Show Stoppers


It's a Broadway show that everyone hopes will have its final curtain tonight - the Broadway musicians' strike that is entering its fifth day, costing theaters and the Big Apple millions and closing 18 musicals.

Members of the American Federation of Musicians Local 802 went on strike Friday after their contract expired, and the result is a drama for which neither Broadway nor the city has fully rehearsed.

What's at stake is the number of musicians the producers are required to hire for the orchestra when staging a musical, and the financial health of theaters, the musicians and also the actors and stagehands who are refusing to cross the picket lines.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg late yesterday summoned the union and the producers' league to his Gracie Mansion residence last night for round-the-clock negotiations that will be mediated by Frank Macchiarola, president of St. Francis College in Brooklyn and a former New York City schools chancellor.

"The talks will go throughout the night, and I guarantee you there will be no news before you wake up in the morning," said Pat Smith, a spokesman for the League of American Theatres and Producers.

The mayor's involvement is a sign of how significant the stakes are, both in psychological terms and in dollars and cents.

While Broadway technically is not a building - actually, it is a series of buildings and streets - it is as much a landmark, is as integral to New York's identity as the World Trade Center was.

"Broadway is the pinnacle of the musical theater industry," said Bill Dennison, a spokesman for the musicians' union. "I don't think there's any other city in the world that does a fraction of the theater business that Broadway does."

The strike is shuttering 18 of 19 venues currently showing musicals, but it is not affecting all theaters. (The 19th musical is a non-profit theater staging Cabaret, and it operates under a different contract with the musicians' union.) Non-musical Broadway plays are running, as are plays and musicals off-Broadway.

But it is The Lion King and the other big, splashy Broadway musicals like it that are responsible for the, well, lion's share of the profits.

Broadway's impact on New York City has been estimated at $4.4 billion annually. In the past four days alone, Broadway theaters have lost an estimated $4.8 million in box office revenue, while musicians and actors (who are honoring the picket lines) have given up about $900,000 in salaries.

"The show must go on," Smith said. "It's too important to Broadway, and to New York."

So, what's all the fuss about?

In the past, the number of musicians the producers must hire for each show has been contractually determined - depending upon the size of the theater in which the musical will be staged. The union wants to retain those minimums, claiming they guarantee a quality production.

The league wants to reduce them, saying they are arbitrary. At times, producers say, they have been forced to hire more performers than a show actually needs.

For instance, Hairspray is scored for 15 musicians. But it is playing at the Neil Simon Theatre, which has a minimum requirement of 20 musicians. To make up the additional five, lead producer Margo Lion has four actors play musical instruments on stage. The fifth is the show's musical contractor.

"This is an archaic work rule left over from vaudeville," Smith said. "There are no minimums for national tours. London doesn't have minimums. Right now, the size of the orchestras there varies from eight musicians to 25."

But in the backs of musicians' minds looms the question: If the minimums are lifted, then could they be replaced entirely?

Already technology is being used in some Broadway shows to substitute synthetic music for parts of ensembles.

For example, the performers in Contact, which won the Tony for best musical in 2000, danced to an entirely recorded score. With the strike looming, producers hatched a plan to continue shows - by having actors perform to recorded music. (The actors refused to perform under those conditions and walked out.)

Baltimore-born actor Eric Anthony, a Hairspray cast member who rehearsed with a virtual orchestra several times last week, described the experience as "a nightmare."

"If I wanted to be a karaoke performer, I would have gone to a karaoke bar. I didn't pay my dues and put in all this hard work to sing karaoke," he said.

Marc Shaiman, the Grammy-winning composer of Hairspray and a multiple Academy Award-nominee, said he uses synthesizer technology "as a tool every day of my life. I create an entire film score out of stuff like that. The technology is phenomenal, and eventually the technology will make it impossible to know the difference. But at this point, we're not there yet. Technology will make it possible to clone a baby someday, but you know it's a step no one should have to take."

For its part, the union claims that it continues to be willing to compromise on orchestra size on a case-by-case basis. "No member of our union wants to perform when they're not needed," Dennison said. That would be absurd."

Since Friday, actors and musicians have been picketing outside dark theaters amidst dejected theatergoers.

They included Chris Hennick of Perry Hall, her two teen-aged daughters, her mother and friends.

The Hennicks had bought tickets for Hairspray months before. They ended up seeing Menopause the Musical - an off-Broadway musical parody - instead.

Sure, they enjoyed the show. But it wasn't the same.

"I'm frustrated and upset that the girls couldn't see the show," Perry said. "It was the only reason we went up there."

The only silver lining in her dark cloud is that Hairspray is slated to begin its national tour at the Mechanic Theatre this September.

"We'll just have to wait until it comes to Baltimore and see it then," she said.

Sun theater critic J. Wynn Rousuck, Michelle Jabes and Anna Kaplan contributed to this article.

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad