Broadway Musicians Protest Pared Down Saturday Night Fever Orchestra

"The Music Deserves Better"

Volume XCIX, No. 11December, 1999

Bill Dennison

Broadway musicians kicked off a leafleting campaign at the Minskoff Theatre on Nov. 10. The target is the producer of Saturday Night Fever, who is presenting this Broadway production with a smaller than minimum sized orchestra, in direct violation of the Local 802/League of American Theatres and Producers collective bargaining agreement.

Headed “The music deserves better. And so do you,” the flyer has received an overwhelmingly positive response from audiences members. Typical was the reaction of one theater-goer from Philadelphia, who stopped and talked with 802 members after she read the flyer before a Sunday matinee. “My husband and I come all the way up here to see Broadway shows because we expect to hear a full orchestra,” she said. “We could just stay home and see the cut down versions. Good luck. I hope you can do something.”

“Our aim in this leafleting effort is to let the public know that they are not getting the product they are paying for,” said 802 Public Relations Director Judy West. “We’re the artists who create the music of Broadway – and when shows sound synthesized and amplified, when you lose the live feeling of an orchestra, it reflects badly on us. And in the long run, it hurts everyone who works on Broadway.”

Critics have been nearly unanimous in panning the show. In some cases they have commented directly on the quality of the sound. One reviewer likened it to a “souped-up eight-track tape system.” The flyer urges audience members to call the producer, Niko Associates, and the League to tell them that “you deserve the live, full sounds of a Broadway orchestra. After all, that’s what you’re paying for.”

Controversy around this production of Saturday Night Fever began last summer, when Niko asked Local 802 to consider the show a “special situations” musical and waive the orchestra minimum at the Minskoff Theatre. Niko argued that the show had played with 17 musicians in London and that its musical requirements dictated a smaller orchestra, rather than the 24-musician minimum required at the Minskoff.

Local 802 President Bill Moriarity appointed a panel of musicians to review the Saturday Night Fever scores and make a recommendation. That panel was composed of Jack Gale, Maura Gianinni, Jimmy Owens and Sari Goetz. Two panel members had actually performed on recording dates with the Bee Gees, whose music is heard throughout the show.

The score they reviewed was orchestrated for two reeds, two trumpets, two trombones, one French horn, one bass, two guitars, one drummer, two percussionists and three keyboards. The three keyboards were all synthesizers and contained extensive emulation of strings, horn parts and harp. It was obvious to the panel that there was no “musical requirement” for a smaller orchestra. In fact, just the opposite was true. The music needed a larger ensemble, particularly a string section. Based on this report, the Local 802 Executive Board rejected the special situations request.

As was their right under the Broadway contract, Niko Associates appealed this decision and the League convened a panel to hear it. The panel was composed of Jack Gale and Maura Gianinni from Local 802, Alan Wasser and Cy Feuer from the League, and neutrals Paul Geminiani and Wally Harper. The panel was unanimous in denying the appeal and the producer was urged to hire a full orchestra.

Local 802 had initially received hiring slips for 16 orchestra members. Following this decision, the union was sent a second set of hiring slips – seven in all – listed as piano 4 through 10. Five of these “pianists” were also listed as vocalists. This presumably filled out the orchestra to the required 24 musicians: 23 instrumentalists plus a conductor. None of the seven added musicians, however, was named as an understudy for the three keyboard parts that already existed and only one was a member of Local 802. The other six, including all those listed as vocalists, had no history of membership in Local 802 or any other AFM local.

This raised a number of questions about what Niko and the orchestra contractor, Bill Meade, were doing. Certainly they were not going to add seven keyboard parts to the orchestration. And why were five of the seven “musicians” listed as vocalists, who had no experience as instrumentalists? Vocalists are covered under the Actor’s Equity contract, and are not considered members of the orchestra.

The situation was clarified on opening night, when Local 802 Broadway Rep David Lennon visited the Minskoff Theatre. The five vocalists were ensconced in a separate basement dressing room. They were indeed vocalists, and not orchestra members. However, in front of each was a mini-electronic keyboard – but no music. The vocalists told Lennon that they were not currently playing the keyboards but would be “learning how to play them next week.”

Obviously upset at Lennon’s discovery and not wanting the union to directly observe the fact that the vocalists were clearly not playing musicians, the producer held up the curtain for 15 minutes and insisted that Lennon leave the theatre. In subsequent discussions with Actor’s Equity, 802 learned that the show in London had been done with a recording of these background vocalists. In New York, however, Equity required that the vocalists be hired. After losing the special situations case, the producer tried to fulfill Equity’s requirement and simultaneously get around the minimum orchestra size by describing the vocalists as orchestra members and providing each of these cast members with a mini-keyboard for cover.

Local 802 President Bill Moriarity told Allegro, “I would like to believe that this very cynical effort to undermine our collective bargaining agreement is the work of this one producer, and that the League and other producers do not support this. I would also like to hope that our relationship with the League as a whole will not sink to this level of distrust.”

He pointed out that Local 802 and Equity “are in complete agreement in regard to these vocalists. They are cast members covered by the Equity agreement. It is simply incomprehensible to me that this producer could suggest that cast members be included and counted as orchestra members for the purpose of filling out the orchestra minimum requirements.”

On Nov. 8 a grievance hearing on the issue was scheduled with the League and the producer. Equity had asked Local 802 if they could attend as an observer at the grievance meeting and the union readily agreed. Both Equity and Local 802 had informed the League of Equity’s presence. But when all were assembled for the meeting, the producers balked and refused to meet as long as 802 insisted that Equity be present. As a result the meeting did not take place. Local 802 has filed for arbitration on the issue and has charged the League with an unfair labor practice for refusing to meet.

“What ought to disturb the League,” said Moriarity, “is how destructive these events are to the special situations process. I believe that for all of us, 802 as well as the League, the special situations procedure was an effort to both eliminate understudies and protect the integrity of the music of Broadway. As much as we have disagreed with some of the decisions under this procedure, we have lived with those decisions.

“In this case, however, the panel agreed with the union, agreed that the music did not require a smaller orchestra, and agreed that the theatre minimum should be hired. The producer has thumbed his nose at that decision. This is completely unacceptable,” Moriarity said, “and we are going to fight it in every way that we can.”