B’way Watchdogs Keep An Ear Out For Canned Music
August 14, 2012
By Joe Maniscalco
It’s been about eight weeks since producers decided to shut down “Priscilla Queen of the Desert” after little more than a year on Broadway. Despite a glittering Tony Award win, the musical based on the popular 1994 movie of the same name, was widely lambasted for using recorded or “canned” music instead of live musicians.
“The public doesn’t want to hear taped music,” Local 802 AFM Recording Vice-President John O’Connor says. “They want to hear the real thing. If you want to hear canned music, go to Peoria, Illinois. But this is Broadway. This is New York City.”
Local 802 AFM – the musicians union – took on the producers of “Priscilla” as part of its “Save Live Music On Broadway” campaign, while also waging a wide-ranging public awareness campaign aimed at educating audiences about what they were actually getting for the $100-plus theater tickets.
“I think we probably had an affect on how many people came to see that show,” O’Connor says.
“Priscilla” may be gone, but that same sort of vigilance continues wherever penny-pinching producers attempt to cut corners at the expense of musicians and theater audiences alike.
“It’s still called a musical,” Local 802 AFM President Tino Gagliardi says. “It’s not called a dance-ical. It seems to me that trying to cut music is a wrong-headed way to try and save money.”
If Local 802 seems a little defensive, it’s for good reason. In 2003, a mediated settlement at Gracie Mansion resulted in a 30 percent reduction in Broadway pit chairs following a strike over minimum standards. Minimum standards stipulate that Broadway producers must utilize a certain number of live musicians depending on the size of their theater.
Today, that number is pegged at less than 20 on the high end, and as little as four on the low end. However, an exception inside the current contract referred to as the “special situations” provision, gives producers even more wiggle room.
“Producers can come in and tell the union that because of artistic considerations they need to hire fewer musicians,” Gagliardi explains.
Most of the time, the “special situations” provision makes sense and the union has no objections – as was the case with “American Idiot” – a recent rock musical based entirely on songs from pop-punk trio Green Day.
“Local 802 has historically been flexible in that regard,” Gagliardi says. “The problem arises when it becomes evident that decisions are financially motivated. Then we have a problem.”
According to the union, the “most egregious” assault on live music on Broadway this year has been the doomed “Priscilla Queen of the Desert” musical in which canned tracks attempted to replace nine live musicians.
“The producers are always trying to cut corners,” O’Connor says.
Just last week, one of the musicians protesting the lack of pension benefits for jazz artists outside The Iridium nightclub on Broadway, lamented that the production of the mega hit “Mama Mia” playing at the nearby Winter Garden was actually using some canned horn sections during performances.
“We want the public to be aware of just how fragile live music is in this society,” O’Connor says. “There’s so much technology available that can be used to try and replace live music.”
Like any union, Local 802 AFM is concerned with things that affect its members like pensions, pay scale and quality healthcare. But the leadership of the largest local union of professional musicians in the world has also come to see itself as the gatekeepers of live music on Broadway.
“This is something we all need to be worried about,” Gagliardi says. “We need to think about our kids and what they’re being exposed to in the media and in the theater. I have a young daughter at home, and I would be very worried if she was never able to hear a live violin in a Broadway pit.”
Now that “Priscilla” and her canned orchestra are history, Local 802 has one less production to worry about – but the union still won’t relax.
“We’ve got to watch them because they’re always trying to pull some tricks,” O’Connor says.