Why We Care

Recording Vice President's Report

Volume 111, No. 6June, 2011

John O'Connor

By holding the line with ‘Priscilla’ now, we’re protecting audiences in the future

A few weeks ago Local 802, in cooperation with the Council for Living Music, launched our Save Live Music On Broadway campaign. We urge those of you who have not yet visited, to do so now. The campaign, which is the first stage in a much broader campaign to revive and preserve live music in New York City and beyond, has been in the planning stages since the beginning of the current Local 802 administration. Previous administrations have put together plans for live music campaigns, and though there have been a few activities that have sprung from these plans, including a successful initiative in 2003, no significant live music strategy has been forged on the level that this campaign has now reached.

What motivates the Broadway live music campaign is the fact that over the past several years orchestra sizes in the pits on Broadway have shrunk. Local 802 has recognized and acknowledges that due to changes in culture, some Broadway shows call for a different kind of musical sound than the traditional Broadway musical and has agreed in contract negotiations to a section known as “special situations,” which allows for the sorts of musical ensembles that appear in shows like “Memphis,” “Baby, It’s You” and “American Idiot.”

But a great number of Broadway musicals call for conventional orchestras and, though aesthetic sensibility would warrant large orchestras of, say 28 or 30 musicians, it is rare to see more than an orchestra of 19 in any musical production on Broadway. Many are much smaller. The fact is that, with few exceptions, the size of the orchestra these days is decided on one factor only, saving money for the producers. The full bore attack on minimums in 2003 led to a dramatic cut in those minimum requirements. Had the League had its way, the minimum number of musicians required in all theatres would have been even smaller or zero. Some may argue that the musicians’ union wanting higher minimums in their contracts is an antiquated and nonsensical way to make decisions about the size of the orchestra, but what can be worse than making the decision based solely on the bottom line?

One of the disheartening results of the 2003 concessions on minimums is that the default number of 19 and 18 in the theatres that have the largest seating capacity is considered by the producers as representative of a full orchestra. Audiences lost more than 30 percent of the musicians in 2003 and they stand to lose more if we allow musical decisions to be driven by those who have little respect for the art of live music.

The public was, by and large, supportive of our fight in 2003 to save substantial minimums. Indeed if audiences had their way, orchestras would be larger. Every time a show opens with a large orchestra, such as the recent productions of West Side Story and South Pacific, the audiences go crazy with enthusiasm. It goes without saying that musicians prefer larger orchestras. So even though audiences and musicians believe in large orchestras in the pits, we see the erosion of orchestra sizes only because producers want it.

In the immediate, the Broadway campaign is aimed at the producers of “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.” For reasons that the producers are calling “artistic,” the decision was made to use a recording of 8 string instruments instead of the real thing. The contortions of logic that the producers of “Priscilla” have gone through to argue their case for this outrage is truly breathtaking. They want everyone to believe that the “flavor” of disco music cannot be reproduced by live instruments, ignoring that fact that some of disco’s most iconic music features huge string orchestrations. The truth is that this production shows a complete lack of respect for the tradition of musicianship and the milieu of the Broadway musical. Simply put, the replacement of musicians by recordings in this show is an insult to anyone who takes musical performance seriously.

To add insult to injury, Garry McQuinn, one of the producers of “Priscilla” is quoted in the New York Times as saying, “I simply don’t know what I would do with … string players… if we were required to have them.” This is the sort of mentality by which Broadway audiences are being victimized. Would Mr. Quinn rather put walkers back in the pit than to have string musicians play the score that was written for them? That’s exactly what he implied he would do in the Times article.

What “Priscilla” represents goes to the heart of not only what is important to everyone in our union, but to everyone who cares about the survival of live music as part of our culture. That is why this fight is the most important one since the Broadway strike of 2003. And it is why it is incumbent upon every member of this union to be involved in this campaign.

So what are we trying to accomplish? A neutral party, in accordance with the special situations clause of the Broadway contract, has ruled that “Priscilla” doesn’t need to have more musicians in the pit (the show is loud enough with the recorded strings, she says) and we have appealed our case to arbitration. We hope for a favorable outcome. But regardless of that outcome, we need to make a stand about the violation of what is fundamentally important not only to the union, but to the theatre going public. In a recent poll commissioned by the Council for Living Music, more than 80 percent of the theatre going public has said they oppose replacing musicians with recordings. Who best represents the interests of the theatre-going public? The Broadway League or Local 802? The answer to that question has been clear for some time. It is vitally important that we do everything in our power to put the public on alert as to what certain producers are doing to kill live music on Broadway. Then the public and the union need to unite to put a halt to it.