Monday, November 12, 2007

Broadway Strike: Springtime for Mel Brooks, Winter for the Rest

By Jeremy Gerard
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Nov. 12 (Bloomberg) -- The stealth strike by stagehands that shut down 27 of 35 Broadway shows this weekend had one indisputable beneficiary. On Sunday afternoon, center orchestra tickets for Tuesday's performance of ``Young Frankenstein'' were selling online, legally, for a cool $1,890 the pair at StubHub, a ticket exchange service sanctioned by the Broadway establishment.

The availability of tickets to the new Mel Brooks musical, one of eight shows not affected by the strike, may be a bright spot for expense-account customers. But Broadway is heading into a holiday season as crucial to producers as it is to retailers for its impact on the annual bottom line. One show's fortunes will do little to relieve the pall that the strike has cast on the business that's like no business I know.

This strike is the most ill-conceived labor action imaginable. Even if I have little sympathy for the barons of an industry that has been picking customers' pockets for decades, I still have to scratch my head over a shutdown that will only drive already wary patrons away. It's not just the box office that will struggle to recover from a prolonged strike, but the ephemeral appeal of theatergoing itself.

The city's billion-dollar cottage industry -- with $939 million in box-office receipts last year and many millions more in hotels, restaurants and other businesses that depend on live theater to attract customers -- is one of the most labor- intensive in the country. And most of that labor is connected to more than a dozen unions represented in every Broadway production, from the folks who take your money at the box office to the actors on stage.

Living Wage

Those people deserve to earn a living wage. And unions have the responsibility to win their members the best deal possible from producers. But the actions of Local One of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees this weekend were inexplicable. After weeks of stalling and posing, playing out their position in the press and insisting that they would never treat their loyal customers badly, the stagehands did exactly that. They walked out Saturday morning with no warning, stranding tens of thousands of customers who have nothing whatsoever to do with their contract gripes, but who do, in the end, pay their salaries. Everyone -- producers, theatergoers, many of the union members themselves -- was simply stunned at the arbitrariness of the walkout call.

Workers were instructed not to talk to the press or anyone else, but to restrict themselves to carrying their placards and handing out flyers with nonsense about protecting middle-class lifestyles. Possibly the most reality-challenged line was the assertion that while producers were supporting second and third homes, the working stiffs were protecting their one home. I doubt any stagehand has mortgaged his home to keep a troubled show afloat and its company on payroll. But I know at least three producers who have.

Cultural Bazaar

Broadway has changed in the past decades from a cultural bazaar offering something for everyone -- serious dramas, splashy musicals, brainless comedies, brash revues -- to more generic, corporate-sponsored tourist attractions like ``Legally Blonde'' and ``Mamma Mia!'' More customers are attending to celebrate an event -- birthday, anniversary, retirement -- than because theatergoing is a regular activity. So there's a higher level of disappointment and resentment when, often after months of planning, they show up on the big day, only to find the theater surrounded by striking workers.

By Sunday night, my Bloomberg e-mailbox was filled with questions from anxious ticket holders: how long will the strike go on? Will my tickets for ``Chicago'' on New Year's Eve be any good. ``Stay tuned'' was the only advice I could offer and admittedly cold comfort.

Customer Averse

Broadway is plenty customer-averse already -- ticket prices are ridiculous, the seats are uncomfortable and you can never find a cab after the show. And people still hunger for a live performance, still want their kids to experience the difference between TV and real people telling stories. Faced with a picket line they're more than likely to think twice before making such complicated and expensive plans again.

They will go to a museum to be reminded of other cultural riches the city has to offer, or to LaserPark, where their kids capture the experience of living inside a video game, or to Cirque du Soleil at Madison Square Garden for an experience even more anonymous than movie going.

And soon all the beautiful, landmarked Broadway houses will be museums. Of course they're practically that already.

(Jeremy Gerard is an editor for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer on this story: Jeremy Gerard in New York at .
Last Updated: November 12, 2007 00:10 EST

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