Who’s on Broadway?

There’s more than one way to toss around the name of New York’s glamorous theater district.

Indiana-bred actress Hanneleis Hepler, for example, has never played on Broadway. But she recently landed the plum role of Golde in a touring production of Fiddler on the Roof — a show that happens to boast the “Broadway” designation on its marquee.

A new, not-exactly-local theater company (more on that later), Broadway in Asheville brought Fosse to Thomas Wolfe Auditorium last month, and will present Fiddler there on Wednesday, Dec. 8.

After graduating college in Indianapolis, Hepler moved to New York, determined to make it on the stage, and kept a keen eye out for the much-coveted big break.

In a recent interview, she confessed that “it’s not easy [in New York],” but allowed that she has found some “good opportunities.”

Several months ago, for instance, she saw an ad for an audition. “Someone suggested it to me,” she remembers. “There were 500 people at the first call.” Out of that throng of hopefuls, Hepler earned the lead female role in the touring Fiddler.

And so, night after night, Hepler and the rest of the cast take the stage to perform this play made famous — where else? — on Broadway.

And it’s a heartwarming story. A Russian family learns lessons about love, as each of five daughters finds spouses, though not always of their parents’ choosing. It’s one of those somehow always-relevant tales, and its songs — especially the opening number “Tradition” — are classic.

So, in essence, Hepler’s finally made it big, right?

Well, not exactly.

What’s in a name

Broadway in Asheville is a subsidiary of the Nederlander Organization, a Detroit-based theater operator (in that they own theaters, not that they themselves put on costumes and learn scripts) that’s branched out into promotions. Nederlander sets up camp in smaller locales, such as Knoxville, Tenn. — from where they’re currently managing Asheville shows, as well — and books stops for touring groups like Troika Productions, now on the road with Fiddler.

Troika, located in the D.C. area, boasts on its Web site that it prides itself on “thinking outside the [Big] Apple.” Meaning just because they’re not New York-based doesn’t mean they can’t put on a good show. (The anti-Apple thing doesn’t extend to the company’s repertoire, though: One of Troika’s big shows is West Side Story. Hard to get more New York than that.)

“Broadway lends credibility,” explains Flat Rock Playhouse Marketing Director Dale Bartlett. (A professional company based in Henderson County, FRP is the state theater of North Carolina.)

“People know that if it ran on Broadway, it must be good.”

He adds that the term Broadway “insinuates that [the show] will be a musical production (though Broadway shows are non-musical, too), and will have popularity and name recognition.”

But, as Charlie McIver, co-founder and artistic director of another local, professional-theater group — North Carolina Stage Company — alleges: “The big problem is that [the touring Fiddler] is not Broadway.”

Name dropping

Everyone’s heard of Off-Broadway, which, as its name suggests, accounts for productions happening outside of New York’s Broadway theater district. And though often more experimental and bare-bones than luxurious Broadway venues, Off-Broadway outlets have produced numerous shows — Hair, A Chorus Line and Little Shop of Horrors among them — that eventually graduated to the Great White Way.

Then there are official Broadway tours, when the cast of a Broadway show goes on the road, effectively bringing New York theater to Anytown (or, at least, Any Big City) USA.

And, finally, there are unofficial tours, which means a company like Troika casts a show that at one time was on Broadway, but hits the road staffed by choreographers, actors and crew who aren’t necessarily members of the Actors Equity Union. (The AEU negotiates wages, hours and contracts for its 45,000 members working in the theater business. Equity members are guaranteed health care and livable rates of pay. In the Asheville area, N.C. Stage and Flat Rock Playhouse are union theaters, offering their actors weekly salaries and benefits.)

Putting on a union tour, however, is expensive — and so some companies eschew Equity regulations in favor of using a less-experienced, non-union staff.

These companies, McIver allows, “have a legitimate beef with the union in terms of how much it costs to create a Broadway tour.”

But money issues aside, there’s the product to consider. “One problem with a non-union tour, as far as a patron would be concerned, is that in a character-driven show [like The Full Monty] you’re likely to have an actor younger than 30 playing the role of an over-50 character,” McIver explains.

In Fiddler, the starring role of Tevye is performed by John Preece, a seasoned actor who, according to Hepler, has played the part “thousands of times.” In the role of Golde, however, newcomer Hepler is a young woman portraying the mother of five grown daughters.

What you pay for

Asheville Lyric Opera Artistic Director David Craig Starkey — himself a union member who’s worked on Broadway shows in such big cities as Boston and Philadelphia — says that the players in touring troupes such as Troika’s “are not the same level of actors that are [actually] on Broadway.”

When Starkey stages his own “Live From Broadway” fund-raisers, he calls on talented friends fresh from Broadway stages.

“They’re the best,” he boasts about this breed of professional. “They’re the highest level of actor or singer.”

And because those performers do come armed with impressive resumes, they cost more to cast. So, to save money, some touring shows travel with less-experienced talent.

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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