Sunday night, the 2018 Tony Awards celebrated the best and brightest of Broadway. The Band’s Visit came away with 10 Tony Awards, making it the big winner of the night.
With so many wins, could The Band’s Visit be the next ‘Broadway Blockbuster’ like Hamilton? Over the past decade, Broadway shows have increased exponentially in revenue and popularity, with ticket sales (and prices) through the roof. With so much money flowing through Broadway shows these days, we started wondering: what does the compensation landscape look like for aspiring musical theatre professionals?
When visualizing a Broadway professional, the song “Broadway Baby” comes to mind; the Follies character Hattie describes her life in NYC “slaving at a five-and-ten” and “eating at a greasy spoon” – saving pennies to support herself while she pursues her dream.
Not too far off: the current minimum salary for an Actor’s Equity Association (AEA) ensemble performer on Broadway is $14/hour, but this number can increase by a few extra dollars if the actor is an understudy or has a role that might involve physical risk.
With such a low minimum rate — and a high cost of living in New York City — most musical theatre actors understand that their chosen career path is not paved in gold. And even with ticket sales soaring, most musical theatre contracts are signed and locked in before rehearsals begin, containing clauses that lead to salary increases only in the event of Tony nominations and wins. And, naturally, it’s hard to know if a show will be successful or not. Take “Anyone Can Whistle,” for example: a Sondheim show that was slated for success but ran for only nine performances on Broadway before it was forced to close due to unforeseen unpopularity.
But for shows like Hamilton that are raking in billions of dollars in revenue each year, aren’t these binding financial contracts unfair to the actors? Shouldn’t the performers get a cut of the profits? Let’s take a closer look at Hamilton, one of the first successful compensation negotiations in the Broadway circuit:
Hamilton: A Successful Salary Negotiation
Who hasn’t heard of Hamilton? Grossing about 1.45 billion, this Tony, Grammy, and Pulitzer award-winning hip-hop musical recounts the life of founding father Alexander Hamilton. Known as one of the most hyped Broadway shows of all time, the average price of a ticket for Hamilton can be anywhere between $400 and $1,200 – even rising to $15,000/ticket in certain instances. So, with this amount of revenue flowing in, who reaps the benefits?
The vast majority of profits from Hamilton are going to the producers and investors who put up the $12.5 million to finance the show. The lead producer Jeffrey Seller splits 42% of the net profits of the show with its other producers, Jill Furman and Sander Jacobs.
Leading man Lin-Manuel Miranda is an interesting case – earning over $6 million each year, primarily as a result of his producer and writer status. However, other actors in this show were not as lucky as Miranda – locked into their original compensation contracts.
In 2015, in order to fight this inequity, around 30 members of the Hamilton cast banded together to demand a cut of the profits. The actors argued, given their contributions to the show, that it was unfair to exclude them from sharing in Hamilton’s great success. Producer Seller offered the group lump-sum checks ranging from $29,000 to $36,000 and totaling almost $800,000 as a compromise, but the performers stood their ground and refused the checks.
After eight months with a lawyer, these 30 Hamilton performers and around 8 Broadway stage managers finally won an agreement of 1% of net profits and 0.33% of net profits from all other U.S. Hamilton productions. Not since A Chorus Line in 1975 has Broadway seen such a victory with regard to compensation.
It remains to be seen if The Band’s Visit will decide to re-examine its actors’ compensation contracts given Sunday night’s success and visibility. Regardless, the Hamilton agreement has publicized the absence of profit-sharing in the industry and sparked a growing debate about performer compensation.
“We are more like the men (and women dammit!) in our show than I personally have ever allowed myself to explore, especially in the messiest moments of last night,” said Sasha Hutchings, a Hamilton understudy. “They forged a way where there was no precedent, just as we are striving to do now. It’s messy, and scary, but possible.”
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