Live Music on Broadway: A Great American Tradition under Threat

The musical theater as it evolved in the 20th century and continuing today, like jazz, is a unique American contribution to world culture. As more music is heard digitally, on smart devices and iPods and online, the thrill of seeing and hearing a live orchestra at a Broadway musical is one of the few remaining authentic live musical experiences in American society. This is one of the most compelling reasons audiences buy tickets to see a musical. Indeed, audiences from every corner of the world flock to New York to experience the best of the best on Broadway.

Sadly, in recent years, some producers have begun to slash the size of live orchestras and replace musicians with recordings or synthetic music. As these producers cut back on live music to squeeze out a few extra dollars in profits—diminishing the thrill of seeing a Broadway musical— ticket prices continue to go up. This assault is relentless, and in the not-too-distant future could result in the complete replacement of live orchestras with canned music.


Examples of this Dangerous Trend in NYC and Beyond

While some producers say that today’s recorded and synthetic music can sound just as exciting and melodious as live music, music and theater critics—and audiences— disagree.

For example, during the recent winter holidays, the New York-based producers of Boston’s 2010 Rockettes’ “Christmas Spectacular” forced recorded music on Boston audiences. Even the tap of the tap shoes was emanating from a recording! Unsurprisingly, the show was panned by critics like the Boston Globe’s Terry Byrne, who referred to it as “painfully bloated filler…with every vocal and every musical note prerecorded,” adding “there is a sameness to the sound that becomes increasingly boring.”

In the dance world, a revival in 2010 of Matthew Bourne’s version of Tchaikovsky’s glorious ballet Swan Lake, which in its first incarnation 16 years ago featured a full live orchestra, used no musicians at all, prompting New York Times dance critic Gia Kourlas to note, “the lack of an orchestra, especially in a show that retells the music as much as the dance, was singularly felt.”

In a particularly disturbing episode in 2009, producers attempted to forcibly convert the music in the Off-Broadway hit Tony and Tina’s Wedding from a live orchestra to all recorded music by locking musicians out of the theater—with instruments and personal belongings still inside.

Even Broadway’s most venerated and time-honored musicals are not immune. In 2010, producers of Leonard Bernstein’s classic West Side Story slashed five musicians after 500 performances, and replaced their extraordinary live instruments with a synthesizer, prompting violinist and Bernstein collaborator Paul Woodiel to write in an op-ed in the New York Times, “I don’t think Lenny would have approved.” Critics like the New York Post’s Barbara Hoffman agreed, stating “Something as sacred as that score, one of the most beautiful scores ever written—it’s blasphemous.”

The West Side Story incident is also a blatant example of producers’ frequent “bait and switch” tactics—opening a show with a full live orchestra and garnering positive reviews, and then cheating subsequent audiences by replacing much of the acclaimed orchestra with canned music. And when producers cheapen the quality of the show, do they reduce ticket prices? Of course not!—they continue to raise the cost of tickets to squeeze out even more profits.

Some Broadway producers apparently care nothing about the value of the interplay between live musicians and musical actors that give Broadway shows their emotional spark. They would rather insult audiences with recorded music than give ticket-buyers the live show they paid for and deserve.


Live Music vs. Recordings: A History

Going back several decades, long-standing agreements between musicians and producers held that based on size and acoustics, each Broadway theater would have a designated minimum number of musicians to play in musicals staged therein in order to maximize the beauty and power of the music.

In 1993, professional musicians agreed that producers had the right in some unusual cases to make an aesthetic argument that a given production did not require the full complement of musicians. In these instances, if the musicians and the producers could not agree on the number of musicians to be used, the parties would submit the question to a panel made up of musicians, producers’ representatives and neutral parties knowledgeable about Broadway. The panel would consider the circumstances and possibly grant producers a “special situation” waiver to utilize fewer musicians than the designated minimum.

Over the years, the musicians union and these panels have regularly agreed to grant producers these “special situation” requests. In some instances, such is in the recent show American Idiot, which features the music of a rock band, Green Day, without requiring the producers to go before a panel the musicians readily agreed to support the producers’ decision to alter the standard orchestra composition. The problem is that some producers manipulate the “special situation” process and diminish the artistic quality, and audience enjoyment, of musicals.


The Broadway Musicians Strike of 2003

Even after the 1993 accord was in place, some producers did not consistently adhere to the good-faith process set forth in the agreement. For example, when a “special situation” panel ruled that a 2000 production of Saturday Night Fever did not meet the criteria for reducing the previously designated number of musicians, the producers simply handed out mock keyboards to a few of the show’s singers and counted them as musicians!

In 2003, when Broadway producers sought to reduce the minimum size of orchestras by more than two-thirds across all theaters, the musicians were forced to fight back. For the largest theaters that designated 24 or 26 musicians as necessary to create the most compelling sound, producers proposed to shrink orchestras to as low as seven members in the pit with recorded sound filling the many musical gaps left by the musicians’ absence. Musicians revolted against this affront to the authenticity of the Broadway experience by voting to strike.

During the strike, Broadway producers were prepared to keep their shows up and running by piping in pre-recorded music—essentially turning Broadway into a giant karaoke bar. What they failed to anticipate, however, was subsequent action by both Broadway actors and stagehands. Both groups chose to support the musicians. The actors publicly expressed their intense displeasure at performing to recorded music. With public opinion against them, the producers shuttered and silenced Broadway for four days, including a weekend. The Broadway blackout cost producers, performing artists and New York City millions of dollars. Only after the intervention of New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg was the conflict resolved.

But in a relentless drive to replace live music with recordings, in 2005 the producers of Sweeney Todd had actors play all the instruments in that show, which let them get away with technically meeting the requirements without hiring a single professional musician. This demonstrably lessened the quality of the performance.


Cynical Producers Continue to Disingenuously Cite “Artistic Reasons” For Gutting Live Music:

As it stands today, some producers continue to routinely apply for “special situation” reductions in the minimum number of required musicians in order to fatten their profits. (Incidentally, they don’t even make much more when they do it, given that musicians’ compensation typically amounts to only 3% of a show’s budget; 97% is attributable to rental of the theater, payments to the writer, composer, lyricist, director, choreographer and performers, as well as the cost of costumes, set design and, increasingly, marketing and special effects.)

Since producers must use artistic considerations as the basis for their claims, many disingenuously cite aesthetic reasons for dumping musicians. However, technologically-sophisticated sound boards in theaters can—and are often utilized to—manipulate or enhance the sound of the orchestra to achieve certain desired effects but without diminishing the authenticity and power of a full orchestra.

Maybe in the future they could just have the actors lip-sync to songs performed by a computer—we could call it Android Lloyd Webber! Some producers have shown that there is no limit to how much they are willing to debase the Broadway experience if it means a bigger payoff. The goal is clear: pay as little as possible for live music—degrading the quality of the time-honored Broadway musical—and pocket more profits.

Save Live Music On Broadway needs your help to stop this race to the cultural bottom. Sign our petition and help us fight back by being a part of our campaign to defend the integrity and authenticity of the musical theater—and KEEP BROADWAY LIVE!

The Council for Living Music

Is an organization whose purpose is to enhance the public’s recognition of the art of live music and live musical performance in all its magnificent forms. We are dedicated to increasing public awareness and appreciation of various forms of musical expression, preserving historic and contemporary musical forms and encouraging the development of new varieties of musical expression that evolve through live performance.

The passion invoked by the sound created by flesh-and-blood musicians playing actual musical instruments is an essential part of the human experience, transcending borders and cultures. Tragically, many performing arts venues and producers are seeking to substitute recordings for live music. The Council for Living Music is working to restore and preserve live music, support the musicians whose art and skills sustain it, and champion music education, study and research. We have enough processed sound in our culture; let’s keep musical performances LIVE!

For more information about the Council For Living Music, click here to contact us.

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