Broadway musicians were victims of a greater number of health and safety issues this past year. Many Local 802 members are justifiably concerned for their personal safety when working in Broadway houses. Some potentially fatal accidents and physical attacks have occurred recently inside and outside of theatres. Producers seem hesitant to take preventive measures until it’s too late.
Three separate assaults have occurred in recent months outside the Minskoff Theatre stage door, one resulting in a possible career-ending injury.
One musician was attacked two different times in the breezeway outside the stage door. In the first incident, an attacker tried to grab the instrument strapped to the musician’s back (now the instrument is left at the theatre). The same musician was physically attacked in a separate incident but fortunately landed the first blow. When police belatedly arrived, they informed the musician that NYPD policy would have compelled them to arrest both parties (for assault) if the attacker had not fled the scene.
A more alarming scenario occurred when another “Lion King” musician, leaving the stage door, was knocked to the ground, resulting in multiple wrist fractures. That musician has not yet returned to work.
A Nederlander representative responded to Local 802’s request for increased protection, stating that additional security provided by the employer would inevitably result in a reduced police presence in the area. Musicians note that they rarely see police in the breezeway.
In April, a heavy, hubcap-shaped object with irregular edges sailed from the stage into the pit, landing precisely in the spot where new subs are normally seated (see picture at top of article).
The object was estimated to weigh ten pounds, and the incident could have had lethal consequences. Fortunately, no one was seated in the chair during that performance, though an instrument was damaged. Producers paid for the instrument repair, while insisting in an email that some onstage alterations, along with a pre-show inspection, would “ensure that this doesn’t happen again.”
“When producers say ‘it won’t happen again,’ it raises two questions,” says Local 802 President Sara Cutler. “Why did it happen the first time and why won’t it happen again?”
Requests for a net were rejected by management because it would allegedly obstruct the audience’s view of the orchestra. This seemed an odd time for management to raise that unrelated concern.
We are unaware of any further safety measures being implemented at the show.
“Back to the Future”
At the Winter Garden Theatre, a brass player’s upper lip was severely cut after a skateboard flew into the pit from the stage.
The musician’s wound was treated at a local emergency room. Thankfully, there was no head trauma or dental damage. However, the accident suspended the musician’s livelihood and created the likelihood of a longterm disability with no guarantee of a total recovery.
During an earlier tech rehearsal, musicians had requested a net over the pit (as had been used in the London production). A second request was made after a skateboard flew from the stage into the audience. Producers responded that there was “currently no plan for that,” stating that other measures were being implemented.
Obviously, any measures implemented were ineffective. After the musician was injured, a safety meeting was called by the employer. Inexplicably, they did not invite or even notify Local 802. Principal Theatre Representative Theresa Couture heard about the meeting and attended, taking along a NYCOSH representative. More than two weeks later, a net was belatedly installed over the pit.
While producers have not acknowledged negligence, they did pay some medical costs and instrument damage to the injured musician — though no wage compensation. Local 802 is considering filing a grievance on behalf of the musician. The absence of repeatedly requested safety protocols enabled an accident that could have been both predicted and prevented.
A conductor recently collapsed on the podium during the show. The show was not paused. Musicians were left to call 911 and help the conductor out of the pit.
The unexpected mishap created confusion in the pit and on stage. Faced with a medical emergency, the gravity of which was unknown, many musicians and actors assumed the show would be stopped. Another conductor took the podium within minutes, though some stage performers felt unsafe in the interim.
Management called a company meeting where they admitted they had never anticipated this particular emergency, but were willing to discuss protocols for future incidents. Current company policy is to avoid stopping shows whenever possible. Nevertheless, it is common knowledge that shows are often paused when an audience member has an emergency or there is a problem onstage.
“If this happened to a customer, we wouldn’t be having this discussion. I don’t understand the resentment they seem to have against musicians,” one Broadway pit musician told me.
The conductor has returned to the show.
In November, a heavy object — estimated to weigh at least 10 pounds — flew into the pit of the current revival of “Spamalot,” narrowly missing a musician’s head, but causing shoulder bruises and striking two instruments.
The same incident had nearly occurred on previous occasions but was fortunately aborted before the object entered the pit. Local 802 has requested a net.
The orchestra was informed by email that a net would be installed within two weeks. In the meantime, other measures would be taken to prevent a recurrence.
“If this happened to a customer, we wouldn’t be having this discussion. I don’t understand the resentment they seem to have against musicians.” — Broadway musician, referring to recent accidents in various pits
What can musicians do to protect themselves?
It seems theater management displays a consistent pattern of delaying safety measures until someone is hurt. Nevertheless, individual musicians often avoid pursuing action, fearing employer retribution. This is where the union can play a vital role, taking action on behalf of individuals that may ultimately protect all members. But your participation is essential in helping it do so.
Take action in these key ways
- Be aware of potential safety issues in your workplace and take detailed notes.
- Be proactive. Report concerns to your contractor AND Local 802 BEFORE an accident occurs. Encourage colleagues to report as well, as multiple perspectives help the union represent you better. Local 802’s strict confidentiality policy protects you from employer retaliation.
- DO NOT negotiate with management or other unions. It is Local 802’s job to represent and protect you.
- Local 802 should be copied on every communication between you and management. If an employer emails you without copying Local 802, please forward.
How to contact Local 802
- Principal Theatre Representative Theresa Couture: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Local 802 Hotline: www.local802afm.org/hotline
Contacting Local 802 is essential. Your attention and proactivity enable Local 802 to respond more effectively before and after workplace accidents occur and help make the union stronger.
Bud Burridge, a member of Local 802 since 1982, serves on Local 802’s Executive Board as well as numerous subcommittees.