Like most folks who toil in the arts, musical performers should get used to the peaks and valleys (mostly valleys) of salary, and everything in between. That is, if they get paid at all.
Being able to scrape together the rent (or a mortgage, if you're that lucky) hinges on how much and where you're working. If you are one of those lucky enough to be in a union—Actors Equity, Screen Actors Guild (SAG)—you'll get paid. As for how much and for how long you'll be in the salaried class—you'll need to consult a crystal ball for that one. Yes, the contract said you'd get $800 a week for playing the lion in the The Lion King in Peoria, but hey, that musical closed after the first night.
Stay positive, stay upbeat as you stretch that $800 you got on your one day on that show. Don't think of Broadway stars who make maxi-dollars. Nathan Lane and co-star Matthew Broderick reportedly pulled down $100k a week for their star turns in the musical The Producers way back in the day.
Good for them.
If you have your Actors Equity union card, you are supposed to get a weekly minimum of anywhere from $200 a week to close to $2,000. Once again, it depends on what you are doing and where you are doing it. Is it rehearsal? How many seats in the theater? Is it on Broadway? Is it in the boonies?
What a strange place to scalp tickets.
Non-Equity folks? Well, so many performers, so few paying gigs.
And you're getting steady work, right? Oh, not so fast. Regular gigs are as rare as a snowball in Hades. If one does pop up, remember your competition—gadzillions of your artistic comrades trying to be the next Hugh Jackman or Liza Minnelli or, or.... There could be months when your day job swallows up your life. "You want fries with that?" may be the only line you get to practice over and over again.
Hear it from one actor who spent four long years as an understudy in Hairspray on Broadway in 2004. He kept an earnings tally: net weekly pay, around $800. Rent: $1,250/month. Throw in utilities, insurance, voice lessons, and other sundries, and he was left a couple of hundred a week in pocket money. In New York City.
His conclusion: He made more money in 13 days of camera work than he did for his entire year of hoofing it on the Broadway musical theater stage.
Actors Equity Union, which represents most professional stage actors, has bean counters and statisticians who have the facts and figures on its members' employment. And it's not a pretty picture. Most (like three-quarters) earn from $1 to $20k a year. Fewer than 1,000 earn more than $80k. Scary.