A Broadway showstopper: musicians' strike

Protesting smaller orchestra sizes and the use of canned music, players for musicals walked out this weekend.

Mamma Mia! Broadway's dark! Mamma Mia!

Yes, those ABBA lyrics - well, maybe they're not exactly like that - have become reality. The Phantom of the Opera is no longer crooning about the music of the night, those dancing feet on 42nd Street are not tapping out anything, and Tracy Turnblad in "Hairspray" isn't saying good morning to Baltimore, or anywhere else.

For only the second time since 1975, musicians from the Great White Way's orchestra pits are on strike. After the actors union agreed to honor the picket lines, producers darkened the marquees for the 18 Broadway musicals on Friday night. Disappointed theatergoers are being handed union fliers instead of Playbills.

The strike comes at a tough time for New York, which is still recovering from Sept. 11. The financial community, for one, is laying off thousands of workers as the stock market languishes. And media companies are suffering from an advertising slowdown. In addition, both city and state governments are tightening their belts.

"In these challenging times, the darkening of Broadway casts a long shadow over the heart of the Big Apple," says Mayor Michael Bloomberg. "Broadway theaters epitomize our city's rich cultural and artistic tradition."

Broadway is also one of the few areas that has been shining, perhaps because it helps people forget their problems for a few hours each night. The League of American Theatres and Producers estimates Broadway is responsible for about $4.5 billion in economic activity. This includes about 6,000 jobs. And this spring, producers planned to open five more musicals, including a remake of "Gypsy" with Bernadette Peters.

Moreover, the shows go well beyond New York: They tour 140 cities each year.

Money-savers, job security

Unlike many labor disputes, this one is not about wages - at least directly. Instead, there are two major issues: the use of "canned music," or soundtracks, and the size of the orchestra. Depending on the size of the theater, the League wants to reduce the minimum number of musicians from 24 to 15. And it wants to increase the use of soundtracks - another money-saving device. The musicians are opposed to any more job losses.

The League says the issue is one of artistic decision - that is, it's advocating greater flexibility in deciding how many musicians are needed for each theater. "That's how theater is created in London and in most other cities in the world," the League says in a statement. "What does have to change is the union's ability to force the creative team to hire more musicians than it needs."

Yet the union also claims the moral high ground, saying it's interested in the purity of the performance.

This may make the disagreement harder to settle. The last time the union struck over the same issue, the theaters were dark for three weeks. As of yesterday, negotiations had broken off.

Both issues in dispute relate to technology changes and shifts in live theater. Set designers have become increasingly important. One of their popular devices has been "thrust stages," which jut out into the audience and add to the intimacy of the performance. As those stages have grown, however, the orchestra pit has sunk deeper and deeper, and may be mostly covered. "I remember when I was a kid and I used to go to shows, not only could you hear the lead trumpet player, you could see him in the back row," says Jeffrey Campbell, a striking guitarist from the show "Mamma Mia."

With the orchestra hidden, one of the only ways to get the music to the audience is through amplification. "Now, the only way you hear him now is if he is amplified and coming out of a speaker," says Mr. Campbell. This amplification results in more change, says Lon Hoyt, the conductor for "Hairspray."

"Once you get electronics into the pit, the whole band gets compressed so the vocals can be heard," he says. "So whatever live sound you have has been made smaller."

'Crackle of excitement'

If the audience can't see the musicians, the next step - and it's done on the road - is to add a "virtual" orchestra. "It really doesn't matter if it's a tape of that guy playing, or that guy playing," says Campbell, who quickly adds, "Except with live musicians, there is that imperceptible, that indefinable crackle of excitement."

And many theatergoers say they want the total experience of a real orchestra. Teacher Kristi Cleveland, visiting New York from Beaumont, Texas, with four other teachers, says she is disappointed not to see a Broadway musical. As they stand outside a theater, the teachers borrow the strikers' signs for a group photo.

"That's one of the main draws, to see a Broadway show," she says of an orchestra. "I can buy a CD and listen to canned music anytime I want."

The Moore family from Atlanta came to New York after their daughter Erin, turning 16, said she wanted her birthday present to be a trip to New York to see Broadway shows. They did manage to see five plays, but missed out on their night to see "The Producers."

Mr. Moore, a tuba player with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, says he would have boycotted the show if it had used canned music. And that would have been fine with his daughter. "People don't like canned vegetables," she says. "Why should they like canned music?"

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