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Union question rocks ‘Rock’

So the Broadway musical “Rock of Ages” appears to be morphing from a nonunion to an Actors Equity Association production, after the president of the union flew to Las Vegas to meet with members and to resolve what one participant called “a sticky little situation.”

The national head of the actors union doesn’t make a habit of visiting Las Vegas. So the Jan. 6 meeting on the day after the opening-night party for “Rock” was a big deal to the 50 or more Equity members who attended.

Here’s the issue in a nutshell: “Rock” was cast as a nonunion production. But then it was discovered as many as six of the players or key production personnel were Equity members, and it’s a big no-no to work in a nonunion production (unless you plead financial hardship and temporarily resign).

The production appears to be converting to an Equity status rather than replacing the union members. A deal seemed to be in place, but a Thursday deadline passed without a signed agreement, leaving matters up in the air.

“This whole thing has been an unfortunate situation because our members have been caught in the middle,” said Equity spokeswoman Maria Somma.

Equity President Nick Wyman flew to Las Vegas to meet with locally based members who sat out the auditions. They wanted to know why all this didn’t come up soon enough to let them try out for the show.

“The bottom line is there was some breakdown in communication between the membership and the union, and they acknowledged that, apologized for that,” said a participant. “It was a very positive experience really.”

Granted, the kerfuffle is more of concern to local performers than to “civilian” readers. But the larger issues can ripple out to mere consumers of entertainment.

In theory, Actors Equity is a stamp of big-league prestige, distinguishing a production from community or even regional theater, assuring ticket-buyers that Broadway-level talent is involved.

So why would the local producer, Base Entertainment, even think about going non-Equity with “Rock”? Base helmed the first-rate Equity production of “Phantom” at The Venetian. It’s a veteran Broadway presenter, used to paying Equity scale and budgeting for payments into the union’s pension funds.

There was talk of wanting to reach beyond “Broadway singers” to “rock singers.” And conspiracy theorists will point to the anti-union politics of Venetian landlord Sheldon Adelson.

But the real answer probably is more mundane, involving flexibility in matters such as the show’s running time, and the ability to have fewer than eight shows per week.

“Phantom” co-producer Scott Zeiger often expressed frustration of union contracts barring him from adding or dropping shows during seasonal fluctuations as the Blue Man Group does, or from putting the show on hiatus during slow stretches.

The 95-minute running time of “Phantom” also had to be negotiated as a special “casino contract.” The current two-hour length of “Rock” could be dictated more by what felt right, or the time between shows.

The odd thing about all this is that it has happened before with another Base title, “Peepshow.” That one started as non-Equity because it mostly involved dancers, but then had to offer the entire cast Equity contracts after hiring marquee stars Kelly Monaco and Melanie Brown, who were members of companion unions.

Beyond that short-term memory loss, there is no obvious culprit here, perhaps no deliberate deception. There is no gatekeeper at a casting call to screen those who audition. Performers might have assumed “Rock” was a union show, or been wrongly told it was OK for Equity actors to audition.

“It’s really about the future of this town for us as union members,” said the meeting participant. “When a book musical is coming, of course any union member is going to say, ‘Can I get in on that? I’d like a shot at that so I can live and work at home.’ ”

Contact reporter Mike Weatherford at
or 702-383-0288.

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