The Yellow Brick Road to Hell

A musician accepts a non-union tour of "The Wizard of Oz" and learns what exploitation is really like

Volume 113, No. 1January, 2013

Mark Mulé
Road to Hell by Justin Thornton

Photo: Justin Thornton

The yellow brick road to hell started last year when I was forced
through my financial circumstances to play drums and percussion on a non-union
tour of “The Wizard of Oz.” The tour gave me an old-fashioned
schooling on what union membership is truly about. It turns out that wages and
benefits are just the tip of the iceberg of what the union does for us.

First things first – the money. The pay for this non-union tour
was about a third of what I had always made on the union touring contract
(called “Pamphlet B,” for those in the know.) Also, on a non-union
tour, there’s no overtime pay. And no rehearsal pay. It’s just a straight,
flat salary.

Let me put this into perspective. On tech rehearsal days, we had to
play “10 out of 12,” meaning 10 hours of playing with two hours to
forage for grub.

But it wasn’t just about the hours. It was about the days. There
was a period on this tour when we played 13 towns in 14 days while traveling
thousands of miles.

The last five weeks of the tour consisted of a string of
consecutive 4 a.m. bus calls, 10 to 14 hour bus rides straight to the venue
(often a freezing hockey stadium), followed by five hours’ rest in a hotel

The grueling, no-sleep schedule included our bus driver, by the
way. I spoke to him about this after he nearly went head-on into a highway
divider at more than 60 miles per hour one morning. “Aren’t you entitled
to more down time?” I asked. His answer was that not only was he entitled
to it, but required by federal law to have more rest. The producer’s
insane schedule was literally putting his employees’ lives at risk.

During this farce of a tour, I was living under a so-called
contract that basically said I had no rights.

Now, most of you know that union contracts are rock-solid. If a
producer violates a union contract, the union will back you up 100 percent.

A non-union contract is a totally different animal. It’s more
like indentured servitude. Here is some actual language from my

MUSICIAN agrees that Employer shall be entitled to MUSICIAN’s
services exclusively hereunder for the entire Period, excluding breaks, and
MUSICIAN shall not render performing services for any party other than the
Employer during such period without Employer’s prior written consent.
Execution of this contract hereby commits MUSICIAN to the entire time period
outlined in Paragraph 1 above.

 It’s the last sentence that got me. The tour was scheduled for
five-and-a-half months. This sort of bondage was what one might find on a
contract between a ship’s captain and a destitute passenger desperate to book
passage to the New World in 1697.

Then there was this:

 It is agreed that the attached MUSICIAN Handbook will be an
integral part of this contract.

 Huh? What “handbook?” Nobody said anything about a
“handbook.” What’s in this “handbook”? What if there’s a
“musician must clean the bus latrine every Wednesday” clause in the
“handbook?” It turns out there actually was no handbook – or at
least, I never saw one.

The whole contract went on like this. Instead of signing it as is,
I took matters into my own hands and pencilled in some revisions. No one cared
and it made no difference anyway.

All of this was perverse, but the really insane part was that the
tour was a nearly endless stream of one-nighters with no scheduled day off.
O.K., I’m lying. There was exactly one scheduled day off, that being

Compare that with the standard union tour agreement, which requires
that musicians be given two “golden days” off (no travel, no show) and
two additional days off (no show, travel allowed), per month.

“These non-union guys are literally going to put me on a bus
for five-and-a-half months straight,” I thought to myself. And they
did. Five-and-a-half months and 29,531 miles with no scheduled day off except
Christmas. And had there been a theatre (or hockey stadium) available on
Christmas, you can bet that day off would have been snatched away like candy
from a baby.

Luckily, we did scrimp a few unplanned days off from time to time.
One time we couldn’t get to the venue because of iced over and closed Canadian
mountain roads. (The crew was marooned on the side of the road for many hours
and the decision was made for us not to attempt the trip.) We also manufactured
several days off by altering the travel schedule. Sometimes we elected to pack
up and travel the same night after performing one or two shows, just so we could
create a day off the next day.

Now let’s talk about respect. I overheard some producers refer to
the performers as “the dogs.” No kidding. But the actual dogs on this
show (the ones who played Dorothy’s dog Toto) actually had better contracts
than the humans. Those dogs travelled by airplane whenever the distance was more
than a few hundred miles between venues. And I would bet that they made more
money too.

But perhaps the greatest evil and the most egregious crime
perpetrated against the actors, musicians, and most importantly, the audience,
was the use of the virtual orchestra machine.

Non-union producers of musical theatre are absolutely in love with
this mechanical monstrosity.

Our orchestra consisted of one keyboard (that came with an optional
conductor), one drummer/percussionist (nearly optional), one trumpet player (totally
optional and only present because he was married to an excellent stage manager
who absolutely would not go on this tour without her husband – bless her)
and a “tapper.”

As some of you may know, the virtual orchestra machine is operated
by tapping a single key on a miniature keyboard which triggers a computer
simulated “orchestra.”

Thus the title of “tapper” is given to the operator of
this crime against humanity masquerading as “musical accompaniment”
for a so-called “Broadway tour.”

The thing sounded like crap, broke down several times per week
(even nightly for a while), and sounded like crap (yes, I realize I wrote that

Forcing a musician to play with a virtual orchestra machine is
perhaps the most grievous form of torture one can imagine. No matter how good
technology gets, nothing can replace the real thing. Playing with that thing
crushed my soul. It made me fall out of love with music for the tour.

All of this did not go entirely unnoticed by perhaps the biggest
loser when it comes to a non-union tour: the audience.

Our audiences paid top dollar to see what was advertised as a
Broadway show (it was nothing of the sort). But they were not fooled. In
Hartford, an audience member looked down into the pit and saw our entire
ensemble, which consisted of the virtual orchestra monstrosity, two trumpets, a
flugelhorn, and my drums. That was all of us: four live musicians and a
computer. And he exclaimed, somewhere between sarcasm and anger, “Wow, the
‘orchestra’ sounded perfect!”

There was more. The main backdrop used in the show had gigantic,
visible tears in it that were never fixed. And there were some of the rattiest
costumes I’ve ever seen. One critic observed that Glinda’s dress looked like
it had been balled up and thrown in a closet for years.

In short, the production values of this tour were the lowest of any
show I have ever been a part of.

Yet the ticket prices were as high as those for a first-run
Broadway tour, in some cases as much as $120. I calculated the ticket sales for
an average week of the tour, and the number I came up with was $850,000. And
that was just an average week. A sold-out weekend in St. Louis at the Fox
Theater, for example, could have had our producers taking in as much as $1.4
million according to my calculations.

How much profit were our producers really making? I asked our
company manager about that. He told me that the weekly overhead (or
“nut”) for the show was under $100,000. So we’re talking profits
that could approach $1 million in a good week.

This tour was not about good business. It was about business
conducted unethically in order to make a killing. It was about greed, pure and

Producers will tell you that there’s a new business model for
touring musical theatre productions. They will tell you that they simply can’t
afford the over-the-top “lavish” demands of the unions (like a per
diem high enough to pay for a couple of decent meals per week instead of the
endless fast food norm). I don’t believe them. Nor should you. Nor should

I believe you should get what you pay for. Always. I believe in
ethical business practices. There is plenty of money to be made in an ethical
manner. A producer does not have to pay sweatshop wages and maintain
sub-standard production values to make money. There simply is no need or place
for the obscene greed that has become so pervasive in this industry and business
in general.

That is what a union is all about: maintaining high standards.
Sure, a union negotiates the best possible compensation package for its members.
That is certainly an important reason for the existence of unions. But a union
agreement also helps ensure that the product is the best that it can be. It
helps assure a consumer that the product they consume is created by people who
give their heart and soul to their life’s work.

Too often, employers and right-wing talking heads bombard us with
anti-union sentiment based on the false assumption that unions and their members
are greedy, lazy and overpaid. I think when those folks make those accusations,
they should take a good look in the mirror.

It’s all about ethics. A lack of ethics creates a lack of
excellence. And in my business I see an alarming number of ethically challenged
employers excusing their ethically challenged behavior in order to squeeze more
profit from less product. In my opinion, this is the definition of greed.

Mark Mulé first joined Local 802 in 1992. A drummer and
percussionist, he has played for musical theatre his whole life. His e-book,
“WOZ A View From the Pit,” is available from

This article was published in the January 2013 issue of Allegro, the magazine of the New York City musicians’ union (AFM Local 802). For more background, see