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Sour Notes
Photo by Martin Benjamin

The song “Trouble” isn’t the only trouble this week at Proctor’s Theatre in Schenectady, where The Music Man will be performed through Sunday.

The latest revival of the popular musical about a con man’s grift in an Iowa town just ended its run on Broadway. Generally, the first national tour after a Broadway run features actors from the Equity Actors union, who receive full union-scale pay ($1,200 per week), full pension benefits, per diems and full health-insurance coverage. The rub with The Music Man is that the producer of this tour, Big League Theatricals, declined a reduced-rate deal with Actors Equity. Big League is using nonunion actors, musicians and stage managers, who are receiving below-scale pay, reduced health-insurance coverage and no pension benefits. Actors Equity doesn’t like the trend, and has sent out members to protest.

About the only things that local Actors Equity members and Proctor’s Theatre representatives agree on is that the demonstration outside Proctor’s on Tuesday (Feb. 12) didn’t involve picketing—both Proctor’s spokesperson Kathy Jarvis and Actors Equity member John Romeo said, in separate phone interviews, that “informational leafleting” will be done during the run of The Music Man—and that the talent and quality of the cast of The Music Man isn’t the question.

“You can’t blame actors for wanting to work,” said Romeo, known for his work with the New York State Theatre Institute. “But these are mostly kids fresh out of school. There aren’t any big names in the show and probably [not] any Actors Equity members in good standing. Yet Big League Theatricals is charging the same price for a ticket as if it were an Actors Equity show. Proctor’s probably didn’t even know this wasn’t an Actors Equity cast.”

Jarvis said that whether a production is union-made or not isn’t a concern at Proctor’s. “Big League Theatricals is a good producer,” she said. “That’s what we care about: Do they produce good shows? They’ve got a good reputation and put on tours of Footloose, King and I, Chicago, 1776, Ragtime, Rent, Tommy through Proctor’s—all non-Equity and all excellent. The local Actors Equity members have an issue with their leadership, which gave permission to Big League Theatricals to do a non-Equity tour, when traditionally the first national tour is Equity.

“Equity is no guarantee of excellence,” Jarvis added. Last year’s biggest flop at Proctor’s, the production of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas starring Ann-Margret, was an Equity tour. “The public doesn’t know and probably doesn’t care if its union or nonunion,” Jarvis said. “They just want to know it’s quality.”

“Actors, musicians, and stage managers should have union protection, fair wages, per diems, pensions, adequate health insurance,” Romeo said. “This [non-Equity tour] is part of trend starting to happen, the straw that broke the camel’s back. We believe that the public wants these people to have a fair shake. We hope that people boycott The Music Man, and put money in the hands of actors, musicians, and stage managers, not Big League Theatricals.”

The “informational leafleting”—which involves Actors Equity members holding signs on poles that will look suspiciously like pickets—will occur wherever the non-Equity The Music Man tours.

—James Yeara

Say the Right Thing

Spike Lee isn’t black—or so one member of the Skidmore College community seems to think. Since the mid-’80s, outspoken filmmaker Lee has made a name for himself by projecting the African-American experience on film and television. Yet when Lee visited Skidmore’s Saratoga Springs campus last Friday, his skin color was challenged. During a Q&A session with a mostly white audience, an African-American school employee told Lee: “Your skin color is more brown than black . . . and [whites’] skin is more peach than white.” A startled Lee laughed off the comment, then referred to himself as a “brown man” for the rest of the afternoon. The exchange seemed to enthuse Lee more than delivering the lecture that preceded the Q&A session.

Dressed in a casual sweater and armed with a wireless microphone, a laid-back Lee delivered a lecture on American diversity and popular culture to 1,000 members of the Skidmore community. Using his life story as a loose outline, Lee talked about his early love of film and his rags-to-riches rise, injecting his wry sense of humor throughout.

“February is Black History Month—the shortest month of the year,” Lee joked at the start of his speech. (Another choice quip: “Enron is like a scene from The Godfather: Everyone was there, but didn’t see nothing.”)

Lee reminisced about creating such films as Do the Right Thing and Malcolm X, and stressed the importance of individualism and following one’s dreams. “I was lucky that my family supported [my desire] to be a filmmaker,” he said. “I couldn’t imagine getting up for 50 years to go to some job I hate. I’d rather shoot myself in the head.”

Reflecting the number of aspiring artists who attend Skidmore, the school’s Intramural Gym overflowed with students anxious to hear one of America’s most prominent filmmakers. Hundreds of students and community members unable to score tickets watched a simulcast in Garnett Auditorium.

Lee spoke extensively about racial stereotypes in popular culture. “[Music videos] are basically a modern form of minstrel shows, with images reverting to old stereotypes,” he said. “These days you don’t need blackface to be a coon.” Lee also criticized the cliché of the “super-duper Negro,” who has magical powers that can only be used to help white movie stars. “The Green Mile is the worst offender,” Lee said.

Steering clear of controversy, Lee discussed the need for cultural openness and acceptance. Though he was hired to deliver Skidmore’s Black History Month keynote address, the director extended his message to all races and genders. “For me,” observed Brian Dubenion, of Skidmore African-American club Ujima, “the theme of the lecture is being open-minded. People can take open-mindedness to be about anything, not just about black diversity.” Lee’s appearance was a big step for the Ujima, which aims to raise cultural awareness on the Skidmore campus; Ujima and the school’s speakers bureau copresented the event.

“The event was important for Black History Month because it could be enjoyed by the entire student population,” said freshman-class president Ben Kessler, who helped organize the event.

Although Lee’s appearance was the result of efforts to increase multicultural understanding at Skidmore, several students shared their impressions that Lee seemed less than enthusiastic about speaking there. (Kessler said that a dinner held in Lee’s honor was “cold, dry and awkward.”) After his lecture, the director rushed through students’ questions and comments, then quickly signed autographs in Case Center. When asked if he delivers the same speech at every college he attends—the director is currently on a speaking tour—Lee responded that he usually does, occasionally making changes “because it gets boring doing the same stuff every night.”

—Mike Greenhaus


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