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All Eyes on Stage, But a Tape Recorder in the Pit?

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Poll: Would you buy a ticket to a Broadway show featuring taped music?

Keen to halt a cost-cutting turn to recorded music in Broadway theaters, the leaders of Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians have targeted the Broadway production Priscilla, Queen of the Desert with a flashy campaign entitled, “Save Live Music on Broadway.”

What began as a campaign supported by Broadway producers and directors has now expanded to the classical music world. Among those adding their support are Juilliard President Joseph Polisi, New York Philharmonic Concertmaster Glenn Dicterow and MET Orchestra Assistant Concertmaster Laura Hamilton. (None were available for comment as of press time.)

The campaign takes aim at the Priscilla production’s use of only nine musicians and reams of recorded material. The Local 802 contract for each of Broadway’s 40 theaters stipulates the minimum number of musicians at 18 or 19 for a large house. At the Palace Theater, home of Priscilla, the number is 18.

However, productions may circumvent this requirement by applying for a "special situation" status, granted in circumstances where the reasons are deemed artistically credible. The producers of Priscilla requested such status and the union objected. Following the collective bargaining agreement, a mutually agreed-upon industry neutral moderator was consulted. On March 16, the moderator determined that the production did not need any more musicians, "especially violins," according to a copy of her findings letter.

The musicians' union, which is now taking the issue to final and binding arbitration, contended that the production has set up a false dichotomy of sorts. Tino Gagliardi, the president of Local 802, pointed to the live string backings that once supported soul singers like Gloria Gaynor and Donna Summer. “The claim that that sound cannot be reproduced live is just patently false,” Gagliardi said.

The particular pop-synth sounds of Priscilla, the story of a gaggle of road-tripping drag queens, begs the broader question: is a Broadway musical always best served by live performers, or do some productions have a particular artistic vision that, for better or worse, excludes a formal strings section?

Not surprisingly, answers to this question can be heard on both sides. Local 802 points to a 704-person national survey which found that 91 percent of respondents find the live music to be the best part of a Broadway experience. Seventy-five percent outright say they won’t buy a ticket to a show using canned music.

But in the eyes of the producers, Priscilla sounds just right.

“The number of musicians used is a creative decision,” said Adrian Bryan-Brown, a partner at Boneau/Bryan-Brown, the public relations firm for Priscilla. “The show uses recorded manipulated sounds which an industry 'neutral' -- agreed upon by the union and the League -- ruled could not be replicated by string musicians. This sound is very specifically related to the music of 1980’s disco shows in Sydney, which is the setting for the show.”

Owing to its lack of live orchestration, among a number of additional factors, Priscilla, Queen of the Desert has not pranced into the hearts of theater critics. In his review, New York Times critic Charles Isherwood wrote the production evokes the “more dispiriting hours at a nightclub, when the D.J. is on autopilot and only the really hardened club crawlers are still churning away.”

Gagliardi of Local 802 maintains that a live performance of the tunes would clear all that deadening malaise right away.

“There are parts of the show where there only strings playing, but it’s all a recording and the audience is getting ripped off,” said Gagliardi. “Instead of worrying about labor conditions and wages issues, I’m worried about live performances. I mean, what’s going to happen when they start hanging computer-generated art in the museums?”

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