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Broadway Musicians Man Picket Lines as Contract Talks With Producers Continue logo

Musicians of Local 802 picketing in Times Square this morning
(Photo: © Matthew Murray)
Members of the American Federation of Musicians, Local 802 are picketing Broadway theaters in sub-freezing temperatures today as talks continue between the union and the League of American Theatres and Producers in hopes of reaching an agreement that will allow Broadway shows to perform with live musicians this evening and thereafter.

TheaterMania spoke this morning with Mary Whitaker, a violinist who was picketing outside the Marquis Theatre -- home of Thoroughly Modern Millie -- along with several other members of that show's orchestra. "I think they negotiated through the night and negotiations are still going on today." said Whitaker. "They've been talking all week." An officials press blackout, announced yesterday by the League and Local 802, remains in effect until 2pm today.

The union's contract with the producers officially ended at midnight on Sunday, March 2, but the deadline had been extended to 12:01am this morning in the hope that an agreement would be reached. The major sticking point of the negotiations is the fact that, under current practice, each Broadway theater is required to employ a certain minimum number of musicians when housing musicals. The producers want to eliminate or drastically reduce these minimums, while the musicians' union wants to maintain them.

In order for shows to go on in the event of a strike, producers have recently been holding rehearsals with "virtual orchestra" technology. According to reports earlier this week and last week, those rehearsals have not gone well. Said Whitaker of the picketers, "We were here at 7:30 this morning to protest the load-in of the virtual orchestra, which would have two people replacing 24 musicians. Our understanding is that it was not loaded in by members of IATSE [the stagehands' union]."

As per Whitaker's description, the virtual orchestra employs a conductor and one operator "tapping away" on the device. "We don't know who those people are," she said of the virtual orchestra personnel. "Their identifies are being kept secret from us. They may be from out of town. At any rate, they're obviously not sanctioned by the union."

Actors' Equity Association (AEA) has tentatively scheduled an emergency council meeting for 12 noon today. If the meeting is held, results will be announced at a press conference at 4:15pm at AEA headquarters (165 West 46th Street, 14th floor). Equity president Patrick Quinn and executive director Alan Eisenberg said that the council, which is the national governing body of the 45,000-member union, will hear separate presentations by the musicians and the producers before taking any action.

Equity represents 652 actors and stage managers currently rehearsing or performing in Broadway shows who would be affected by a strike; 17 musicals are now playing on Broadway and three others -- Nine, Gypsy, and The Look of Love -- are in rehearsal.

If Equity votes to support a strike, its members would be directed not to cross the musicians' picket lines. According to Mary Whitaker, "We've received a tremendous amount of support from the actors and the stagehands because we're all in the same boat: Everybody is worried about being replaced by technology. And the audiences are in our corner, too. We want to preserve live music on Broadway. If we don't do that, why would anyone want to come to New York? You might as well go to Las Vegas."

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