The Sound of Muzak

It is called a virtual orchestra, and the mere mention of it is enough to send chills down the spine of any Broadway musician. Which is pretty much what Broadway’s producers want them to feel as they sit down this week to bang out a new contract: Mess with us, they’ve suggested, and we’ll replace the lot of you with a laptop. A very expensive laptop, packed with bells and whistles, not to mention violins, flutes, and at least 76 trombones.

While control over the size of orchestras has become a perennial in contract talks, some of the more creative work being done these days is changing the very idea of what it means to be a Broadway show. There was a time when a musical meant performers who were triple threats—they sang, acted, danced—accompanied by an orchestra. But three years ago, the Tony for Best Musical went to Contact, which used recorded music and no one on stage sang a note. And this year’s contenders for Broadway’s top award will likely include Movin’ Out—a Twyla Tharp story ballet set to Billy Joel tunes sung by a Joel stand-in, backed by a band—and Baz Luhrmann’s La Bohème, an opera whose young divas get a Broadway-style electronic boost.

The producers are intent on doing away with an ancient rule requiring them to hire a minimum number of musicians for a show—a number based not on the show itself but on the theater it’s running in. Jed Bernstein, president of the producers’ trade group, says getting rid of the minimums is “the central issue” of this negotiation.

Get rid of them, says Bill Moriarity, head of the musicians’ union, Local 802, and “I don’t think the producers could resist taking sections of the orchestra and putting them on an electronic device, or cutting out one musician here, another there.”

Ten years ago, the musicians’ union stopped forcing producers to pay musicians for not playing (this actually had gone on for decades). But they’ve held fast to minimums, even while agreeing to negotiate the size of an orchestra in certain circumstances. Producers find that too cumbersome, and they’re feeling powerful. So the musicians went on the offensive, with an ad campaign warning that live music on Broadway is in danger of going the way of the follies.

The producers, by the way, changed with the times as well. Not long ago, they began advertising their product as a high-end brand, and they even came up with a catchy slogan: Live Broadway. No one’s come up with a virtual producer. Yet.

The Sound of Muzak