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The Musicians' Strike

by Martha Hostetter, Mar 04, 2003
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Come on along and listen to the lullaby of Broadway...

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The familiar tune took on a melancholy air as played by a brass band during a musicians’ protest outside the League of American Theatres and Producers headquarters late last month. An increasingly tense contract dispute between the producers and the American Federation of Musicians Local 802 seemed to be heading to the unthinkable -- musical theater without live music.

The Broadway musicians’ contract expired March 2, and players voted to go on strike in a 420 to 15 vote. Though some progress was made in negotiations, the musicians went on strike at 12:01 a.m. on March 7, affecting some 325 working players and 1,000 other union members, not to mention scores of scheduled rehearsals and performances. The last work stoppage was in 1975.

The players and producers are at loggerheads over a single issue -- the minimum number of musicians that productions are required to hire under union rules. There have been minimums for decades but, over the years, the numbers have evolved to meet the changing needs of musical theater.

In 1993, Local 802’s longtime president, Bill Moriarty, renegotiated the contract in recognition of the fact that modern musicals do not all need a full-scale orchestra, just as they do not all need large choruses or kick lines. The “special situations provision” of the contract built more flexibility into minimum requirements. According to Moriarty, the provision has been applied to musicals as diverse as Smokey Joe’s CafĂ©, On the Town, Footloose, Chicago, Aida, Mamma Mia, and Movin’ Out. Producers are now required to hire between three to 26 musicians, depending on the size of the theater. For example, the cavernous Majestic, with 1,607 seats, requires 26 players, while the smaller Belasco, with 1,018 seats, and Ambassador, with 1,125, require only three.

Moriarty has said that he would be willing to revise the minimums -- perhaps decreasing them in certain cases -- but he is not willing to do away with them altogether. The union fears that Broadway producers have their eye not on “artistic discretion” to designate the number of musicians needed, as they claim, but on maximizing profits. The musicians worry that ending minimums is a slippery slope toward replacing live players with recorded sound. Indeed, some shows that flop in New York recoup their costs on out-of-town tours, where in many cases recorded sound is used to supplement, or in some cases replace, orchestras. Non-equity road tours of The Music Man and Miss Saigon currently employ Sinfonia technology, and OrchEstra synthesizers have been used in regional productions across the country, as well as in Broadway pits. Still, the technology is relatively new and untested in larger houses.

Producers, for their part, accuse the unions of “featherbedding,” pointing out that Actors’ Equity and other union contracts do not guarantee employment for their constituents. They argue that conductors and musical directors should have the right to decide how many musicians a show needs. As evidence of the problem, they point to the “walkers” provision, by which musicians are paid in order to meet quotas but do not actually play in shows. (Moriarty claims that this provision is rarely invoked, though there is currently a walker in Hairspray.)

“We are committed to allowing our artists and producers to have the freedom to create and produce the kind of theater they want,” reads an official statement from the producers. “And our tradition of live music from great composers and performed by great artists will continue -- unless the musicians refuse to play. If the musicians refuse to play, the show must go on.”

In this spirit, the producers have loudly proclaimed that they are prepared to replace the orchestras with digital music, if necessary. There are some signs that they are getting cold feet, however. The union has successfully transformed the issue into one of preserving live music against technological and commercial inroads; and many conductors, composers, and actors have rallied to their cause. In addition, there have been murmurings that the actors and stagehands would refuse to rehearse and perform should the musicians go on strike, and so far no machine has been built to replace them. Audiences would most likely protest paying full price for recorded sound.

David Chase, the musical director of Flower Drum Song, told Backstage that it’s in nobody’s interest to degrade the uniqueness of Broadway theater. “I believe 90 percent of the producers want live theater," he says. "I don't worry about them. I worry about the 10 percent that say, 'I look at the bottom line. Look at how much I can save.' I understand the bottom line. It's a commercial venture. But theater is based on certain compacts with the audience. But what happens if you change that contract with the audience? I think if you ask anybody that comes to the theater, 'Would you like to see a show with music on tape or supplied by a virtual orchestra, and pay the same price'—I guarantee that producers won't lower the musical's price—most people would say, 'I'd rather have a live orchestra.'”


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