Curtains Rise on Broadway Negotiations
Volume CIII, No. 1January, 2003
As I write this, Broadway negotiations are tentatively scheduled to begin in late December or early January. The Broadway Theatre Committee, made up of representatives from each show, has been working for more than a year and a half to better understand the issues we will face and create the proposals that will address these issues. In November an 11-member negotiating committee was elected. The committee chose Maura Giannini as chair and Clay Ruede as co-chair.
In the meantime, as we reported in last month’s Allegro, some producers have been busily seeking “operators” or “conductors” of electronic devices designed to replace musicians – technological scabs. The League of American Theatres and Producers claimed that it wasn’t their ad on the Internet but that it was probably a good idea.
When asked about the situation by the New York Times, League President Jed Bernstein commented that the negotiations need to confront “the longstanding practice that requires the producers to pay for more musicians than are artistically necessary.”
It has always been the management position that the elimination of minimums is a matter of artistic discretion. Nothing could be further from the truth.
First, the exercise of artistic discretion requires knowledge, skills and specific talent. These are qualities, however, that describe not producers and theatre owners, but the production’s musical creative team – chiefly the composer, orchestrator, arranger and music director in association with the stage director and choreographer. None of these artists are represented by the League; in fact they are members of the unions and guilds. They are, in other words, our people.
In our meetings with these artists, they have told us of the critical importance of minimums. Minimums are, they say, what allows them the freedom to create music commensurate with their own convictions and to live up to the high expectations of a Broadway audience.
So if it’s not really about artistry, what is it about? The answer, as always, is economics.
The proposal to eliminate minimums is a proposal to eliminate musicians. One by one, chair by chair, down to the last needed “virtual orchestra operator,” producers will be tempted to pare down positions, decrease weekly operating expenses, quickly pay back the investors and increase the profit margin.
In 1996, a report on the state of Broadway was released to both Broadway unions and management. The report concluded:
While Broadway must confront and address its economic and competitive issues directly, it is important to recognize other values and constraints which must also be balanced. . . . Among these . . . are its unique social, cultural and civic role in New York City. No viable solutions can overlook these roles and the values they imply.
Broadway is the principal driving force behind this city’s crucially important tourist and entertainment
industries. After the financial field, the entertainment industry is New York City’s most important economic engine, producing some $20 billion per year in total economic activity, according to a 1994 Port Authority study of tourism and the arts. This industry thrives
because of its unique qualities – most importantly its live performance aspect. Reduce, replace or corrupt it and it makes no sense that families would come from Charleston or Sioux Falls or Tucson, or for that matter, Elmsford, to attend. They could merely wait for some production at a local dinner theatre and be assured of the same quality.
Is there a basis for the League to make an economic argument that orchestra costs must be cut? In a word, no! First of all, Broadway grosses have set records in each of the past nine years with the exception of 2001-2002, a decline that was a direct result of 9/11. All of Broadway’s unions and guilds sacrificed to help get Broadway and our city through that very difficult period. And we have both survived and thrived. Theatre grosses through the first five months of the 2002-2003 season are back to where they were pre-9/11.
Secondly, the biggest Broadway money-makers have been and continue to be big musicals with big orchestras. It defies logic to suggest that Les Mis or Phantom, for example, suffered because they were burdened with large orchestras. The opposite is in fact the truth – the shows would have suffered at the box office if producers had cheapened the music sufficiently to save any meaningful fraction of the weekly operating expenses.
In our audience research we have found that the public expects musical theatre to be a quality live musical and theatrical performance. Families know that this is what they are paying for, despite some producers’ disdainful comments about them not knowing the difference between live and mechanical. And our discussions with the labor community show that workers in this city understand the importance of artistic quality and what we bring to the city’s cultural life. Everyone seems to understand except the League, which seems willing to use any means – no matter how damaging – to achieve its dubious ends.