Phil Reno conducts the 2005 Broadway on Broadway performance. Canned music has started creeping into the annual show. Photo by Walter Karling.
Over the past 14 years, the League of American Theatres and Producers has sponsored “Broadway on Broadway” (BoB), an annual high profile celebration of the Broadway musical. Unfortunately, the essentially live aspect of BoB has recently been somewhat undermined by the growing use of taped music in the otherwise live show.
As its name might suggest, the production features a selection of numbers from mostly current Broadway shows on an open-air stage erected for that purpose in the middle of Broadway, just north of Times Square.
Each year, the event is attended by tens of thousands of spectators, filling Broadway for several blocks north of the stage. Occasionally the shows have also been telecast a few days later.
The event has raised public appreciation of the scope and variety of the many musicals on Broadway and has presumably promoted theatre attendance.
Unlike radio and television commercials, “Broadway on Broadway” is, in itself, a live performance, and its directness and immediacy more than make up for the limited level of sound, lighting, staging and production control attributable to the noisy and windy “middle of the street” setting.
The live and in-person impact of the show heightens audience excitement even when the featured performers are not mega-stars. The 30-plus piece BoB orchestra, assembled by veteran Broadway music director Paul Gemignani, authoritatively performs a wide range of Broadway selections under the direction of as many as 15 different conductors from the various shows.
The remarkable interplay among the performers reflects the experience and sensitivity of the BoB orchestra, the professionalism and flexibility of the singers and dancers doing their material in a new and challenging environment, and the skill and judgment of Gemignani and the various conductors who bring it all together, producing a consistently dynamic show in real time.
CANNING THE MUSIC
Several years ago, for reasons which are not clear, a few shows opted to use a prerecorded music track to accompany the live singers and dancers for some of the shows. Each year, more shows (predominantly those with rock-oriented scores) have resorted to canned music. This year, eight of the shows utilized recorded tracks for their performances — while the live orchestra sat and waited.
This practice is disturbing for several reasons. For one thing, over the years the excellent musicians in the live orchestra have been more than capable of playing the required music. In cases where additional instruments or specialty musicians were required, extra players have been added to the BoB orchestra.
The concept of grade school productions or children’s ballet recitals using recorded music is generally accepted, given the inexperience and insecurity of many amateur performers and the possible unavailability of professional level orchestras, but Broadway singers and dancers certainly have the skills and professionalism to work with live orchestras in any setting.
Whatever acoustical advantages recordings might provide in an outdoor venue hardly compensate for the artistic compromise and incongruity of using tapes to accompany live performances. Some orchestra members see this trend as a devaluing of live music, and several featured performers have also expressed discomfort with having to perform with recordings.
This lack of appreciation for the role of instrumentalists and orchestras in musical theatre is thought by many to bespeak the same insensitivity to the role of live music in the theatre that has motivated the producers’ 30-year war on Broadway orchestra minimums.
Beyond the asthetic issues, concerns have also been expressed by representatives of the Music Performance Fund, which co-sponsors the BoB event. The MPF is funded by contributions negotiated by the AFM and its signatory recording companies and was created in the 1940’s to partially redress the negative impact of recordings on musical employment and public exposure to live music.
BoB has played an important role in promoting public awareness and appreciation of musical theatre in New York City. Hopefully this disturbing trend away from live music will be reversed in future BoB productions.