In March 2003 contracts between the League of Americans Theatres and Producers and the Broadway musicians union expire. The New York Times reports that theatre producers are preparing for a possible strike by exploring the use of recorded music in Broadway shows.
The labor talks will most likely concern the union's notorious minimum staffing requirement in theatres, which depends on the size of the house and can range from 3 to 26 musicians. This has long been a touchy subject with some producers, who resent paying for musicians that they don't use.
About the possibility of replacing live musicians with recorded music, Bill Moriarty, president of Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians, told the Times: "I've been getting warnings or threats for about nine months." In fact, the Times obtained a copy of a letter sent to the League by Jeff Lazarus, chief executive of RealTime Music Solutions, which implants virtual orchestras that simulate live musicians using digital recordings. The letter states, "We want to have a place on Broadway, so we're interested in having dialogue with Broadway producers . . . [Cost is] $21,000 to $50,000 depending on amount of music in show, plus $15,000 to $20,000 in equipment costs, which can be recouped from weekly fee on run of show or subsequent production."
Jed Bernstein, president of the League of American Theatres and Producers, told the New York daily, "The upcoming negotiations will be confronting a range of very difficult issues, not the least of which is the longstanding practice that requires producers to pay for more musicians than are artistically necessary. We are committed to reach a happy resolution with 802 on that and any other issues that will not lead to any work stoppage. But, we are committed to having our shows play on regardless."
A notice recently posted on www.craiglist.org, an employment bulletin board, was particularly troubling to the musicians union. The posting read, "Music Operator to operate computerized virtual orchestra for New York musical theater production in the event of a labor dispute. Must be able to read music. Strong rhythm and keyboard skills a plus." Moriarty and Bernstein exchanged letters over the posting, which was eventually taken down.
Moriarty to Bernstein: "I sincerely hope that the League has no involvement with this ad and will do all in its power to stop its further publication. I and the members of Local 802 view the ad as blatant union-busting and a dangerous provocation coming months before negotiations have even begun. There may be those who are spoiling for a fight. I hope they realize that such a confrontation could endanger the jobs of those working in the Broadway theaters, as well as the jobs of the tens of thousands of others in hotels, restaurants and other ancillary businesses."
Bernstein to Moriarty: "While neither the League nor, to our knowledge, any of our members is responsible for placing the advertisement noted in your letter, nothing would suggest that the party responsible for placing this advertisement has any intention other than to bargain in good faith in an effort to reach a resolution. However, given Local 802's recent history in connection with its negotiations in the performing arts, no employer can dismiss the possibility that you might seek to exert economic pressure via some form of work stoppage in future negotiations. Therefore, it would seem understandable — perhaps even advisable — for an employer to prepare to protect itself in the event Local 802 and its members refuse to render services."
—By Andrew Gans