A View from a Broadway Producer

I have just heard Audra McDonald on the radio telling me yet again that Broadway producers are attempting to “reduce and eliminate live music on Broadway”—and I find myself “mad as hell, and I can’t take it anymore.”

On its face alone the concept is ludicrous; barely scratching its surface it becomes offensive and a lie. A lie to disguise an historic abuse within the Broadway industry. As every day the Broadway musical becomes more expensive to make and prohibitive to run, attention must be paid to such abuses or it is not live music that is at risk on Broadway, but the musical itself.

What is at issue is an arthritic provision in the Local 802 musicians contract (created decades ago in a time when theaters had house orchestras) that says that the number of musicians a show requires is pre-determined by the number of seats in the theater where the show performs. No matter what the musical, it is the capacity of its theater that determines the number of musicians that are employed and play its music. There are 16 guilds and unions governing employment on Broadway; none other has such a policy. But Ms McDonald and Local 802 declare that only with such a provision will live music be preserved on Broadway. What cant. What diversion of the facts.

Apply this policy to other employees on Broadway. The number of actors is pre-determined by the number of seats in a theater. The number of stagehands, the number of hairdressers. Imagine Arthur Miller being told by the actors union that he needs to add 10 more cast members to The Crucible because it is in the Broadhurst not the Booth. Preposterous to imagine it. But it is exactly what the issue of minimums is about.

Whether the musical is Broadway’s largest, 42nd Street, or Broadway’s smallest, Urinetown, according to Local 802 it is the theater capacity that will determine how many musicians play its music. Therefore, if Urinetown at the Henry Miller Theater—where its 5 musicians play this season’s Tony-winning best score—is moved exactly as it is to the Broadhurst, that very same show would now be required by Local 802 to employ 15 musicians; 10 more musicians to play the same award-winning music played by 5 moments before.

You don’t have to use them, but you do have to pay them. In this world, whether wielding a hammer or playing a trombone, when you employ someone not because you need or want them but because you are required to it is called featherbedding. And Local 802 is trying not to save live music but to save jobs, even when they are not necessary or desired by anyone—including the composer.

In 1973, I was a producer of a new version of Leonard Bernstein‘s Candide. An environmental take, Harold Prince directed, Patricia Birch choreographed, Hugh Wheeler revised the book, Stephen Sondheim wrote some new material and the preeminent orchestrator Hershy Kay together with Leonard Bernstein created a new orchestration to be played by small bundles of musicians conducted by John Mauceri and placed strategically about the theater and the action. Produced first at BAM and a hit there, we moved the production with its esteemed complement of 16 musicians to Broadway and installed it in the Broadway Theater. But the Local 802 provision for the Broadway Theater requires that you employ 26 musicians. So, despite the intentions of and request by Leonard Bernstein and Kay, Prince, Wheeler, their peers and the producers to utilize the 16 musicians Candide as conceived for, Local 802 required Candide to employ 26. 16 worked. The other 10 were paid in full and worked not at all. For two years.

20 years later, in 1993, I was a producer of a new theatricalization of Pete Townshend and The Who‘s classic rock and roll Tommy. After a most successful developmental production, where Townshend with director Des McAnuff and his team created the production concept which included the number and instrumentation of the band to serve it—an orchestration was created by the composer with orchestrator Stephen Margoshes that utilized 12 musicians. The production moved to Broadway’s St. James Theater. But the Local 802 provision for the St. James Theater requires that you employ 24 musicians so, despite the intentions and the request of the composer, the creative team and the producers, Tommy was required to employ 24 musicians—12 more than needed or desired. In trying to fulfill the requirement, some musicians doubled on instruments we already had, actors who play a note or two of something onstage were moved from the actor’s union contracts to Local 802 musician’s ones, and the balance were paid in full and did not work at all. Inefficient and wasteful solutions every one…

Local 802 will suggest that now, enlightened, there is a process where the creative team and producer may request a reduction in the minimums each theater still requires. A negotiation takes place. It’s called a negotiation. One side has no power but that of persuasion, while the other has no need to be persuaded as all of the power rests with it. So if fewer musicians are desired than the seating capacity dictates, a union dominated committee (not the composer or director) determines how many musicians (how many of its dues paying members) will play a composer’s work.

To the suggestion that producers are scheming to remove live music from Broadway: the suggestion is not only ridiculous but offensive. Being a producer on Broadway seems to invite the stigma of Rodney Dangerfield‘s “no respect” mantra. So be it. What Broadway producers do, how they do it and god knows why they do it is for another moment.

What Local 802 has declared however is that this amalgam of foolhardy, theater loving men and women who actually run this gauntlet with almost unfailingly negative financial results (80% of all musicals produced never make their money back) possess no aesthetic, no taste, no pride of ownership, no character, no love or respect for the work they choose to spend their life, time and money doing. The people who love musicals, which includes the producers who pay for them, love live orchestras. That is an essential part of this argument and cannot be owned by one side alone. What producers do not love is padding the payroll.

It is well known by all concerned that these same producers have been known to add more musicians to the Local 802 minimums than required. Our Guys and Dolls at the Martin Beck employed two more than the minimum. La Boheme now at the Broadway chose to employ more than the minimum there. Local 802 is using the smoke screen of character assassination to camouflage an untruth. Smoke or no smoke, the issue they portray is a lie. That’s bad enough.

But it is not just the producers that Local 802 is protecting you from. Producers don’t and can’t make these decisions about orchestra size alone. Local 802 is protecting you from the desires and the concepts of directors, composers, book writers, choreographers, musical directors—of an entire creative team whose judgment is disregarded out of hand when Local 802 minimums are applied; minimums pre-determined without regard for the show that finds itself bound by them, and guaranteed to build in wastefulness.

Finally, the issue of minimums is not new—a bastion against the development of “mechanically produced music”. Such equipment is currently in the argument not because Broadway musicals now want to use it indiscriminately, but because those who make musicals have decided enough is enough. If Local 802 actually chooses this specious issue to justify a work stoppage, then without pride or pleasure the respective shows will utilize an electronic means to hold on, and to try to enable every one else to continue to earn a living. Not to mention trying to prevent a wholesale shutdown of Broadway musical performances—a work stoppage that for some shows would mean stopping forever.

So, when you hear the next radio spot or read the next newspaper ad sponsored by Local 802, substitute the word “featherbedding” or “no show job” in place of the word “minimum”. That is what this is about. And everyone pays for it. The show and the audience—and eventually the entire healthy life of this singular New York treasure.

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Michael David is the president of Dodger Stage Holding, the producers of fifteen musicals on Broadway over the last ten years. They are currently represented on Broadway by 42nd Street and Urinetown. Michael David and The Dodgers are not members of the League of American Theaters and Producers, and are not actively involved in the present negotiations.