Outside of New York, the most important city in the world for musical theater is London. Regrettably, the home to the world’s most famous theater, Shakespeare’s Globe, also faces the erosion of live musical theater through the use of recorded sound. In recent years, English audiences have witnessed live performances of some of musical theater’s most transcendent works vanish before their very eyes.
In 2008, producers presented audiences with a Spanish-language version of Peter Pan, Peter Pan El Musical, at the Garrick Theater in London. Audiences and critics were universally appalled by the grating absence of live music. Spanish expatriates in London and tourists could not have been grateful to the show’s Spanish producers for portraying their homeland’s music that The Telegraph described as a “cheesy synthesizer.” Worse, audiences were forced to endure music derided as “rejected Spanish entries for the Eurovision song contest.” Ouch.
Unfortunately for London audiences, Quasimodo was also subjected to the same canned music that killed El Pedro Pan. Notre Dame de Paris The Musical went up in 2000 with recorded music, leaving audiences to strain to hear a “backing track” that was “inaudible for much of its sung-through length.” Much of the music, according to another reviewer, “disappear(ed) under a slurring bass thump.” Another reviewer called the show’s music a “winner, at least for those…with lowbrow musical tastes.”
Worse still was Sir Cameron Mackintosh’s 2004 production of one of musical theater’s gold standards, Les Miserables. After relocating the show to a smaller theater, Mackintosh cut half the orchestra and replaced them with a machine. Predictably, the show, even in a smaller venue, felt “puny” to one critic, who bemoaned the “lack of depth and lushness” as “another nail [was] pounded into the coffin of that constantly critical patient, the so-called live theatre.”
Most recently, a Salford production of The Wizard of Oz, featuring Judy Garland’s daughter Lorna Luft as the Wicked Witch, also piped in recorded music for the entire show. Classic songs like “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” and “Follow The Yellow Brick Road” – songs that are meant to be sung with an orchestra – were instead backed by “cheap-sounding synthesized accompaniment,” according to The Telegraph.
In this case, however, the audience fought back against The Wizard of Oz’s producers and their pursuit of profit over aesthetic experience. A Manchester man, Adrian Bradbury, sued the show’s producers under the little-used Trade Descriptions Act, which allows consumers some recourse when a product they purchase does not measure up to the way it is advertised.
In the shot heard round the world for fans of live music, Mr. Bradbury won the case. His argument, that if you pay for world-class musical theater – which Mr. Bradbury did at £134.50 ($220.65) per ticket – you deserve to see and hear live musicians providing the score. The judge agreed that this expectation was reasonable and made producers refund Mr. Bradbury’s money.
While Mr. Bradbury’s case is encouraging, it’s an isolated incident. If one can put up a major production in England with all recorded music, we can only assume that Broadway producers are only a stone’s throw across the pond from doing it in New York, too. We must fight back and, as audience members, proclaim that recordings cheapen musical theater and we’re not going to take it! Sign the petition now.