“But Is It Live?”

The current controversy over the decision by producers of Broadway’s Priscilla Queen of the Desert to use recordings in place of string musicians is not the first such situation to create a stir.  Last year, after playing over 500 shows, producers of Leonard Bernstein’s classic West Side Story decided to bet against the taste of their audience, hoping that ticket-buyers wouldn’t notice when they swapped out five world-class musicians for a synthesizer.

This underhanded tactic, allowing a show to run for some time before replacing live music with machines, allowed them to avoid the bad reviews and negative publicity that would come from opening with a watered-down, partly synthetic orchestra.

Theater lovers, having  seen reviews for a fully live show and expecting just that, ended up going to see West Side Story without knowing that half the string section had been replaced by a machine – all so the producers could pocket a few extra dollars.  This is the worst kind of bait-and-switch.

These cuts prompted violinist Paul Woodiel to tell AFP last year, “I was a student and a friend of Leonard Bernstein and it’s almost certain he wouldn’t have allowed this. This isn’t dinner theater, it’s not Las Vegas. It’s Broadway and Leonard Bernstein was the greatest American musician.”

Peter Reit, French Horn player in Phantom of the Opera, said in that same piece, “You get the feeling that if they had their way, ideally, they would have an entire virtual orchestra…. They would have all of us replaced with one electronic instrument, then feed that to the public and make more money.”

This was only the beginning.  Priscilla has a recording doing the work of half the band.  Will producers stop there?  Does anyone really want to pay top dollar for “an entire virtual orchestra”?

You can see quotes around our site from luminaries as diverse as Stephen Sondheim, Tommy James, Coati Mundi, Scott Frankel, and many more on the importance of live music, and we hope you’ll take the time to see what they have to say.  From pop songwriters to classical concertmasters, so many musicians and composers have come out in opposition to second-rate canned music being foisted upon audiences.

Musicians aren’t alone in their opposition to this practice.  Almost 5,000 of you have signed the petition demanding the producers keep Broadway live.  Many of you – middle school band members, college music students, aspiring actors, Broadway fans of all ages – have written to tell us how much live music in the theatre means to you.

But we have to remember that it is not just musicians or fans that we need on our side.  It is the producers of the next West Side Story, the next Priscilla, who are looking for ways to make a few extra bucks. We need to make sure that those producers know that audiences demand the full, authentic Broadway experience.  We need to make sure they know that audiences want live music.

That is what this campaign is all about.  That is why we need your help sharing this petition and this website, online and in real life, with people who truly care about Broadway.  We are building a network of theatergoers who become aware of what’s going on, people who ask “But is it live?” before they buy their ticket.  This is bigger than just Priscilla or West Side Story.  Only when producers know that audiences are on to these tricks, only when they are sure that the cost of lost ticket sales will outweigh the 1-2% of the budget that they save by replacing part of the orchestra with recorded music, will the proud historical tradition of live Broadway be secure.


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