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During strike, off-Broadway is doing fabulous

With most of Broadway dark because of the stagehands strike, business is booming off-Broadway, especially for those theaters in the Times Square area.
Broadway Labor
The off-Broadway show "Make Me A Song, The Music of William Finn," is one of many benefitting from the Broadway stagehands strike.Carol Rosegg / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

With most of Broadway dark because of the stagehands strike, business is booming off-Broadway, especially for those theaters in the Times Square area.

No new negotiations have been scheduled between Local 1, the stagehands union, and the League of American Theatres and Producers. The stalemate has forced theatergoers, particularly tourists, to find other attractions and off-Broadway has some 48 productions now playing, according to the League of Off-Broadway Theatres and Producers.

On Monday in the theater district, people were passing out flyers advertising off-Broadway shows, meaning productions in theaters smaller than 499 seats.

Jeramy Peay, promoting the off-Broadway musical “Altar Boyz,” said some people think all theater is closed, not realizing off-Broadway is open for business. “They don’t understand the difference,” he said.

At New World Stages, a five-theater complex on 50th Street just west of the Times Square area, 11 weekend performances of seven different shows sold out. The theaters house an eclectic collection of productions, ranging from the children-oriented “Gazillion Bubble Show” to the campy Charles Busch comedy “Die! Mommie! Die!” to “Make Me a Song: The Music of William Finn,” a revue featuring songs by the composer of “Falsettos” and “A New Brain.”

“We did very well,” said Daryl Roth, one of the producers of “Die Mommie Die!”

“On Saturday night, we had a large group of people (older high school students) who were disappointed to not get into the Broadway show they had tickets for. They just took a chance and they came to us.”

The 3,000-member stagehands union, which has between 300-350 members working on Broadway at any given time, walked out Saturday without much notice, two days after the parent union, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, granted Local 1 authorization to strike.

Local 1 includes more than just the men and women who move the scenery and props; it also represents a show’s electricians, carpenters and sound people. They work for the theater itself and are paid for the duration of a show’s run.

The dispute has focused on how many stagehands are required to open a show and keep it running. That means moving scenery, lights, sound systems and props into the theater; installing the set and making sure it works; and keeping everything functioning well for the life of the production.

Theater owners and producers want to be able to hire only the number of stagehands they think they’ll need for an individual show. For example, a play with one set might not require as many stagehands as a large-scale musical with many scene changes or special effects. The union wants to maintain its rules on how many stagehands are hired, how they work and for how long; it wants a specific number hired for each show.

Eight Broadway shows that have separate contracts with the union remained open and did strong, often sold-out business over the weekend. Among the attractions still running are “Young Frankenstein,” “Mary Poppins,” “Xanadu” and “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” as well as four shows — “Pygmalion,” “The Ritz,” “Mauritius” and “Cymbeline” — playing at nonprofit theaters.

The same-day discount tickets booths in Times Square and at the South Street Seaport remained open, serving the Broadway shows unaffected by the walkout as well as all off-Broadway productions.

“Everything we had (tickets) went,” said Sue Frost, one of the producers of off-Broadway’s “Make Me a Song,” which officially opens Monday. “A lot of it was people coming in at the last minute paying full price at the box office. They were wandering around looking for something to do.”

Frost said business had improved for the coming week, too. “But I think people are waiting to see what is going to happen or if the strike is going to resolve itself quickly,” she said.

Still, it’s a challenge to get tourists to go to off-Broadway shows, said George Forbes, president of the off-Broadway league, because the shows don’t have the name recognition of Broadway productions, the star power or production values. And for those planning vacations months in advance, many off-Broadway shows won’t even be around because they have limited runs.

“The thing that makes off-Broadway special is that you are experiencing something with no more than 498 other people.” Forbes said. “There is not a bad seat in these theaters to the extent that you are not going to be in the third balcony. These are small, intimate playhouses and you are going to get a unique experience.”