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March 26, 2003

Why this actor supported the musicians' fight for live Broadway

By Shawn Emamjomeh

The League of Producers stated it would ultimately like to do away with minimums - the minimum number of musicians required by each Broadway venue. Producers feel they - or as their argument went, the artistic team - should not have to petition the Musician's Union, Local 802, under the "special situations" clause in order to have an orchestra size smaller than required by a particular theatre's minimums.

The special situations clause was under-explained by the media throughout the negotiations and strike. It allows producers to apply for an orchestra size smaller than the theatre's required minimums if the artistic team feels that for artistic or historical purposes the show in question necessitates that smaller orchestra. Mostly at suit in the fight for minimums were the larger Broadway theaters, which typically house the musicals and, before settlement, had minimums of 24-26. Smaller venues had minimums as low as 3. Since the introduction of special situations, the majority of shows that petitioned had been granted their request. Exact numbers varied depending on which side was asked, but both the League and 802 agreed that most requests were indeed granted.

In this round of contract negotiations, in which minimums were the major sticking point, the language of the special situations clause had been further changed to benefit the producers well before a strike was called - an aspect of the negotiations with which producers were supposedly pleased. The question was and still remains, if in the past producers were granted a majority of their requests under the old language and if the re-negotiated language was strengthened to the producer's benefit, why was the reduction or elimination of minimums so vital to producers?

I'm an actor in the musical CHICAGO - one of the many shows granted a smaller orchestra under 802's special situations for reasons of artistic and historical integrity. I have a tremendous debt of personal gratitude to our producers. Not only are they my employers, they have employed me in a production the caliber of which gives me tremendous pride. They have also helped me fulfill a lifelong dream of performing on Broadway, the ultimate in American musical theatre.

Producers argued that although special situations were allowed they didn't feel they should have to apply - in other words ask - to have a smaller orchestra size. And, in certain cases where their requests were not granted they were forced to either score-up - which means put more musicians in the pit to play - or have "walkers," musicians that are paid to meet theatre minimums, but who get to stay at home and collect a weekly paycheck. On the issue of walkers, I sympathized with producers. It seems like an antiquated union practice with little benefit short of preserving a musician salary, which with ever-increasing costs of producing theater seems absurd. That said, walkers have been a rare occurrence and the re-negotiated special situations should take care of walkers and scoring-up since producers are even more likely to be granted their requests. As for the producers' argument that they shouldn't have to ask 802 for a reduced orchestra size, it resonated as nothing more than juvenile.

The musicians on the other hand felt that minimums were required for multiple reasons. First off, should producers attain their stated goal and eventually eliminate minimums, there would never again be a guarantee of live music on Broadway. A show could simply play to recorded music. If actual orchestras make the recordings, the recorded sound will be generally the same as a live orchestra and the audience will be basically unaware of any difference. The producers, on the other hand, will have tremendously increased their profit margin by drastically reducing payroll.

I've been asked why it should matter that actors perform to recorded music. People have also pointed out if other industries adjust to the times and technologies, why shouldn't Broadway? For the record, let me differentiate between a recording of actual musicians playing their instruments and the "virtual orchestras" actors were asked to perform with. In most cases the "virtual orchestras" were entirely synthesized orchestras with tempos, volumes and cues set on a computer. The sound was artificial, square and soulless. A recording of a real orchestra will no doubt sound better, but the live element that makes Broadway so exciting will forever be lost. We have a remarkable medium in which performances are taped, edited and frozen; it's called film. A live Broadway show, on the other hand, breathes and changes on a nightly basis due to myriad reasons from the singer who wishes to hold a note longer, to an actor who chooses to ad lib, to cast changes, possible missed cues or safety issues and technical problems.

All these and many more artistic choices, spontaneities, changes and pitfalls are an undeniable part of live theatre to which the orchestra plays an integral part. In every show that I have been a part of the orchestra has at some juncture improvised, skipped measures, changed keys and much more to allow artistic flow or to save the show from derailing. No virtual or computerized orchestra will ever be able to claim the same accomplishment.

Second, minimums actually protect composers, lyricists, musical directors, arrangers and orchestrators - the heart of any musical artistic team. It was largely a smokescreen producers' used when they said the "artistic team" shouldn't have to petition for special situations. Unlike producers, the true artistic teams, the writers and creators of the shows, didn't seem to take issue with pitching their case to the special situations committee. In fact, a petition signed by many of Broadway's top composers and other musical brass circulated in support of the musicians' cause.

Minimums, in my opinion, protect artistic teams from being strong-armed by producers to compose a show using a predetermined number of musicians dictated by budget. Budget is an enormous, if not the main, factor in producing a show. Without enough money no show would stand a chance. And without a possibility of profit, no sane producer would want to take the chance, unless it's strictly a labor of love. An organic negotiation of product versus price will take place with every producer and artistic team. If the artistic team requires less than a theater's minimum, so be it. But if the musical necessitates more than minimum, at least the composers will have a negotiating floor, below which they do not have to drop to make their artistic vision a reality. Artists are savvy enough to know that if the producer's risk is too high, their show may never be actualized. They will make whatever compromises they can to give their show life while maintaining their vision.

Finally, producers didn't intend to pass on their savings from reduced or eliminated minimums to theatre audiences through lower ticket prices. Audiences actually lose twice. They'll be asked to pay rapidly increasing ticket prices for a drastically deteriorated art form.

The producers publicized that they were doing the majority of compromising in these recently settled negotiations. But producers started negotiations by saying they wanted zero minimums, eventually offering seven, twelve, thirteen, fourteen and fifteen before the strike, to finally settle, for the next decade, in the eighteen to nineteen range for large houses. Starting at zero, there was no place to go but up, with a lot of space for tactical, public "compromise."

The first question every person needs to ask is: do you personally believe that minimums should be reduced? Keep in mind that the new special situations language, negotiated and established before the strike, almost guarantees artistic teams the number of musicians they need. Given that assumption, walkers and scoring-up will probably desist. If you still believe minimums should have been reduced, ask yourself if they should be eliminated, forever losing the guarantee of live music on Broadway. If you don't want them eliminated, where does the line of reduction get drawn? Once the special situations clause was strengthened, what was the producers' rationale for reducing minimums if it wasn't to ultimately eliminate them? In that case, the only advantage to eliminating minimums is to make musicians and live music obsolete, if the producers so choose.

In CHICAGO the musicians sit on stage with us in full view of the audience every night and inspire us to live up to their magnificence. The pride I feel as part of such a tremendous show would have dissolved with a synthesized, computerized virtual orchestra. And as a performer in the greater sense, having worked my entire life to be part of this unique and American art form, my pride in an industry which seeks to eliminate an integral element of the art has been severely compromised.

But the real tragedy was the loss to the audience and the city of New York, still trying to rebound from the effects of 9-11 and a weak economy. Broadway musicals are distinctly American, and distinctly New York. The Broadway audience travels from around the globe for a taste of what has made this art form great. Countless tourists approached us on the picket line to pledge their support, bring us coffee and donuts or flowers. Others were disgruntled that they couldn't see the show when they bought tickets months before. The picket lines themselves became a tourist trap where people stopped for photos. But we would much rather have been entertaining the public on stage than on the sidewalk. On our return performance the collective energy in our theatre was so stratospheric, because the live experience had been preserved, that I choked back tears at the first sound of our opening trumpet solo. We love our jobs. And, the audiences deserve to hear live sweeping symphonies, rock bands, and in our case ...All That Jazz.

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