Theater musicians' strike stills much of Broadway

Stagehands, actors honor picket lines

18 shows shut

March 09, 2003|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

NEW YORK - The plot of the biggest production on Broadway yesterday had anger, accusations of greed, a chorus, a funeral march, pickets, disappointed theatergoers and worried business owners.

At the root of it was a bitter controversy over the use of digital music technology in theaters.

The stage of virtually every Broadway musical was dark, and no negotiations between striking musicians and the League of American Theaters and Producers were scheduled.

To mark the temporary demise of the 18 shows, some of the musicians - who are supported by actors and stagehands - carried signs in the shape of tombstones.

"We were willing to work through the weekend, to lock ourselves in a room to get a final deal," said Shawn Sachs, a spokesman for Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians. Sachs said the producers walked out of the talks Friday after presenting an offer to limit the size of theater orchestras to 15 people, which was unacceptable to the union.

Sacks likened the offer to "playing baseball without an outfield." Under the expired contract, minimums in large theaters were 24 to 26 players.

Some producers had planned to the keep the curtain up by using recorded music in case of a strike. But support from Actors Equity Association and the Broadway local of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees forced the cancellation of performances.

Yesterday afternoon, hundreds of musicians staged a funeral march through Times Square, carrying a replica coffin emblazoned, "Don't Let Producers Kill Broadway."

The musicians played a dirge with a hip Broadway beat. Visitors aboard a tour bus climbed out and clapped, some spectators danced - and police officers assigned to the demonstration smiled and tried hard to avoid keeping time to the music.

The procession stopped near the building housing the law firm where the negotiations were held. At a rally outside the office building, the musicians received support from the United Federation of Teachers and the city's Central Labor Council.

Earlier, picketers marched in front of all 18 theaters.

Outside the Imperial Theater, the cast and chorus of Les Miserables sang the show's rousing finale in perfect harmony and pedestrians applauded.

"When it comes down to a strike, I am a union man," said Nick Wyman, 52, who plays the comic role of Thenardiar in the production. "I think it's a very important issue, the idea of live music, live performances on Broadway."

Picketing with musicians outside the Marquis Theater on Broadway, where Thoroughly Modern Millie is on the playbill, actor Richard Alan Rice carried a hand-lettered sign: "What's next, virtual actors?"

"What it boils down to, it seems the producers are trying to phase out live music on Broadway," Rice said. "They want to have synthetic music, and that's not what Broadway is about. You come for live actors, you come for live music. That's what Broadway is about."

Nearby, Anik Oulianine, who is in the Millie orchestra, held up a poster. "I love my cello. Read my strings. No canned music," it proclaimed. "We are trying to defend a culture. We are trying to save jobs," she said.

"I have been a musician all my life," said Leo Huppert, who plays bass in the same orchestra. "I did not come to New York to be replaced by a CD player."

A major issue in the strike is the desire of producers to install virtual orchestras in the theaters. The computer-based devices, using digital technology, can supplement and in some cases replace live musicians.

All along the Great White Way, disappointed ticket-holders demanded and received refunds at box offices.

Lisa Giambattista, a teacher's aide, turned in tickets at the St. James Theater, where The Producers was canceled.

"They are right basically," she said, sounding disappointed. "We continue to pay good money for these tickets. We don't want to listen to recorded music."

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