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April 20, 2004

Cast a wary eye toward synthesized sound, non-union performers

By Alice T. Carter
Sunday, April 18, 2004

Folks around here like to be sure they're getting their money's worth. We threaten to boycott Downtown forever when parking rates increase.

There's little that makes us happier than a restaurant that gives us a lot of food for the money and sends us home with a plastic sack of Styrofoam clamshells filled with a week's worth of leftovers.

So it's puzzling to me why, when it comes to theater, there's so little outrage about national touring companies that arrive with non-Equity casts or orchestras augmented by synthesized music.

Plans for the 2004-05 lineup for the PNC Broadway in Pittsburgh series, reported elsewhere in this section today, raise the issue once more. The companies of "Oliver!" and "Oklahoma" that will perform here next season have non-Equity casts. Moreover, the live musicians in the orchestra "Oliver!" are augmented by Sinfonia, a real-time synthesized sound substitute.

Already I can hear some of you turning the page.

You've read this lament from me before and, yes, I'm aware that lots of you couldn't care less.

I've heard it from the lips of theatergoers who muttered comments such as "I hate unions" as they passed the informational pickets for "Sound of Music" a couple years back.

I've watched the house fill up for non-Equity shows such as the recent production of "Rent."

Kevin McMahon, president and chief executive officer of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust -- which, along with the Pittsburgh Symphony and Clear Channel, forms the partnership that brings us the PNC Broadway in Pittsburgh series -- assures me that no one has complained to him about non-Equity casts since he began his tenure with the Cultural Trust.

And yes, it's true that lack of a union contract doesn't make bad performances inevitable any more than having Equity actors guarantees a satisfying evening of theater.

This season's "Rent" suffered only marginally from being performed by non-union actors. And it wasn't even a consideration in other shows that have been part of Broadway series, such as "Stomp," and "Tap Dogs."

The youthful "Rent" players surely looked like the people they were playing and sang with great spirit and good voices.

But where you're likely to be echoing Oliver's "Please, sir, I want some more" is in the quality and depth of the acting. Naturally, there's always exceptions, but those fresh-out-of-college non-union casts too often lack the experience and ability to understand and convey the deeper story, the subtextual intentions and meanings that made the Broadway and earlier touring productions more emotionally charged and meaningful.

The touring production of "Oliver!" comes with yet another troubling aspect -- Sinfonia. Sinfonia is electronic equipment that allows a single operator to reproduce the sounds of several instruments while adjusting tempo to follow the real-time lead of the orchestra's live conductor. It augments, rather than replaces, an entire orchestra. But in the demonstration I heard, it doesn't deliver the full, rich sounds of real instruments.

It's one thing to add synthesizers or recorded sound to big rock musicals in which manipulated and amplified sound is part of the aesthetic that the composer chooses to employ.

I'm even open to the case that composer David Weinstein is arguing in New York City, that he deliberately chose to use Sinfonia's electronic sounds as an artistic tool to supplement the more traditional live musicians in his off-Broadway show, "The Joy of Sex: A Naughty New Musical."

In choosing Sinfonia, Weinstein acknowledges it sounds like electronic versions of real instruments. He also argues that it can produce other sounds that in no way can be mistaken for traditional orchestral sounds. But he isn't deluding himself into believing they're a seamless substitute indistinguishable from the real thing.

Unlike "The Joy of Sex," "Oklahoma!" and "Oliver!" are popular classics from the golden era of musicals with arrangements written for traditional musical instruments and musicians.

Those scores in particular, and stage musicals in general, benefit from the participation of live musicians and actors capable of delivering the nuance, subtlety and pacing that only live performers can produce.

The reason we get in our cars and bypass the neighborhood Blockbuster to see a live stage performance is that it is just that -- live. It's happening right in front of you, with the performers creating their reality as you watch.

We could venture no farther than that Blockbuster and rent the film version of "Oliver!" or "Oklahoma!," which we could watch in our jammies, eating popcorn that's far cheaper than the $3 theater lobby candy, after parking our cars rate-free in our own driveways.

As scheduling demands, a lack of product and the desire for enhanced financial return -- not to mention lack of consumer protest -- encourage producers and presenters to use non-union performers and synthesized sound, we have fewer and fewer reasons to extend ourselves to go see the live version.

Oliver's mentor, Fagin, may believe it's OK to pick a pocket or two, especially if no one complains.

It's up to those of us who love live performances by real, breathing, performers to tell producers that quality does matter and only the best can satisfy us.

Unlike Oliver, we shouldn't just ask for more. Quantity isn't the issue. Quality is. The rallying cry of the theater lover should be: "Please, sir, I deserve better."

Alice T. Carter is the theater critic for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. She can be reached at or (412) 320-7808.

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