The Musicians’ Voice

Volume CIII, No. 4April, 2003


This article also appeared in the New York Times.

To the Editor:

The pit was picked clean. The musicians of Man of La Mancha had already removed photos, sweaters, electronic tuners, metronomes, instrument stands, and even the mattress for naps between shows. After the evening’s bows, we took our trumpets, flutes and guitars away, too.

Our contract with Broadway’s theatrical producers had expired. Broadway shows went dark and prospects for a resolution look bleak. Negotiators can’t agree on the number of musicians required for each theatre. Producers want fewer players and more technology, while musicians aim to preserve jobs and live music.

After we walked off the job, our 16 music stands were replaced with a keyboard and computer. In fact, the cast had already been rehearsing with their new “virtual orchestra.” I’m told the practice didn’t go well, but I’m biased.

“Settle,” a stage electrician told me before I opened the pit door for our last performance.

I thought about what he said as I watched the front row fill up. Some bubbly tourists asked about the strike. A man studied the trombonists intently, squeezing his girlfriend’s hand. A surly-looking man crossed his arms over a newspaper on his chest, sighed, and glared at his wife.

I love that front row. And I love playing for a show. Every performance is different, shaped by the actors, the audience and us. Our last night was no exception. Halfway through the performance, one actor’s timing sent us scrambling in a new tempo. During “The Impossible Dream,” our guitarist played with such softness that his sound seemed to drift out of the wood-paneled pit. Deep blue light bathed the surly man, who was leaning forward, his head cocked, his anger gone.

Every show, when Don Quixote dies, he drops his sword and it rattles across the stage. The trumpeter always kids around, holding out his hand as if the sword were going to fall on us. On Thursday, it rolled closer than ever. For once, though, no one laughed.

During the exit music, the surly man smiled and patted his wife. After the lights came up, people seemed to be lingering in the theatre.

But those of us in the pit moved on. We hauled the drum kit outside. The bass was zipped into its bag and toted to the curb. Locker doors slammed in the band room. This night, the music responded to the actors – and the audience. If virtual orchestras take over, it will be mechanical and unyielding – measured by keyboard velocity, musical software interfaces, and the zeros and ones of digital musical samples.

We looked around the pit, grabbed our instruments, and shut out the lights.

–Blair Tindall


To the Editor:

I am a member of some 25-30 residents here in Nassau County, Long Island, who regularly charter a bus every month to go and see a Broadway play, and most of what we see are musicals. We call ourselves the L.I. Theatre Goers, and we normally go 10 months out of the 12. This proposal to cut back or eliminate live supporting music is an absurd idea, and if put forward, we will stop going. That’s it. We would have no interest. Live music is part of the show. Thank you.

–Bruce Lloyd


To the Editor:

Having played at least eight shows on Broadway, I read with interest Richard Atkins’ letter (“The Musicians’ Voice,” March Allegro). However, I found more interesting President Moriarity’s response.

As a member of Actors’ Equity and Screen Actors Guild, I often wondered why 802’s Broadway process was so vastly different from our brother unions. It is, at best, inherently unfair. As President Moriarity points out, the process begins with the “bargaining unit” concept. Darwin pointed out over a century ago that self preservation is the first law of nature – and self preservation is obviously the first law of the bargaining unit.

Why not open up the audition process to dues-paying members, who should be able to participate in the business of working in music? If every member had the opportunity to at least audition for a Broadway show, wouldn’t 802 have more support from its members in protesting the current stance by theatre producers to eliminate musician minimums in orchestra pits?

Of course, the auditions will have to be held with musicians playing behind screens so as to increase the number of musicians of color playing in Broadway orchestras. That’s an issue that was negotiated 40 years ago and agreed to, but it is being swept under the rug. But that’s a different letter.

–Carl Maultsby


To the Editor:

This is in response to Richard Atkins’ letter in the March Allegro.

I have known John Miller to go out of his circle of friends on many occasions.

On Smokey Joe’s Cafe he auditioned three sax players, none of whom had ever worked for him before. He hired one and even gave him the house contractor job – a five-year gig!

Personally, he hired me when he was looking for an old-school R&B specialist. I had never worked for him or even subbed a show but he called me and took a chance on me and it worked out. Just the other day he was contracting a major project and through my suggestion hired a guitarist who had never worked for him before.

I think the problem is that there really are a lot more qualified musicians than there are jobs. Also, may I suggest to Mr. Atkins that he hang out with musicians instead of actors.

–Frank Canino


To the Editor:

Back in the 1980’s I witnessed a bunch of younger producers try to get the League of American Theatres and Producers’ labor negotiators to insist on the right to replace musicians – whom they regarded as little more than wallpaper – with allegedly miraculous, untried new machines that they hoped would save them big bucks. This would surely have precipitated Broadway shutdowns had not clearer and more experienced heads prevailed over those young turks.

Does the present dispute signal that Philistines now dominate the League? If so, employees and theatregoers alike face tough times ahead. Let’s hope that actors’ and stagehands’ support for musicians’ picket lines – an unprecedented new development – helps bring these yahoos to their senses and restores leadership of the Broadway management group to the capable stewards of one of America’s greatest art forms.

–John Glasel


To the Editor:

Having fought for the preservation of minimums in theatre committee negotiations many years past, I am acutely aware of the urgency and anger surrounding this issue on both sides. This is a battle that is not slated to disappear: artistic integrity, at this time, carries little weight.

Perhaps the new corporate producers – Disney and Clear Channel – didn’t want this strike to end. As productions and possibly theatres fail, they look to buy up and “Disney-fy” the remainder of our legendary theatre district as they have Times Square.

These corporations don’t depend on New York’s economic health to survive, and have the dollars and arrogance to wait us out indefinitely. They were denied that opportunity when the current settlement averted that outcome, thanks to the hard work of President Moriarity and the negotiating committee, and the solidarity of the other theatrical, city and state unions.

These unions should feel justly proud and be thanked. We’re furious, as one member of the negotiating committee said, at losing chairs in the pits. But with 10 years of guaranteed minimums ahead, live music on Broadway has had a reprieve. One hopes that composers of stature will always demand and receive as a condition of production the size and composition of orchestras they feel artistically necessary.

Now the job of the theatre community is to designate Broadway – with live musicians – as a New York City landmark. It matters not what producers provide to reproduce orchestral sound; this is about preserving an “original” for people to experience, as in an art museum, Grand Central Station, or Carnegie Hall.

Perhaps we need a Jackie Onassis or Isaac Stern – someone with stature and an appreciation of history – as an ongoing spokesperson for the immeasurable value of human energy and interaction in a live theatre experience.

–Myra Segal