Actors and Musicians Shut Down 18 Broadway Musicals



“They say the neon lights are bright on Broadway.” But for how long?

As of midnight, Broadway’s 325 union musicians are officially on strike, meaning that for the first time since 1975, Broadway theaters will be deprived of live music. Failure to resolve a conflict between the musicians’ union, Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians, and the League of American Theatres and Producers over minimum numbers of players required for the theaters has been the main point of contention in contract negotiations. The Union is demanding that the current minimum rules, which require 24-26 musicians for the large Broadway theaters, be maintained in the new contract. The producers, who initially advocated doing away with minimums all together, have offered a minimum requirement of 7 players per large theater. As of 5:50 PM on Friday, March 7, 2003, Actor’s Equity decided to join forces in the walkout, effectively shitting down 18 Broadway musicals if no resolution is made before the 8 PM curtain tonight.

Unlike the 3-week walkout in 1975, which shut down most of the theaters, this time producers originally had intended to substitute computerized orchestras for the striking, which angered many Broadway actors. According to a notice from David Lotz, the director of communications at Equity, “Equity requested that the Producers not schedule rehearsals with the scab Virtual Pit Orchestras, which would replace live musicians in the event of a strike. The Union was rebuffed by threat of a legal injunction.” Actors for many shows began rehearsing with the virtual orchestras last week. Actors’ Equity Association announced that the association “endorses and supports Local 802’s strike and picketing, and directs its members to honor such picket line.”

While negotiations continued throughout the day, many hoped for a quick resolution. One union musician, however, said that union leaders stated before last Saturday’s vote that if the musicians chose to strike they should be prepared for a work stoppage that could last 3 to 6 months.

computer
The Broadway pit orchestra of the future?

Before the actors joined in the walkout with the musicians, it would have been up to the individual producers to decide whether or not refunds would have been issued to ticket holders for performances using the canned music. But the musicians’ biggest fear—that doing away with the minimum requirement will allow producers to replace live music with computers—would actually have come true as a direct result of this strike. And it is even more frightening to think that many audience members might not have even noticed the difference.

The technology that was to be used for the virtual orchestras is not simply a Mac hooked up to a sound system playing back a MIDI version of the score on Sibelius. Some shows will opt for Bianchi & Smith‘s Virtual Orchestra, a sophisticated and expensive network of computers that responds to a conductor’s cues during live performance. These systems can either complement live musicians or act as the sole sound-producing device, even for large theaters and opera houses. These Virtual Orchestras have previously been used in the national Broadway tours of Oklahoma!, Les Miserables, Annie, Miss Saigon, The Music Man, Phantom of the Opera, and Ragtime, among others, as well as in various opera and theater productions across the country. Others will use other forms of pre-recorded or computerized music.

While the impact of a strike certainly presents all parties involved (musicians, producers, actors, stagehands, audience members, etc.), what are the more far-reaching consequences of the issue at hand? For many New York-based musicians, Broadway salaries represent their only source of steady income and it is this that allows them to work on the less lucrative but more personal projects. A continuation of this strike or a refusal by the League to uphold minimums, thereby reducing the number of gigs available, could have devastating financial effects on the New York music community. On the other hand, such rigid rules about minimum numbers of players interfere with the artistic visions of the creators of musicals including producers, directors, playwrights and composers. In both cases, Broadway musicals are threatened with a severe financial crisis.