NEW YORK — TROUBLE over ``Miss Saigon,'' the hit London musical slated for Broadway next spring, has kept anxious New York theatergoers and theater professionals on the edge of their seats for several weeks. Like the play itself, the dispute is tragic and melodramatic, combining race, money, power, and pathos. It also clearly illustrates Broadway's importance to New York's financial stability, particularly where such blockbusters as ``Miss Saigon'' are concerned.
An orchestra ticket to a big-budget Broadway musical is worth far more than its $55 average ticket price and two hours of entertainment. Audiences, especially tourists, typically splurge on restaurants, transportation, hotels, parking, and shopping in the course of a Broadway visit. One singular sensation like ``Miss Saigon,'' the story of a United States soldier and his Vietnamese lover at the close of the Vietnam War, could easily pump as much as $100 million into New York's economy for every year it runs.
``Miss Saigon'' had already sold a record $25 million in advance tickets when the Actors' Equity union on Aug. 7 said white British actor Jonathan Pryce could not repeat his acclaimed Eurasian role on Broadway, and that the role should be played by an actor of Asian descent. Producer Cameron Mackintosh, in a surprise move, angrily canceled the New York run. Jobs for dozens of actors, musicians, and tradesmen promptly evaporated, along with promised revenue for local business and city coffers.
Many actors scorned the union's move and petitioned for a reversal. New York Mayor David Dinkins treated ``Miss Saigon'' as if it were a manufacturing, not a theater, company that was leaving New York. The mayor indicated that losing Broadway's most expensive show to date would add to the city's existing financial troubles.
``The theater industry is an integral part of the city's economy,'' Mr. Dinkins wrote Equity President Colleen Dewhurst.
``It means millions of dollars,'' adds Jaynne Keyes, director of the Mayor's Office of Film, Theater, and Broadcasting. ``It's important to the city. We're not exactly in the catbird seat budgetwise.''
Last week, an embattled and polarized union rescinded its decision. A triumphant Mackintosh, responsible for some of Broadway's most financially and critically successful musicals, including ``Cats,'' ``Les Miserables,'' and ``Phantom of the Opera, is expected to revive the Broadway production of ``Miss Saigon.''
George Wachtel, chief economist of the League of Broadway Theaters and Producers, notes that hits like ``Cats'' and ``Les Miserables'' have contributed to a Broadway renaissance. Ticket sales for the 1989-90 season that ended June 3 set a new box-office record of $283 million, up 8 percent from $262 million the previous season.
``It's the engine that drives the entire tourism industry here and also makes New York City a special place,'' Wachtel says of Broadway.
``Miss Saigon'' would only enhance Broadway's earnings. It is likely to sell roughly $30 million worth of tickets its first year, about 10 percent of Broadway's total gross last season. Audiences could spend another $30 million on goods and services related to the show. Wachtel's conservative estimate accounts for an additional $40 million circulating through the New York economy from salaries and taxes, turning ``Miss Saigon'' into a $100 million annual windfall for the city. The show might run at least five years and would likely spawn several road companies to benefit other cities.
Not incidentally, ripples would stretch the length of Broadway.
``One big hit show benefits the entire Broadway theater because people start thinking about theater again,'' says Craig Dorfman, a theatrical agent who helped petition Equity's ruling.
Musicals are money to producers' ears. Seven of every 10 Broadway theatergoers went to a musical last season, representing 75 percent of the gross. The Broadway and road companies of ``Cats'' have earned $85.2 million on sales of $460.4 million. ``A Chorus Line'' is the second-most profitable show ever with income of about $50 million, including the international company. Profits of ``Les Miserables'' reached $39.1 million against revenue of $273.6 million. ``Phantom'' has grossed $161.2 million and earned $14 million. ``Miss Saigon'' was already destined for such stardom. The recent publicity could rocket it even higher.