- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 9, 2003

NEW YORK Broadway's musicals may have gone silent for now, but that's better than the alternative, say the shows' actors.
Virtual orchestras computers that use recorded samples to recreate the sound of a live ensemble would have replaced striking musicians if actors and stagehands had crossed picket lines Friday.
Theatergoers would have been shocked by the results, actors say.
The virtual orchestra "sounds tinny, artificial, sparse it has no soul. It's not even real music," said Belle Callaway, who plays the leading role of Roxie Hart in "Chicago."
Mrs. Callaway and other Broadway actors joined picketing musicians outside all 18 Broadway musicals on Friday. The musicians union declared a strike to protest what it calls an unfair proposal by theater producers to trim the minimum number of players that must be used in a show.
Companies have been rehearsing with the fake orchestras since Feb. 24, when contract negotiations between the musicians union and producers began to break down.
"We've had several rehearsals with [the virtual orchestra], and they've all been disasters," said Gary Kilmer, a swing performer in "Chicago."
"Today we tried to get through the show without stopping. We stopped six times in Act 1, and we didn't even get all the way through Act 2," he said. "Every single rehearsal we had, different things went wrong."
For example, an instrument in the mix would be loud one day, barely audible the next. Slight variations of that kind threw off the cast's concentration, Mr. Kilmer said.
Richard Pruitt, who plays Abner Dillon in "42nd Street," said he and other cast members had to tailor their tempos and entrances to fit the virtual orchestra. Performing with live musicians, he said, allows more give and take players can compensate when singers slow their tempos or miss a cue, for example.
"With the virtual orchestra, it's just like turning on a machine. It's constrictive," Mr. Pruitt said. What you wind up with, he said, is "half a movie, half a play."
"I would say about 75 percent of any character or drama going on on-stage was lost, because it was all about listening to the tape," said Jim Weitzer, a chorus member in "The Phantom of the Opera." "Phantom" would have used a prerecorded tape of its score.
Mrs. Callaway said "Chicago" would have been particularly hollow without live musicians, who perform onstage with the actors.
Actors and stagehands joined musicians in a strike that turned the lights out on Broadway yesterday, in the first labor action in three decades that managed to shut down New York's vibrant musical theater scene.
Eighteen musicals and three in rehearsals were shut down by the work stoppage after actors and stagehands surprised producers by observing the musicians' picket line on Friday night.
"This is a sad night for Broadway and for New York," said Jed Bernstein, president of the League of American Theatres and Producers.
Producers and the musicians union stopped negotiating Friday and did not set a date to resume talks.
Despite weeks of talks, the musicians union the American Federation of Musicians and Broadway producers have failed to reach agreement on the minimum number of musicians to be employed in a given show.
Musical productions currently must employ a minimum of 26 musicians a number the producers say they want to reduce to about 14. The musicians union has said it is willing to lose no more than one or two musicians per production.
"The producers need to come up with a reasonable offer to preserve the integrity of Broadway and keep live music from disappearing altogether," union spokesman Shawn Sachs said.

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