Representatives of Local 802 (Associated Musicians of Greater New York) and the League of American Theatres and Producers are expected to meet soon to discuss a new contract to replace the current one that will expire two months from today. The outcome of these negotiations could mean a major effect on Broadway and Off-Broadway musicals in the short and long term.

One of the most significant issues to be discussed is that of union-mandated minimums for Broadway houses. The size of a Broadway theater determines the minimum number of musicians -- from 3 to 26 -- who must be utilized in any musical produced in that particular house. (Non-musical plays have no such requirements.) Prior to the last contract negotiation in 1993, these minimums occasionally resulted in "walkers" -- i.e., staff musicians who were paid to meet the minimum requirements but did not perform.

The agreement reached between the League and Local 802 in 1993 allowed for some flexibility in the minimum requirements; a panel of experts was established to help arbitrate any disputes that might arise. Since that time, Local 802 has approved reduced orchestras for use in a number of productions, including recent entries Aida, Mamma Mia!, Movin' Out, and Amour. Producers, however, want to maintain greater control over the number of musicians that can be used in their productions.

What could happen if the two groups are not able to resolve their disputes prior to the expiration of the current contract? One possibility, suggested in a recent New York Times article and an article in the Local 802 publication Allegro, is the use of a "virtual orchestra" -- a synthesizer capable of digitally reproducing a musical's entire score -- in the event of a musicians' strike. There are two New York based companies, RealTime Music Solutions and Music Arts Technology (whose chief executive, Brett Sommer, is a former member of Local 802), that currently provide such services. These systems are much more technically sophisticated than pre-recorded music, which has been used in past productions to a limited degree.

Music Theatre International, a major licensing house, offers one such system called OrchExtra, a product of RealTime Music Solutions. Instrumental parts are professionally recorded and preloaded into the system, which MTI then rents to performing groups. The system can reproduce any number of these parts to complement whatever musicians the production has available; it can adjust for vamps, tempo changes, and other realities of live theater. MTI presently offers the system for seven titles, including Annie, Fiddler on the Roof, and Guys and Dolls.

No one at the League of American Theatres and Producers was immediately available for comment on the possibility of virtual orchestra technology being used on Broadway in the event of a musicians strike, and a representative of RealTime Music Solutions said that the company will be unable to speak with anyone for three months. The contract between the League and Local 802 expires on March 2.