By Christine Toy Johnson
At the time of this writing, I am blissfully employed in the Broadway production of THE MUSIC MAN (Equity version), playing the part of Ethel Toffelmier. The experience has been the stuff that musical comedy childhood dreams are made of: a big, splashy, old-fashioned musical, incomparable creative team, extraordinary cast and crew, even a football field-sized American flag to bring down the house in the Finale Ultimo. It is Americana at its best, in my eyes an interracial cast bringing an interracial audience to its feet eight times a week, when America really needs it the most. And as if that isnt enough excitement for any actor with Broadway dreams to write home about, I get billing! I anxiously await the day when I will walk up to the Neil Simon Theatre and see it up there in all its glory, acknowledging my inclusion in this wonderful cast.
I am, at heart, I suppose, somewhat of a traditionalist in my non-traditional way. I take this Broadway stuff seriously. My family, friends, and I celebrate this, my third Broadway show, with the sort of unbridled joy that befits all life-affirming events these days along with a party at Sardis, a dressing room full of cards and flowers, and moments of gratitude throughout the show each night. Then came the pin to (attempt to) burst my bubble: I am informed that my billing will indeed not appear on the window card outside the theatre, as the cost of replacing the sign is too expensive. The window card is actually grossly out of date, with no less than eight cast members (three principals and five chorus) erroneously named. Upon further inquiry, management tells my agent that though it is indeed my right to have my name on the card (and billing is actually in my contract) if I pushed the matter with Equity, the show would have to close.
Now I am flummoxed, outraged and bemused, all at the same time. I have devoted many hours, as an Equity Councillor for the past nine years, working towards actors rights, and yet I feel between a rock and a hard place to fight for my own. Did they really threaten me with closing the show if I spoke up for what seems to be a contractual matter? Did they really think that Id believe that something like changing a window card would close an entire show? And since they are not honoring a clause in my contract, am I then free to choose another clause that I would like not to honor? I decide to be less glib and more practical and seek another way to deal with the matter at hand. Another colleague who is playing a major principal role in the show also reveals to me that though she has been with the show for fifteen months, her name has never appeared correctly on any of the posters that have been displayed all over town, nor in the souvenir programs. I ask my colleagues on staff at Equity what recourse we (the unnamed) could have.
Though there is actually no rule in existence pertaining specifically to the window card, one option would be to insist upon the removal of the sign altogether. But after much thought, it seems unfair to inadvertently punish the rest of the cast members who are indeed correctly named. I realize that taking the high road here serves more people than seeking justice would. I had also heard a rumor that Equity had given the producers a concession to leave the sign the way it was, in order to keep the show open, which outraged the member who reported this to me. Not true, actually, I discover. I learn that though there is a rule existing regarding souvenir programs, an unsuccessful attempt has been made to get a rule into the book about updating these window cards, resulting only in a gentlemans agreement by the producers to note our concerns. The best we can do at this time is to express Equitys disdain at the situation, let management know that this is indeed a big issue for many of our members, and try again to get concrete language put into the rulebook.
Though this issue didnt succeed in bursting my bubble, I am still angry at the situation and believe that the errant window card, posters and souvenir programs are an expression of disrespect to the current cast. But it occurs to me that once again, the producers bottom line is money, and though respect is free, there are often strings attached. Ive heard people try to legislate rules to make producers respect us. Its clear that what must come first, though, is our own self-respect and the positive force we can foster to create change where change needs to happen. The point is: this isnt just about having our names listed outside of a Broadway theatre. Its about exercising our right to speak up about what is rightfully ours. As Mahatma Gandhi said, We must be the change we wish to see in the world. Perhaps a letter to the producers calling their bluff doesnt really seem like much at all, but I think its a start. You can be sure that I will also submit a strongly worded suggestion for the next round of Production contract negotiations to suggest finding ways to make our desires more feasible, as well. I am beginning to take the routes I need to have my voice heard. And though Equity gets blamed for so many things that are wrong with our contracts, the truth is, I am reminded once again, that I do have recourse. I have a system that supports my right to stand up for what I believe in. Though ultimately I may not see the immediate change that I seek, I know that I can use the channels available to me to make a serious effort and more importantly, not be cowed by scare tactics.
By the way, THE MUSIC MAN announced its closing for December 30, 2001, eight weeks after I joined the company, so the point becomes tragically moot. I feel quite certain, though, that correcting the window card for my beloved show would hardly have been our ultimate demise.