Actors and the theatre establishment shared in the general prosperity of the 99th year of the 20th century...AFTRA and SAG didn't merge, after all...The American Theatre Wing (ATW) and the League of American Theatres and Producers buried their differences just long enough to get through an embarrassing, underwatched Tony Awards telecast...Then the league dumped a fourth of its active, voting membership...In an eerie parallel to the plotline of "Ragtime," that show's leading actor was falsely arrested in a racially profiled Harlem drug bust...The Apollo Theatre's new management team sparked the cultural renaissance of Harlem...Contentious SAG elections resulted in a changing of the guard...Actors' Equity kept the British "Oklahoma!" revival out...The Brits were mostly snubbed at awards time, in a year dominated by American straight plays and musical revivals...SFX assumed most of the assets of the beleaguered, bankrupt Livent...The Broadway stagehands threatened a strike, but settled...The newly refurbished Radio City Music Hall also faced a strike-by its musicians-then settled mostly in the orchestra's favor...In the face of an unfavorable ruling on air rights transferal, Broadway and Off-Broadway theatre owners looked for new ways to modernize and expand their holdings, usually opposed by the Hell's Kitchen coalition and other concerned citizens and public officials.
The year 1999 began with the news that a record number of Equity members had worked in the previous season, and earned a record $233.6 million. SAG also reported a record income for 1998, of $1.63 billion. SAG New York members increased their contracts by 16%, to $422.3 million.
The Clinton Special District Coalition (CSDC) in January sued in New York State Supreme Court to block a city plan to rezone the theatre district by allowing theatre owners to sell their unused air rights to developers who could use them blocks away. The court ruled against the city in July.
AFTRA overwhelmingly approved a proposed merger with SAG, but a bare majority of the screen actors' union nixed the melding, ending a decades-long attempt at amalgamation. (Sixty percent of the members of both unions would have had to approve the combining; AFTRA gave 68% support, but only 48% of SAG members said yea.)
ATW, which founded the Tony Awards and owns the name, and the league, which wants to market Broadway as a brand name and feature the commercially hot at the expense of the artistically worthy, cobbled together a truce long enough to produce the June telecast, which lost its ratings-boosting host Rosie O'Donnell to overcommittment, and its Radio City venue to restoration. The fractious relationship between ATW and the league resumed right after the dismally rated telecast, but their truce is supposed to last another four Broadway seasons.
In February, Equity blocked the entire British company of the London revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein's 1943 watershed musical "Oklahoma!" from opening on Broadway. Despite a last-minute appeal by Mary Rodgers, the composer's daughter and a literary executrix of the R&H estate, Equity found that without any stars in the "Oklahoma!" company (unless you count director Trevor Nunn) there were no "compelling reasons" to make an exception to the union's Productions Contract.
Equity succeeded in increasing salaries, housing, and per diems for actors in its new three-year contract with the League of Resident Theatres (LORT), finalized in March. The pay increases were from eight to 12%, depending on the category of the resident theatre. An independent arbitrator ruled on Equity's complaint against Jujamcyn Organi-zation that the theatre owners should compensate the union by $20,000 in Equity-League pension fund payments. Jujamcyn in 1998 had added a $1 per ticket surcharge to its prices to cover "theatre restoration fees"-and excluded the surcharge from gross receipts, reducing its payments to the pension fund.
Nine for Harlem, Three for Hare
Nine major cultural organizations combined to form the Harlem Strategic Cultural Collaborative in April, pursuing $9 million in outside funding to market the legendary district's cultural opportunities and to provide outreach to schools and new audiences.
Although David Hare had three plays on Broadway simultaneously, none of them was nominated for a Tony Award and two were shut out of the nominations entirely: "The Blue Room," best remembered for Nicole Kidman's naked body, and Hare's solo turn, "Via Dolorosa." The third Hare play, "Amy's View," got a Best Actress nomination (and award) for Judi Dench. The hit-but-hardly-new "Fosse" won best musical at the Tonys, but the artistic success and commercial failure "Parade" took the Drama Desk and New York Critics Circle awards for Best Musical.
The league reported in June that the 1998-99 season on Broadway had set a box office record for attendance (11.7 million) and box office receipts ($588.5 million). News of the road take was also upbeat: receipts of $1.3 billion from 26.5 million theatre patrons.
Twenty-two SAG members from both coasts, including former board members and officers, founded a new activist organization called Professional Actors for Union Solidarity (ProAct) to counteract internal strife in the union and "refocus" on issues of concern to the membership.
British Equity renewed its efforts to correct the seeming imbalance that allows more American actors in the West End of London than British actors on Broadway.
The David Merrick Arts Foundation decided not to bestow any of its largess on the more than 150 new musicals submitted for financial awards, because none of them met the Merrick model of a traditional Broadway musical. The Merrick model was based on the R&H model.
SAG raised its dues for the first time in 13 years, while AFTRA members approved a new national uniform-dues structure.
Twelve prime-time television series signed up for filming or taping in New York City in the 1999-2000 season-twice as many as in the year before. The doubled local production was expected to pour twice as much money into the city's coffers as in 1998-99: $2.5 billion. At the same time, feature film production was down in the first half of 1999, after five years of steady growth.
"Ragtime" star Alton Fitzgerald White, who plays Coalhouse Walker, was wrongfully arrested by New York City Police in the vestibule of his landmark Harlem apartment building, where Duke Ellington once lived. The police were looking for drug dealers. White, with the support of the American Civil Liberties Union, later filed an action against the city for violation of his civil rights. In the period musical, Coalhouse is violently harassed by New Rochelle firemen, and White's performance took on a new edge after the incident at his home.
No"l Coward's multi-faceted centenary celebrations, including the Lauren Bacall-led Broadway debut of his 1960 play "Waiting in the Wings," outshone those of his native London.
The league told some 125 of its members, including former Tony winners, that they were being demoted to "adjunct" status and could no longer vote for Tony awards because none had been a "principal" in a Broadway or road production under league jurisdiction for four years. Supporters of the league's move, voted on in June but revealed only in late August, contended that the dropped members were dead wood who only wanted free tickets to shows. The ex-Tony voters and some important allies within the league's current active membership are still fighting the by-law change, citing their long experience and conscientious voting patterns, and pointing out that they could buy a lot of theatre tickets and much more selectively with the $1,000 dues the league charges for both active and adjunct members.
The SAG national elections turned volatile in the early fall, and Emmy-winning actor William Daniels decided to run for president with the support of the activist Performers Alliance (PA). ProAct, which supported incumbent Richard Masur, accused some Daniels backers of spreading "lies" about Masur. Mel Boudrot, in his second term as SAG/NY president, was challenged by Lisa Scarola of the SAG/NY board. Daniels and Scarola were the ultimate winners, along with most of their running mates. Both new presidents called for the dissolution of ProAct, PA, and Clean Slate 99, a third ad hoc internal organization that contributed to the making of the most volatile SAG election in years. Both Daniels and Scarola were conciliatory toward their former opponents.
New Spirit, Broken Tradition
All eight theatre unions, after some initial misunderstanding and resistance, agreed to support the production of "Spirit of Broadway," an hour-long, $22 million mini-show slated for the 97-year-old landmark Lyceum Theatre in the fall of 2000. Tickets were planned to cost $25, or $15 for children, and four-time Tony-winning director Jerry Zaks was signed, along with designer Tony Walton.
Longtime Newsweek theatre critic Jack Kroll broke a sacred Broadway tradition going back almost 100 years, when he reviewed "Dame Edna: The Royal Tour" a week before opening night. After Kroll paid to see the show in an early preview, under orders from his relatively new editor, Sarah Pettit, the show's creative team changed the show enough to need a new rehearsal. Kroll's early, largely positive review of course could not reflect those changes, and the producers strongly objected to Kroll's breach of protocol. The league also criticized Newsweek in a letter signed by chairman Cy Feuer.
Eight new members were inducted into the Theatre Hall of Fame: playwright Tom Stoppard, arts advocate Kitty Carlisle Hart, Los Angeles-based artistic director and producer Gordon Davidson, and five actors: Hal Holbrook, Robert Morse, Jerry Orbach, Frances Sternhagen, and Theresa Wright. The roster was unusual in that all inductees were living and no designers, composers, lyricists, or librettists made the final cut.
The Broadway stagehands union, Local One of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE), voted to authorize a strike against the league, which said it considered the threat a negotiating ploy. The two sides agreed to a new three-year contract, including a new clause specifying "just cause" for firing. The reported wage increase was 12%, four percent each year.
The 63 New York Ballet musicians, members of Local 802, struck or were locked out, depending on which side you talked to, for more than two weeks before they finalized a new three-year contract. The orchestra returned to play for "The Nutcracker," which had been using taped music in the meantime.
The 35-member Radio City Music Hall orchestra, also a member of 802, authorized a strike for a five percent increase in wages. The orchestra got a four percent increase without striking, and saved the newly refurbished venue's annual Christmas Show, which is in its 67th season through Jan. 5.
Not a portent for the year 2000, we hope: All Broadway theatres decided to go dark for New Year's Eve, to reduce the traffic in Times Square by 40,000 theatre patrons. q