when so many people come to town wanting to see a show."

It is a second blow to the US entertainment industry, which since last Monday has seen film and television output slowly paralysed by a writers' strike in Hollywood.

In New York, the theatre dispute has pitted the largest stagehands' union, Local One, against the League of American Theaters and Producers. Negotiations between the two sides on work rules had been going on for three months since previous contracts expired at the end of July. Local One has never gone on strike in its more than 100-year history and most observers had expected a settlement to emerge.

In all, 27 theatres have been forced to abandon their shows, including The Phantom of the Opera, Mamma Mia and Jersey Boys. The executive director of the League said that for each day the strike continues, New York stands to lose about $17m (£8.5m) in revenue.

The last time Broadway was similarly silenced was four years ago when the League found itself at odds with musicians over work rules. That stoppage was resolved after four days, but some predict that this strike could drag on well into the pre-Christmas season.

Not every stage on Broadway was abandoned. A handful of theatres with stagehands represented by a different union were still open, quickly selling tickets to tourist refugees from other closed-down shows. Productions that were not affected included Mary Poppins, Cymbeline and Pygmalion.

The extravagant new Mel Brooks musical Young Frankenstein was also uaffected. It opened last week, to mostly unkind reviews, but the follow-up to The Producers has the best advance box-office sales of any show in New York. All the off-Broadway shows were unaffected for their Sunday performances.

A lingering strike could eventually force weaker productions into extinction. Among those potentially at risk is Seafarer, the new play by the Irish writer Conor McPherson. The National Theatre production, which has transferred from London, is only in previews and faces being robbed of the chance of gaining box-office momentum.

Similarly bruised will be the musical Dr Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas, which opened on Friday. It was the first production to be closed down as pickets formed outside the doors of the theatre before a planned 11am performance on Saturday.

In negotiations with the union, the League has been pressing to update work rules to gain greater flexibility and allow theatres only to use those numbers of stagehands that actually needed for each production. Union negotiators are holding out for a formula, however, that offers compensation for any reduction in work hours for its members.

The union was claiming this weekend that the League had done an about-turn last week in talks suddenly toughening its stance. But a League spokeswoman denied it had changed its position and said it had been taken by surprise by a strike that apparently came with almost no warning.

Charlotte St Margin said it was fitting, "that the first show they walked out on was How the Grinch Stole Christmas, because today the union showed that it is willing to take away the magic of Broadway from children and adults."

The star of the Dr Seuss musical, Patrick Page, emerged from the theatre to commiserate with ticket holders stuck outside and performed the main song from the show for them on the pavement. However, he, in common with some other actors, refrained from casting blame on the stagehands.

"These guys on strike are the backbone of Broadway," he said. "They are the guys who keep me safe, when I get hoisted up in the air in the show, they are the guys who put light on me, who make sure everything happens."