The ongoing struggle to keep Broadway music live actually goes back long before this year’s controversy over Priscilla’s use of recorded strings or last year’s decision by West Side Story producers to dilute Leonard Bernstein’s classic composition with synthesizers. Back in 1991 the Tommy Tune directed and choreographed show Grand Hotel: The Musical already had been running for two years when the producers decided to cut out eight musicians – the entire string section – and replace them with a synthesizer.
In a precursor to the bait-and-switch move used by West Side Story producers two decades later, Grand Hotel’s producers took a show which had received the acclaim of critics and audiences alike, a show which had won five Tony Awards, and replaced the whole string section with an electronic simulation. Do you think they advertised this fact, perhaps with some new posters proclaiming “Grand Hotel: Now with Synthesizer!”? Of course not.
Would the show ever have gotten the accolades that it received if it had opened with the ersatz sounds of a synthesizer rather than an authentic full pit? Obviously the producers didn’t think so, or they would have done it from the start. Instead they waited for the reviews and awards to roll in before swapping out the strings. The producers of Grand Hotel exploited the reputation built up over two years of quality performances by a top-flight orchestra in order to sell theatergoers a bill of goods, severely diminishing the audience’s experience while continuing to charge full price.
This perfectly typifies the deceptive tactics of some Broadway producers – they attempt to sneak in synths and recordings after the show has made a name for itself utilizing a full live orchestra. Priscilla has taken this to the next level by not even bothering to open with a fully live orchestra: they have been using prerecorded strings since night one. However, just as Grand Hotel and West Side Story’s producers tried to sneak synths in under the radar, Priscilla’s producers have made sure never to mention their use of canned music in their expensive ad campaigns. This cover-up is not surprising given that market research has documented that three-quarters of theatergoers wouldn’t go to a show if they knew it was using recorded music.
So we see with Grand Hotel that Broadway history has been repeating itself: first in the insulting move of swapping of synths for strings in Leonard Bernstein’s classic score, now in Priscilla’s overpriced karaoke on display at the Palace Theater – simply the latest and most brazen attempt to grab a little more profit by cutting live music. But what good does it do for a few people to profit if the price is live music, the very soul of Broadway?
The best way to fight back is by making sure that the less conscientious producers know that you are onto their tricks, that you will ask, “But is it live?” before you hand over your hard-earned money. That is why so many theatergoers across the country have signed our petition – to let producers and theater owners know that you care about the irreplaceable experience of live musical theater on Broadway.