Equity Eyes 'Miss Saigon'

Actors' Equity Association has begun efforts to organize Big League Theatricals' national tour of the Broadway show "Miss Saigon." The tour opens on Sept. 6 at the Victoria Theatre in Dayton, Ohio.

Equity has issued a notice to members on its website stating, "This is to remind you that members of the 4As unions--AEA, SAG, AFTRA, AGVA and AGMA--are not permitted to work in nonunion tours. Under Equity's by-laws and the constitution of the 4As, members of any of the 4As unions may be fined, disciplined, or expelled for working in Equity's jurisdiction without benefit of contract."

Other 4As unions also have placed the notice on their websites. All notices inform union members that, if the member is approached to work in "Miss Saigon" or knows anyone who has been cast in the tour, to notify Equity.

The "Miss Saigon" tour currently is scheduled to travel to 37 cities in 25 states over 10 months, with the journey ending in late June 2003 in Atlanta. The producer's website promises that future dates will be announced, and asks readers to check back in the fall for a cast list. It also offers ticket purchases for the first 10 tour stops at cities in Ohio, Iowa, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Nebraska, and Connecticut.

David Lotz, Equity's communications director, had no comment on the organizing effort past what the union said in its brief notice. Marni Kuhn, director of publicity for Big League, told Back Stage on Tuesday that the show was cast and presently rehearsing in Dayton. She said she didn't know the names of any actors involved in the show, nor if the tour had added any new cities since the website posting. She said any questions regarding Equity's organizing efforts should be addressed to "Miss Saigon" producer Dan Sher.

Sher called back later Tuesday, saying he had received no word from Equity that it was attempting to organize "Miss Saigon." "I imagine it's their intent to treat all non-Equity shows the same way," he said, meaning the union would attempt to organize them.

Equity over the last year has become consistently vocal in its concern about losing portions of the national market to nonunion tours. In recent months, it has publicly pushed its position, an obvious effort to make clear to its members that union leaders are dedicated to protecting jobs on the road.

The union took on Big League last year and early this year on another of its nonunion tours--"The Music Man"--organizing leafleting lines at theatres around the nation. The show was controversial because it was the first production of "The Music Man" to tour the country since a revival production opened on Broadway in April of 2000. While it is not necessarily unusual for Broadway shows to tour with nonunion casts (and occasionally nonunion musicians), it is customary for those tours to occur only after union tours. Equity was very concerned that "The Music Man" was only sending out nonunion actors and musicians on its first tour, especially since the union has been watching its share of national tours drop over the last five years.

Big League argued that the size of "The Music Man" cast--32 in the Broadway production, plus a standby and six swings--made it impossible to pay union wages, per diems, and pension and welfare contributions. Equity disputed that contention, pointing out that other large-cast shows, such as "Les Miserables" and "The Scarlet Pimpernel," managed to survive economically while abiding by union rules. Equity also pointed out that "The Music Man" tickets cost as much as those to shows with union actors and musicians.

Producer Sher noted that an Equity tour of "Miss Saigon" had played for eight years, from 1982 to 2000, and that Big League was taking the customary route of following an Equity tour with a non-Equity production. He said that the tour will have a cast of 38, but didn't know how that size compared to the cast numbers of the Broadway production of "Miss Saigon." He didn't address the issue of wages, pension, and health payments.

The Dayton tickets for "Miss Saigon" range from $31.50 to $60.50, according to the Victoria Theatre website. Those prices rank with the average Broadway ticket prices.