Broadway, the Ultimate Temp Gig

Over dinner last night, a reporter I know, who covers real estate, was lamenting credulous reporting on his beat: articles that reflexively link individual homeowners' woes to the real estate crisis, when a closer look would disprove the assumption. This morning on WNYC, the closing of a Broadway show got similarly unexamined treatment.

The story, by political reporter Bob Hennelly, is about what Democrats have to do about the economy if they want to win this fall's elections in New York state. Broadway being big business, it's not surprising that its health is one of the vital signs to be checked. That's why Rudy Giuliani, after the Sept. 11 attacks, implored the world to come back to New York and see a show.

They're still coming. However star-driven Broadway has become, it's doing well, reporting a record-breaking gross of $1 billion at the box office in 2009.

So how is it that Hennelly uses yesterday's closing of "Ragtime" to illustrate his point that the issue facing Democrats in New York is "jobs, jobs, jobs"? Here's how he frames it:

"A fabulous show. Great reviews. Forty actors, 20 musicians, out of work because the bottom line is -- you know, downtown Wall Street, they may be doing fine, figuring out should it be six figures or eight figures or 12 figures in terms of bonuses -- bottom line is, pain is being felt all over, and unless Democrats in the White House and in the Senate and the House come up with some kind of jobs program for the arts, nonprofits and for the broader economy, there is gonna be some problems come November."

That may be perfectly astute political analysis, and there's certainly nothing wrong with pushing for jobs-creation programs targeting the arts and nonprofits. But the vaporization of jobs on Broadway simply comes with the territory -- even when a show is terrific -- and the people involved know the risks. Shuttering a show can't be assumed to be a reverberation of trouble in the broader economy. It's normal, just as it will be normal, and not a sign of boom times, when another show creates jobs by opening.

A political reporter can't necessarily be expected to understand the mechanics of commercial theater (that's what arts journalists are for), but WNYC is savvier than that. It's a little bit shocking that this slipped through the cracks.

January 11, 2010 10:58 AM | | Comments (1)


True enough, the Democrats in Albany can't do much to keep Ragtime running.

But still--there's nothing wrong in pointing out that actors are indeed "temps". Always "temps" in good times and bad, yes. But in the bad times it's even worse--less chance of another gig coming soon, and when it does it will probably pay less.

So I welcome the comments even if hyperbolic. Lots of folks assume that actors on Broadway are "celebrities" and have it made. Instead we should take this as a reminder to support their union and any other measures that help actors make something permanent out of a string of temp jobs.

(Like creating more permanent repertory companies, for instance?)


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