Reports have suggested a brewing full-scale dispute between Mackintosh and Britain’s Musicians’ Union over the impresario’s plans to shrink the size of the Les Misérables orchestra from 22 to 10, augmenting the sound with a new electronic system when the show moves from the Palace Theatre to the Queen’s.
In a press statement, Mackintosh’s company pointed out that the Queen’s pit only holds 10 musicians. It also claims that the move to the smaller theatre was forced on them because the Palace’s owners, Really Useful Theatre, needed to close it for long-overdue renovations. And the Queen’s was the only venue available, for which Mackintosh negotiated an early return of the lease from Really Useful Theatre.
The release says, “In early January, Cameron Mackintosh Ltd. met with officials from the Musicians' Union to confirm the size of the reduced orchestra and the introduction of the Realtime Music Solution System to enhance the orchestral sound. After lengthy discussion the officials of the MU gave an in principle indication . . . that the proposed reduction in the orchestra and the addition of the RTMS system could be an acceptable solution.”
Mackintosh spoke to Playbill On-Line Jan. 22 as he prepared to go into another meeting with the union. He put the controversy down to a lack of understanding. “The committee we’ve been negotiating with don’t really know exactly what this is — that the instrument is really just a development of the sampling technology which has been in use for the last 20 years. It’s designed to work with live musicians, replacing several synthesizers so you can deploy more live instrumentalists alongside it. It’s not something lurking darkly behind the door. In fact, I suspect it will be a boon to live performances.”
Comparing the Realtime Music Solution System to the equally-controversial introduction of synthesizers, he points out that there are more live musicians working in the West End now than when the synthesizers arrived. “I am not prepared,” continued Mackintosh, “to move Les Misérables knowing that the score will not be delivered as well as it might. I wish those musicians who are complaining would care more about what the public wants.” To strengthen the case that a smaller orchestra plus the RTMS would be artistically satisfactory, he reels off the names of shows with similar-sized bands: “Mamma Mia uses nine players including the music director, Bombay Dreams uses nine plus the m.d. and some standby percussion, Phantom of the Opera has 22 musicians in London but toured America with 13. Cats had 15 in London and toured with 8 or 9.”
When he first moved Les Miz to the West End from the Barbican, he adds, he put the number of musicians up from 20 to 22.