Musicians, Producers Take “Intense” Talks Into Night; Union Authorizes Strike

News   Musicians, Producers Take “Intense” Talks Into Night; Union Authorizes Strike Members of Local 802 of the Associated Musicians of Greater New York voted in favor of a strike authorization early evening, March 1, a little more than one day before their current contract with Broadway producers comes to an end. The vote was 482 to 15.

The vote came after a full day of negotiations between Local 802 and the League of American Theatres and Producers. The two parties convened early in the morning and broke at 4:30 PM. They reassembled at 7:30 PM and are expectedly to work late into the night.

Jed Bernstein, president of the League, would not characterize the talks beyond saying they had been “intense.” He added however that, whatever the outcome of the negotiations, “the show will go on. We have a responsibility to Broadway, to the audiences, and, frankly, in this economy, to the city.”

The League said in a statement: "Broadway producers remain committed to live music, but if musicians strike, Broadway shows will go on with virtual orchestras or other forms of music to accompany the live performers on stage. We are committed to live music. The only thing that will stop live music on Broadway is a strike by the musicians union."

A spokesperson for the union said no progress had been made on a new agreement as of 5 PM on Saturday.

Talks will also run the length of Sunday, March 2. The pact expires at midnight that day. Management and labor are trying to ward off a strike by pit musicians, which would cripple, but perhaps not halt Broadway musicals. Broadway producers have all along contended that they are prepared to employ so-called "virtual orchestras" to keep their shows going, should musicians walk out. Most musical productions currently on Broadway rehearsed with technological music-makers this week.

Producers have not stated their policies should audiences, angry about a show bereft of live music, demand refunds.

Throughout the talks, the issue of minimums has been the battle cry of both sides. Minimums are the number of musicians the union contract mandates producers hire for each show. This sometimes results in one or more union members being paid, but not used. The union maintains the statute is needed to prevent producers from dictating orchestral needs, such as using synthesizers or two pianists in lieu of a full orchestra. But producers have labeled it "featherbedding" and charged that composers and orchestraters, not the union, should dictate the makeup of a pit. (The union countered with a petition signed by many leading composers and music directors stating they were in favor of minimums.)

In recent days, there has been talk on both sides of a possible compromise, where the minimums would not be eliminated, but the number of required musicians reduced.

Some observers contend the fight will be resolved in the nick of time, as have previous Broadway labor disputes. Others are more grim. A backward glance offers a third scenario. In 1998, the contract between Local 802 and the League passed its March 8 expiration date and talks continued without a strike or work stoppage. A tentative agreement with producers on a new contract was finally reached on March 14, nearly a week later.