Both the League of American Theatres and Producers and the American Federation of Musicians Local 802 are facing a number of serious issues in the renegotiation of their contract, which expires on March 2. While wages and health and safety conditions are on the table, perhaps the most controversial and important contract issue relates to the "special situation provision," and the outcome could have a major impact on Broadway musicals.

Prior to 1993, if a show needed fewer musicians than the minimum requirement for the theater in which they were going to play, producers were required to pay musicians to reach that minimum even if they were not used in the show. These were known as "walkers." When the contract between the League and Local 802 was renegotiated in 1993, the special situation provision was instituted to permit a Broadway show's producer to petition the musician's union to allow a number of musicians lower than the house minimum on artistic grounds; if the union does not automatically agree, the decision is passed to a panel comprising two representatives from the League, two from local 802, and two "neutrals" from a pool of five or six people named in the contract. The decision of this panel is final and binding. Since 1993, no "walkers" have been used in Broadway productions.

While Jim Grossman of Rubenstein Associates, speaking on behalf of the League, was not able to provide information about the League's position on this issue, Bill Moriarity, President of Local 802, stated that the League is arguing for the elimination of house minimums; this would give producers complete control over the number of musicians used. Moriarity feels that producers don't have the proper artistic background to make those decisions, which should rest instead in the hands of musicals' creative teams. He fears that producers will see the removal of musicians only as "eliminating another line of the weekly operating expenses."

"Virtual orchestra," a new technology that allows theater orchestras to be augmented with electronic representations of instruments, will play an important part in this conflict. Moriarity fears that any reduction in the number of required musicians would increase the use of these systems in Broadway theaters. "There's no philsophical objection to the use of the device," he says, "as long as a complement of live musicians is used that makes musical sense."

It was reported in a November article in The New York Times that, if an agreement between the League and Local 802 cannot be reached, Broadway producers may use virtual orchestra systems to keep shows running until negotiations have ended. Asked about this, Jim Grossman states: "The position of the League is that live music is an integral part of Broadway, always will be, and there's no desire to eliminate live music." But he admits that the Times story was accurate and that, should negotations come to an impasse, all options will be considered. "Theater owners are prepared to have their productions proceed if there's a strike," he says.

Talks are scheduled to begin later this month, with a number of meetings (8-10) currently scheduled for February. While Moriarity is not convinced that a decision will be reached easily, he remains optimistic. "Both parties are going to try to negotiate the best possible deal for themselves," he says, "but no one is going into this situation spoiling for a fight. And that's hopeful."