Broadway for Dummies

Aaron Latham’s Urban Cowboy was a hit film in 1980; this week, it opens as a Broadway musical—think of it as the reverse of Chicago, which began life as a hit Broadway musical and became a huge success onscreen only after 27 years of rejected screenplays and flummoxed directors. Latham’s long ride to the Broadhurst Theatre has been nearly as unforgiving as the mechanical bull at his famous story’s center. The original director died. Raising the modest $4.5 million budget was problematic.

And then there was that business with the musicians. A week into previews, the players, supported by the two most powerful unions in Broadway’s labor force—Actors’ Equity and the Stagehands’ Union—shut down Broadway’s commercial musicals.

“I thought, We worked for five and a half years and this was it, kaput,” says Latham, a big, bearded Texan, punctuating his frustration with a sigh.

Like most of their colleagues, Chase Mishkin and Leonard Soloway, the producers of Urban Cowboy, had prepared for a walkout by canning the music. Some shows used a synthesizing device called a virtual orchestra; Mishkin and Soloway had Urban Cowboy’s honky-tonk score recorded in Cleveland. Normally, the music is played by a seven-member onstage band. “We got mannequins to sit in the players’ seats,” Latham says. “We rehearsed with the canned music and the mannequin band.”

As it happens, no one ever got to hear Urban Cowboy for Dummies—or any other canned musical, for that matter. Because of the unions’ solidarity—a first for Broadway—the shows simply went dark for four days until a new contract was hammered out at Gracie Mansion under the stern eye of Mayor Bloomberg’s emissary, former schools chancellor Frank Macchiarola. In the end, the musicians achieved their goal of retaining a minimum number of players for each show. The producers and theater owners, whose goal was to eliminate those minimums altogether, won a nearly 30 percent reduction in them.

So on the surface, it looks like a pretty substantial victory for the musicians, right? Not so fast. By flexing their muscle, the unions may well have damaged their own cause in the long term.

“The unions totally let us off the hook by supporting the musicians,” one of Broadway’s top independent producers told me. “The minute the shows closed down, it meant that no one would hear how bad the virtual orchestra is.” Indeed, the Times’ chief critic, Ben Brantley, says he’d bought tickets for weekend performances of La Bohème, Hairspray, Movin’ Out, and The Lion King. Newsday’s chief critic, Linda Winer, and Variety’s chief critic, Charles Isherwood, also planned to cover shows using virtual orchestras, until the strike made the point moot. Or mute.

The creators of the two competing virtual-orchestra systems complain, not surprisingly, that they’ve been unjustly maligned. They argue that with more rehearsal time, digital orchestras would be indistinguishable from live musicians. They also point out, correctly, that for decades now, “live” music on Broadway has been augmented by synthesizers filling in for musicians that producers would rather not have to pay for, and that Broadway audiences are acclimated to this often blaring, disembodied sound.

While performers in the pit and onstage have an interest in pooh-poohing these arguments, their voices are compelling nonetheless: “We were amazed at how bad it was,” a lead musician in one of Broadway’s biggest musicals told me. A veteran player of several decades’ standing, this musician added that “in a musical, every performance has some element of improvisation. We have a lot of fun down there, and can respond to what’s going on onstage.”

“The keyboards were fine, but when they had to start going into horns, winds, drums, it all sounded kazooey,” says an actor in Hairspray involved in the virtual-orchestra rehearsals. I’ve heard variations of that sentiment a lot over the past few weeks, from musicians, actors, and stage managers. “I thought, Oh, my God, I’m on Broadway and I’ve gone back to children’s theater,” adds the Hairspray actor. “The fear that we might have to perform in front of a paying audience was tangibly terrifying.”

The virtual-orchestra folks insist they can match a live performance. But the point is, we’ll never know how true that is—or at least we won’t know for ten years, which is how long the new contract ensures the reduced minimums.

Aside from a few thousand disappointed ticket holders who showed up only to find the doors locked for four days, people outside the business must have viewed this internecine squabble as some sort of farce. All this noise over 325 jobs, especially when Broadway still seems intent on alienating audiences, especially young ones: Tickets cost too much, it’s too hard to buy them and even harder to pick them up at curtain time, and getting in and out of the theater district requires a tremendous act of will. Now that the unions have banded together to “save live Broadway,” as they so memorably put it, maybe they’ll really protect their self-interest by insisting that the customers be treated better.

Back at Urban Cowboy, Aaron Latham is sanguine about his show’s near miss. The day I spoke with him last week, in fact, he was a lot more exercised about being forced by his producers to cut a song from the first act than he was about the prospect of having the show use prerecorded music. And yet Latham was pretty impressed with the musician-free rehearsals, the ones with the dummies. “The musicians were in danger of convincing the producers that canned music works better than any of us thought,” he says. “We thought it would be a disaster, but it wasn’t. It sounded like we had a real band up there.”

Damn. Now I’m not sure which side should count its blessings.

Broadway for Dummies