Producers for the Broadway revival of “Chicago” are looking into claims of harassment after a cast member committed suicide last month, Broadway News is reporting. Jeff Loeffelholz, who has been with the revival since its return in 1996, took his own life on June 29. The suicide came seven days after a reportedly ‘brutal’ rehearsal where Loeffelholz felt singled out and embarrassed by the creative team, which was run by music director Leslie Stifelman, and Walter Bobbie, the original “Chicago” director.
According to Loeffelholz’s close friend Mark Newman, who also created the site Justice For Jeffery to bring attention to the matter, the last of the original revival cast members vented to Newman on June 22 and later in the week that he felt he was being bullied into quitting. Loeffelholz had a “run of the play” contract which meant he could remain with the production until its end unless there was cause to fire him. In order to terminate Loeffelholz’s contract without just cause, the production would have to pay the principal actor who served as a standby for the role of Mary Sunshine, one week’s pay for every five weeks of employment with a cap at 15 weeks.
Text message exchanges between Loeffelholz and Newman suggest that the performer felt the ‘brutal’ rehearsal where he was berated while singing Mary Sunshine’s signature song “A Little Bit of Good” six times, was the beginning of the creative team building a ‘just cause’ case for firing him.
Based on Loeffelholz’s rehearsal notes from June 22, Bobbie told him “he should quit ‘overperforming it and being draggy’ (i.e., like a drag queen), because ‘it is not a drag role. You need to be believable.'” Bobbie then reportedly left the theater, leaving Stifelman in charge. After continuing the ‘grueling’ rehearsal, Loeffelholz’s notes state that Stifelman told the performer “You always do it wrong.”
Loeffelholz’s notes go on to add that Bobbie told him, “But twenty-two years… I don’t agree with Equity and their ROP (run-of-the-play) contracts, but you make more money than I do with this production. It’s been twenty-two years … just saying.”
A Broadway News source in the Ambassador Theatre, where the show is held, who heard part of the rehearsal “confirmed that Loeffelholz was made to sing the same song repeatedly and that members of the creative team were speaking and yelling at Loeffelholz in an assertive manner.”
“The entire ‘Chicago’ family is devastated by the loss of our company member. We are working with Actors Equity to investigate the circumstances around this tragedy,” the producers of “Chicago,” Barry and Fran Weissler and Alecia Parker, said in a statement.
The Actors’ Equity Association, commonly referred to as Actors’ Equity or simply Equity, is an American labor union representing the world of live theatrical performance.
Brandon Lorenz, a spokesperson for Equity, said to Broadway News “Our thoughts are with the cast and all those affected by this tragic situation. Equity has and will continue to engage with the cast and monitor the situation, but due to a pending investigation by the employer, it would not be appropriate to comment further at this time.”
Following his suicide, Loeffelholz’s family sent a letter to the show’s producers stating their “intention is to end the institutional intimidation, harassment and bullying at the Ambassador Theater by the immediate removal of Leslie Stifelman and discontinuing Walter Bobbie’s access to the theater and cast.”
Other stage actors have come forward since Loeffelholz’s death to share their stories of harassment and bullying, posting images of Actors’ Equity rules on intimidation which state that producers cannot intimidate, harass, or humiliate actors. The social media charge was led by Robert DuSold, who previously served as a standby for the role of Mary Sunshine on the national tour of “Chicago.” DuSold wrote in a lengthy Facebook post “I’m gonna share a couple of my harassment and humiliation stories in hopes that his death won’t be in vain and hopefully lead to a better working environment. This is the tip of the iceberg by the way.”