As the Nederlander organization prepares to light up Reefer Madness, its first foray into Off-Broadway territory, New York's musicians' union is crying foul. Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians (AFM), representing 11,000 New York-area musicians, is organizing a boycott of the tongue-in-cheek L.A. import that is set to open at the Variety Arts Theatre on Sunday, October 7.
The union charges that the producers--the Broadway powerhouse Nederlanders, plus Verna Harrah of Middle Fork Productions--haven't given gotham's unionized musicians a fair shake. Mary Donovan, senior theater representative at 802, alleges that the producers went out of their way to sign up non-union personnel, thereby avoiding the necessity of signing a contract with AFM.
"It's true, there is no industry-wide contract with musicians for Off-Broadway productions," concedes Donovan. However, she explains, "close to 100%" of Off-Broadway shows negotiate a contract with the union--since, almost invariably, the shows employ at least some union musicians--and hammer out the details on a show-by-show basis. "Our expectation is that we have set an area standard," Donovan says, "and there is an expectation that we will have a union contract. Union musicians usually get these jobs because of the skill involved."
Not this time. According to Donovan, Reefer's producers told her flatly, before auditions for the band even began, that it would be a "non-union" show. Reefer's general manager, Mark Johnson, wouldn't answer questions for this story. But in an e-mail sent via a press representative, the show's producers responded to Donovan's complaint as follows: "Reefer Madness held auditions for musicians recommended by a local educational music department and a music contractor. Reefer Madness had no idea whether the musicians it chose to employ were or were not union members."
Donovan isn't buying that explanation. When she contacted the show in early August, she claims, "I said, 'How are you going to do a non-union show? How do you exclusively hire musicians who are not union members?' You'd have to discriminate against them. That's the main focus of our problem: They did hire and they did discriminate. We know many [union] musicians that are highly qualified, that did try to get the job and did not get the job, though they normally would have expected to get the job." In other words, what 802 is suggesting--as it plans to picket performances and pursues an Unfair Labor Practices charge with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB)--is that Reefer has broken the law. Under U.S. labor regulations, it's verboten to discriminate against a potential employee on the basis of union membership.
What happens next is in the hands of the NLRB and the show's potential audience, but the Nederlanders and Reefer Madness are undeterred. The producers' e-mail concludes simply that "The union's claims of discrimination are spurious."