Veteran stage performer and playwright Joel Vig belongs to Actors’ Equity Association (AEA), the labor union for American actors and stage managers in the theater. In 2010, I wrote a story for Backstage, the theatrical trade paper, on a lawsuit between Vig and the producers of the Broadway musical Hairspray, who hired him to play various roles in the original cast. Vig’s dispute was serious and complicated, and the suit went on for several years, climbing very high up the judicial ladder.
In June, Vig contacted the Clyde Fitch Report to remark upon the first anniversary of the tragic suicide of Jeff Loeffelholz, a beloved actor in the Broadway show Chicago. As The New York Times reported in an article last July, headlined “A Rough Rehearsal, a Suicide, and a Broadway Show in Turmoil,” Loeffelholz was a standby for the role of Mary Sunshine, a newspaper columnist always played by a man in drag. As a member of the original cast (Chicago opened in 1996), he protected by a run-of-production AEA contract, and so it was “unusual” that he received a request to rehearse with Walter Bobbie, Chicago‘s director. Loeffelholz, the article said, had often gone on as Mary Sunshine during the early years of Chicago‘s run, less so in recent years.
As a standby, however, the commitment of Loeffelholz to Chicago didn’t seem in dispute:
Mr. Loeffelholz’s responsibilities involved calling in eight times a week to see if he was needed, and, if not, staying near the theater while the show was running…
Mr. Loeffelholz’s domestic partner, Peter De La Cruz, said the couple chose their apartment to be near the Ambassador Theater, where Chicago is performed, so he could dash over when needed, and when they would eat out, they would choose a restaurant in the neighborhood. ‘He loved it,’ Mr. De La Cruz said. ‘Sometimes he would go on midway through the show. You have to have nerves of steel, and he did.’
Loeffelholz, it was reported, had “no real relationship” with Bobbie”; text messages and other contemporaneous notes made by the actor characterized the rehearsal as “brutal.” According to the narrative, Bobbie, aided and abetted by Chicago‘s then-musical director, Leslie Stifelman, allegedly launched a fusillade of boorish and bullying comments, from a reference to the actor’s pay being larger than his, to telling Loeffelholz that he was “too draggy” in his performance, to communicating his personal opposition to run-of-production contracts before storming from the rehearsal room. It was also reported that Bobbie told Loeffelholz to “respect the production” — code, some conjecture, for giving up his contract.
Six days later, on June 29, 2018, Loeffelholz took his own life.
What really happened in that rehearsal? Who was in the room and what did they see and hear? What was Bobbie aiming to achieve — and why? Had the ability of Loeffelholz to sing and perform Mary Sunshine deteriorated — enough, or at all, and did it justify a “brutal” rehearsal? Were any other factors at play? And when is a “brutal” rehearsal ever justified? The Times noted, further, that the run-of-production contract held by Loeffelholz might be viewed as costly by Chicago producers Fran and Barry Weissler. (The show’s spokesperson, Adrian Bryan-Brown, explicitly dismissed the insinuation.) If there were genuine concerns regarding Loeffelholz and his voice — the role of Mary Sunshine requires a male soprano — then, of course, it would be tough, though not impossible, for the producers to build a case for dismissal.
An investigation into Loeffelholz’s death was authorized by Mary McColl, Equity’s executive director, and conducted by attorney J. Bruce Maffeo. It appears to have ended earlier this year. Things began, as the Times reported, under controversy:
Initially the producers, Barry and Fran Weissler, named as their investigator a lawyer, Judd Burstein, who had represented them, leading some performers to believe he would not be objective. Many performers refused to meet with him, and another lawyer, Bruce Maffeo, appointed by Equity to conduct a separate investigation, discouraged such meetings. When Mr. Burstein publicly objected, and said Equity was in ‘circle the wagons mode’ because of its own handling of Mr. Loeffelholz’s concerns, the Weisslers decided to reconsider how to proceed.
In a statement to Playbill on July 17, 2018, McColl indicated her approach to sharing the results of the investigation:
Our thoughts are with Jeffrey’s family and the entire cast of Chicago. Equity is monitoring the situation, and we have retained outside legal counsel to help engage with the cast and examine the facts as quickly as possible. The relevant stakeholders will be updated on the outcome when that inquiry is complete.
And if, as the Times wrote, “It is rarely possible to know exactly why someone takes his own life, and suicide generally has multiple causes,” then Vig seems to want to make a moral argument, if not a legal one, that goes something like this:
When professional theater colleagues conduct themselves so as to contribute, or to be seen as contributing, to the tragic suicide of an actor, then Equity members have a right to know who those colleagues are, and what they are or are not alleged to have done.
Indeed, as Chicago violinist Marshall Coid told the Times: “We want the whole truth… We seek change in his name as a fitting legacy for a wonderful and much-beloved man.”
In terms of legal standing, meanwhile, Vig more than likely has none: he lacks any direct tie to Loeffelholz or to Chicago. Any suit he might theoretically attempt to bring against his union would require a court to reach at least two findings: one, that any union member, by dint of merely paying dues, has standing in any matter regarding the union; and two, that McColl’s phrase “relevant stakeholders” must be interpreted unusually broadly.
On Apr. 5, 2019, Vig called Brandon Lorenz, Equity’s national communications director. Below, provided by Vig to the CFR, is an email reply he received from Lorenz:
From: Lorenz, Brandon <xxxxxxxx@xxxxxxxx>
To: Joel Vig <xxxxxxx@xxxxxxxx>
Sent: Friday, April 5, 2019, 12:52:11 PM PDT
Subject: RE: Your Voicemail
I am writing to let you know I received your voicemail regarding the Broadway show Chicago.
As I’m sure you can imagine, information that members may share with us whenever there is a problem in their workplace would be treated as confidential.
I have nothing further for you, though you are of course welcome to inquire with the producer.
On June 29, 2019 — the anniversary of the death of Loeffelholz — Vig sent an email to Lorenz, excerpted below:
…What are the results of the “thorough investigation” paid for with AEA dues? Why is this information not available to the hard working AEA members who paid for this “thorough investigation?” Was Mr. Mafeo [sic] the only lawyer involved in this “thorough investigation?” … Why was Mr. Mafeo hired when AEA has lawyers already on salary for the organization? Did the producers of Broadway’s “CHICAGO” testify under oath? Did the director of Broadway’s “CHICAGO” testify under oath? Did the musical director who was eventually let go testify under oath?…
…This is a matter of life and death. I would appreciate hearing from you. You might remember that your salary is paid by me and other hard working AEA members.
Lorenz then replied:
From: Lorenz, Brandon <xxxxxxxx@xxxxxxxx>
To: Joel Vig <xxxxxxx@xxxxxxxx>
Sent: Monday, July 8, 2019, 3:58:53 PM EDT
Subject: FW: the death of an actor
As I indicated to you previously on 4/5, and as I’m sure you can imagine, information that members may share with us whenever there is an investigation because there is a problem in their workplace would be treated as confidential.
When asked to comment, Lorenz provided CFR with the following statement:
As part of this investigation, the attorney involved took all the relevant information into account after speaking with more than 30 people in confidence who had direct knowledge of the events that occurred and many others, such as Joel, who had no direct knowledge. This workplace has been made safer as a result of this work and we have remained in regular contact with the Equity company and relevant stakeholders.
When CFR asked whether AEA had, as promised by McColl, updated “relevant stakeholders” on the findings of the investigation, including where and at which time such an update was provided, Lorenz referred once more to the statement above.
He did add, however, that AEA has created a new tool for members to report harassment or bullying in the workplace — an anonymous hotline (833-550-0030) and an online link. He also provided text on Equity’s website from the union’s May 22, 2019 press release:
This hotline was recommended by the President’s Committee to Prevent Harassment. The Committee was formed last year to recommend forward-looking strategies to prevent sexual harassment and bullying in the theatre.
Actors’ Equity increased efforts to prevent harassment and bullying starting in 2016, when Equity partnered with The Actors Fund to develop a program to help Equity staff respond to members who had questions or complaints about harassment.
Since then, Equity has requested that all Equity employers provide a copy of their own harassment policies to the union, as well as make those policies available to Equity members at the first rehearsal and throughout their employment under an Equity contract. Equity now has hundreds of policies on file as a resource for members, and staff are following up with employers who have not yet sent a policy. In addition, Equity has provided additional staff training throughout the association and adopted a Code of Conduct – for elected officials and rank-and-file members – that is read aloud at activities, events and meetings.
Through Vig, CFR interviewed Mark A. Newman, a Washington, DC-based magazine editor who was a close friend of Loeffelholz, as well as Peter De La Cruz, the actor’s partner for more than 30 years. Newman believes AEA’s approach to his friend’s death falls short. He created the blog referenced by Vig — Justice for Jeff — because he wanted “something done” in memory of his friend.
“Jeff goes to this rehearsal with Walter Bobbie — his first rehearsal with Walter in the 20 years he’d been in Chicago, and according to Jeff and other people in the rehearsal, Walter was coming after him,” Newman said. “Walter told Jeff, ‘You’re making more money off this show than I am.’ Why was that the director’s business? Why was he pursuing this line of conversation unless he was directed to by somebody else?” (The Times reported some of Bobbie’s statement slightly differently.)
Newman added: “I feel if the investigation is thorough, somebody looks bad in it. Equity doesn’t want to tell who looks bad in it because the union itself has something to lose. Who that is? I don’t know. I feel they’re protecting somebody who has deeper pockets than the widowed lover of a dead actor. If there’s nothing to hide, then what are the results of the investigation?” He stated that he was unaware whether McColl kept her promise to share the results of the investigation with “relevant stakeholders” and questions whether even this is too limiting, given the circumstances.
In his interview with CFR, De La Cruz revealed that he was debriefed by McColl personally. “I had to reach out to them — I don’t think they would have reached out directly to me,” he said. “Once I did, I set up a meeting and Mary was actually quite nice. She started by saying what a wonderful person Jeff was. And how they’ve communicated across the board with all unions. And that many people have come with information on the practices at Chicago.”
And the conclusions of the investigation?
“She didn’t share so much,” De La Cruz said. “But she said they were holding the producers accountable in the future — and keeping Chicago closely watched. And that Equity will be fining theaters in general for any violations.”
He added: “It was Walter Bobbie who really did the most damage. I remember Jeff getting the call [for rehearsal] the night before. He was stressed; he was worried. Maybe they just wanted to check his voice — he had this amazing male soprano and sung [Mary Sunshine] in the original key without fail. They made him sing over and over again. Walter said he didn’t agree with run-of-the-play contracts and that Jeff is making more money than he is, which is a stupid thing to say.
“I can only imagine Jeff’s mind was racing. Walter stormed off, saying ‘We wasted enough time,’ yet Jeff still went over to shake his hand — he was the ultimate professional. Jeff told me like he felt he needed to leave. He knew they couldn’t break him of his contract unless they started paperwork, and he was depressed the whole weekend, and he went to Equity that Monday. I felt, that night talking to him, he’s already a marked man, a scarlet letter put upon him.”
When asked whether Bobbie has privately reached to him, De La Cruz said that he had not. When asked whether he’d be receptive to communication from Bobbie, he briefly fell silent and said “I do not know if I could be in a room with that man.” (Chicago spokesperson Adrian Bryan-Brown confirmed to the CFR that neither Bobbie nor the Weisslers have a comment. Bobbie declined to comment for the Times story as well.)
Excerpted below is one more email that Vig sent to Lorenz:
“I am not asking for any AEA members who spoke in confidence to be revealed. I am asking to look at the full report from the investigation that was paid for with dues money from me and every other hard working AEA member. AEA members who were promised confidentiality can be simply labeled “individual 1” and “individual 2” and so forth…
“Jeff is dead and cannot speak for himself. It is up to the living to cry out for justice — and [Equity] should be helping this to happen.”