The Show Must Go On

Jana Freiband

IT SURE FEELS good to be trusted. Just ask Fred Krohn, general manager of the Historic State and Orpheum Theatres (and head of both Theatre Live!, the group that books shows into the theaters, and the Historic Theatre Group, which manages them). Krohn's got such a warm relationship with the city of Minneapolis that he can stretch the rules of his own contract, and nobody seems to mind. In fact, the public would never have known about his latest stunt if not for a recent publicity grab by Actors' Equity, the national actors' and stage managers' union.

Last week, during the run of 42nd St., Equity members dressed as showgirls and carnival barkers picketed outside the Orpheum Theatre: 42nd St. was a scab show. Yet Theatre Live!'s contract with the MCDA (the city's development arm, which owns the theaters) specifies, "At no time during the First, Second, or Third Seasons shall [Theatre Live!] permit any non-Equity presentation of Broadway Theatre at either of the Theatres."

Virtually all Broadway shows are affiliated with Equity, as are most road shows that come through the bigger theaters in the Twin Cities. In practical terms, a contract with Equity means that the producers of a show pay an agreed-upon wage scale, contribute to pension and health-care plans for performers, and guarantee a certain level of job security. In part, theatergoers have Equity to thank when they shell out 60 bucks to see a Broadway show or tour--as many people did for The Lion King, which rang up enormous union bills.

In the case of 42nd St., however, no Equity fees were paid by the producers, yet ticket prices remained inflated. New York Equity representative Joe Erdey, who organized the local protest, calls it sub-par work at high-end prices: "Did you see the marquee outside the theater? It said The Broadway Production. That show was never anywhere near Broadway. Usually a Broadway touring show uses six to 10 semis to haul everything. This tour has two. They're misrepresenting this show to the public, and at the same time sticking you with a $57 ticket price. Somebody's making a lot of money, and it's not the actors." Erdey says non-union tours are gaining a foothold nationally. "We're using Minneapolis as a test market to see if an escalated [protest] effort will work. With all the theater action here, Minneapolis is a very special city for us. It's also a very labor-friendly town."

Krohn, for his part, says he booked 42nd St. under duress last December, after A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum fell through and he was under a deadline to get his subscription brochure out the door. "I'm sure the [city] would have preferred a union production, too," he told a Star Tribune reporter when the picket began. "But we have a union show, Tap Dogs, opening across the street the same night [as 42nd St.], so we got one out of two."

Actually Tap Dogs was not a union show, and didn't have to be. Non-acting musical shows such as Tap Dogs, when they are union, are affiliated with AGMA (American Guild of Musical Artists). But the city contract makes no reference to AGMA or any other performers' union except Equity, thus opening a wide stretch of wiggle space for high-priced non-union extravaganzas like Tap Dogs and Riverdance.

"We put that Equity clause in because we were worried that non-Equity means low quality," Krohn says. "It was only a quality demarcation. I will say that I think by that clause we didn't try to say everything would be union. But my strong feeling when I took over was that I would support the unions. I'm pretty confident that I know the City Council's mandate [concerning labor]."

You'd think so, considering the flak Krohn caught two years ago when he hired a non-union lighting contractor. But 42nd St. doesn't seem to have turned many heads at City Hall. "You've got to let people make one mistake," says First Ward City Council member Walt Dziedzic. "But I can almost guarantee it's not going to happen again. The first time shame on [Krohn]; the second time shame on me." And MCDA Executive Director Becky Yanisch says her agency signed off on 42nd St.: "If both sides agree to it, it's okay."

News Intern Erin Cummings contributed to this story.

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