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Michael Portantiere examines the root causes of the recent Broadway musicians' strike. logo
Musicians of Local 802
During a ceremony honoring Stephen Sondheim on the stage of the New York State Theater on Tuesday, just before the opening night performance of the New York City Opera's A Little Night Music began, Sondheim was in rare form. The genius composer/lyricist had avoided comment on the recent Broadway musicians' strike while it was underway, but now he made a cryptic remark that set the Night Music audience buzzing: New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg was present for the ceremony and, with the strike having ended that very morning after four days of darkened musicals, Sondheim thanked the mayor for his efforts in helping to resolve a dispute "in which both sides were wrong."

Exactly what he meant by that is anyone's guess, but there's certainly no shortage of opinions on the musicians' strike. As every theater lover knows by now, the focus of the dispute between Local 802, American Federation of Musicians and the League of American Theatres and Producers was the fact that a minimum number of musicians is contractually required to be employed at various Broadway musical houses. The producers wanted to eliminate or drastically reduce these minimums, while the musicians wanted to preserve them as they were. In the end, a compromise was reached whereby the minimums in the largest Broadway houses were reduced from 24-26 to 18-19 musicians.

Many people would undoubtedly agree with Sondheim that "both sides were wrong" in this dispute, even if the precise flaws of each position are debatable. On the one hand, it is patently ridiculous for orchestra size to be regulated by setting per-house minimums -- a practice which apparently dates from a bygone era when each theater had its own "house orchestra." A musical written to be accompanied by relatively few musicians -- be it The Rocky Horror Show or You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown or The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas -- should not have to increase that orchestra just because the show has been booked into a theater with a high minimum.

The problem is that no one can seem to think of any other way to regulate the size of Broadway orchestras -- and it seems clear that, if there were no such regulation, the diminution of the number of musicians hired to play for Main Stem tuners would continue unabated. (Never doubt the resourcefulness of producers. It's interesting, for example, to note how the Roundabout Theatre Company tends to avoid this issue by putting its shows in houses that have very low minimums because they are not normally used for musicals -- e.g., the Belasco, where Follies was performed in 2001, and the Eugene O'Neill, where Nine will open in April.)

Bruce Pomahac -- director of music for the Rodgers and Hammerstein organization -- recently did some historical research that yielded interesting information on the hot-button topic of orchestra size. Among other things, he learned that "The norm for the size of an orchestra for Broadway musicals and operettas remained between 24 and 28 players for most of the first half of the 20th century. Usually, this broke down to five woodwinds (the standard flute, oboe, two clarinets and a bassoon), five brass (the standard two French horns, two trumpets and a trombone), a drummer, a harpist (or a pianist, sometimes both), a double bass player (or two), a stand (i.e., a pair) of violas, a stand of cellos, and then six or eight violins. Often, a second flute, a tuba, an extra stand of violins, or a third violist was added. And sometimes an organ, a guitar, or some other instrument evoking a specific geographical location or emotional color was requested by the composer or suggested by the orchestrator. As jazz and contemporary dancing asserted their importance [in Broadway shows], the harp was replaced by the piano (sometimes two), the woodwinds were required to double on saxophones, and an additional percussion player was brought in to 'beef up' the rhythm."

According to Pomahac, "The original production of Carousel had an unusually large (for Broadway) orchestra: There were 39 musicians playing the score on opening night in 1945. Rodgers was riding high on the still standing room only success of Oklahoma! that year and probably could have had as many musicians as he wanted. According to John Fearnley, Carousel's casting director, 39 was the limit because that's as many players as could be crammed into the orchestra pit at the Majestic Theatre."

The point is that musician minimums simply weren't an issue during the golden age of the Broadway musical, because no self-respecting composers or producers would have considered having an orchestra of less than 24 or so. (Legend has it that the size of the My Fair Lady orchestra was actually increased after the show opened to rave reviews and boffo box-office business in 1956). All of that has changed for a number of complex reasons, but overamplification is the chief culprit. Though present day theatergoers may find this hard to believe, Promises, Promises (1968) was the first Broadway musical in which the orchestra was amplified. That practice eventually led to more intense amplification of the performers, which in turn led to even more intense amplification of the orchestra, which in turn... well, you get the picture.

The sad truth is that theatergoers circa 2003 are not as musically sophisticated as their forebears; that's why today's Broadway shows tend to emphasize visual flash over aural pleasures. And amplification has only made the problem worse. After all, even a trained musician with a good ear might have trouble telling the difference between the sound of an orchestra of 15 pieces and one of 25 pieces when both are amplified to a fare-thee-well.

Harvey Fierstein speaking at a press conference
at Actors’ Equity headquarters on March 7
(Photo: © Matthew Murray)
Live music lovers can at least be happy about the fact that, from all reports, rehearsals of Broadway musicals held with "virtual orchestras" prior to the strike were disastrous. "The virtual orchestra is not a live musician," said Hairspray star Harvey Fierstein during the strike. "It's a computer program made to sound like a roller rink. It was not a pretty sound. We do a rock and roll show. We're professionals; we're artists. And a machine is a dead thing. Though it's played by a human being, it's still a computer, and that's not why people go to live theater. It's certainly not why I want to be in live theater."

For the record, Fierstein's opinion may be contrasted with that of Chicago producer Barry Weissler. As quoted in The New York Times, Weissler said the following in regard to rehearsals of that show with a virtual orchestra: "It sounds terrific. The show looks, feels, and sounds the same." His comment is especially galling in that Chicago is performed with its band playing on stage, in full view of the audience at all times. (The fact that people continue to flock to what is basically a concert staging of Chicago, with no sets or costumes to speak of, doesn't seem to be enough for Weissler; he'd be delighted to throw out the orchestra as well.)

The one thing that might solve the issue of orchestra sizes on Broadway would be the complete elimination or drastic reduction of the level of sound amplification employed for almost every show. Needless to say, that is never going to happen  -- though it should. Scott Siegel, producer of the wonderful Broadway by the Year series at Town Hall, cannily includes in each concert one or two numbers sung by big-voiced singers with no microphone support. Whenever this happens, the audience goes nuts in appreciation. But Broadway producers don't have the courage to ask people to listen up.

It's a huge problem -- and, as someone says in The Wizard of Oz, "I think it's going to get darker before it gets lighter." I recently attended a production of the Galt MacDermot musical The Human Comedy at Marymount Manhattan College, performed by students and directed by Patricia Hoag Simon. The show was excellent in every way except one: Though it was done in a fairly small theater (about 400 seats, I would estimate) and accompanied by a relatively small band situated in a mostly covered orchestra pit, all of the solo singers were wearing body mics! We've become so used to this kind of thing in professional productions that I'm sure a lot of people in the audience at Marymount didn't think twice about it; but, really, isn't it appalling to have budding performers rely on sound amplification so completely?

Yes, folks, technology is the villain -- and we're not just talking about overamplification. A dirty little secret of the theater industry is that there have been several notorious instances of taped singing and accompaniment in Broadway musicals. Liza Minnelli was nailed for this when she did The Act. Despite repeated denials over the years, word is that the title song of The Phantom of the Opera is not sung live. And, speaking of Phantom, we hear that Michael Crawford did some lip-synching during the blessedly brief Broadway run of Dance of the Vampires.

The League of American Theatres and Producers uses the phrase "Live Broadway" as its slogan; but if something isn't done soon to turn the tide of technological encroachment on the theater, that phrase will become more and more inaccurate.

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