Treading the sidewalks instead of the boards
On one side of West 44th Street, in the heart of Times Square, festive crowds were pouring into two theaters for Saturday matinees. On the other side, a handful of pickets marched quietly in front of theaters that normally would be filled with audiences on a busy holiday weekend, but were now shuttered.
As the Broadway stagehands strike entered its 15th day, the work stoppage had varying effects on a street that, more than any other, has come to symbolize New York’s fabled theater district. While two shows, “Xanadu” and “Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas! The Musical,” were thriving, the sidewalks in front of other hit shows, “Phantom of the Opera,” “Les Miserables” and “Spamalot,” were all but empty.
Even though both sides in the labor dispute announced late in the day that they would resume talks today, the overall mood was grim.
“West 44th Street is the ground zero of the theater world in New York,” said Max Klimavicius, owner of Sardi’s Restaurant, a longtime Broadway landmark. “Everybody has been affected by this strike, and many people here are hurting. It’s hit us hard.”
At Sardi’s, business is off 30% to 35% since the strike began Nov. 10, dashing hopes for the holiday season, he said. Down the street, at trendy Angus McIndoe’s restaurant, traffic is down by half.
And a bigger economic pain has been felt at the box office. Unlike the current Writers Guild of America strike, in which the full economic results will be felt further down the line, the Broadway strike has had an immediate, crippling effect. Last week’s box-office receipts -- reflecting eight theaters that have been able to stay open during the strike -- totaled $2.9 million, according to the League of American Theatres and Producers. Last year, during the same holiday week, Broadway grossed $18.6 million.
Estimates of the strike’s full effect vary greatly. The league has suggested that daily losses could be as high as $17 million, including theaters, restaurants, garages, tourist shops and the like; the New York City comptroller estimates the daily loss at $2 million.
The key issue in the strike, which pits Local One of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees against the league, is how many union members are needed to work on various Broadway productions.
The league has asked for reductions in several key areas, saying that technology and common sense dictate that previous union requirements were excessive and amounted to featherbedding. The union has battled these cuts, saying they endanger workplace safety and jobs for some 3,000 employees. Local One members had been working without a contract since their agreement expired July 31; although talks resumed briefly last weekend, they quickly broke down.
On Friday, spirits on West 44th lifted when “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” reopened after a short courtroom battle. Merchants reported a slight rise in business, as families with children began appearing on the street once more.
The show, which had been booked into the St. James Theatre, had earlier signed a separate labor agreement with Local One. It was the first production shut down when the strike began, but stagehands later agreed to let it reopen, citing the earlier contract. Producers opposed the reopening, saying theaters should remain closed until the strike is settled. But a judge in Manhattan ruled Wednesday that the show could legally reopen in time for Thanksgiving weekend performances.
Down the street, producers of “Xanadu” were also counting their blessings. Weekly attendance at the Helen Hayes Theater climbed to 85% of capacity since the strike began, as thousands who held tickets for now-closed shows were snapping up tickets to it and the other seven productions not affected by the strike. Workers for those shows had signed separate labor agreements with Local One.
As they filed into “Xanadu” on Friday evening, some ticket holders grumbled about sudden changes in their plans. Still, most were happy to be seeing a Broadway show during the strike.
“We had tickets to ‘Wicked’ that we bought over a year ago,” said Darlene Giordina, visiting from Boston with her sister and their teenage daughters. “But at least we’re able to be here tonight, sitting in the very last row of the balcony for ‘Xanadu.’ ”
One row in front of her, Steve Franceschi of Alta Loma said he had a similar experience. The shows he wanted to see were shut down, and he was lucky to get one of the last seats that night for “Xanadu.” “Getting in is a bonus,” he said. “Who’s complaining?”
The musical -- based on the 1980 movie starring Olivia Newton-John -- offered respite from the tensions of the strike outside. But during the show, actress Mary Testa, who plays a Greek muse, ad-libbed a timely line: “The writers are on strike and the stagehands are on strike,” she told a packed audience. “The only place you can see a tragedy now is off the stage, not on it.”
The next afternoon, as temperatures plunged into the 30s, pickets on West 44th stamped their feet to keep warm. In front of “Spamalot,” two musicians who showed up in solidarity played a dirge-like “Basin Street Blues” on the trumpet and trombone.
Down the street, a line captain checked his clipboard to see who would be showing up for picket duty later in the evening. The stagehand -- who like other strikers had been asked by union leaders not to speak with reporters -- was clearly bitter over the labor dispute.
The league “kept asking for one giveback after another, nickel-and-diming us,” he told a colleague. “That’s not negotiating.”
As the wind picked up, stragglers hurried into theaters across the street for the matinee, and West 44th Street grew quiet again.
“We hear they’re starting new talks tomorrow,” the line captain told a friend. “So hopefully I won’t see you out here next weekend.”