16 June 2011

The Sound of Muzak

Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians, the union that represents Broadway theater musicians, is taking action against the producers of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert over the new production’s use of recorded music instead of live musicians. The union and the Broadway League, which represents producers, have decided to submit the AFM’s complaint to arbitration and at the time of the announcement in May, the parties were awaiting a date for the first session.

The AFM has campaigned against the substitution of recorded music for a live orchestra for years, ever since the practice began to appear regularly in unionized houses as a cost-saving measure; this is the strongest step of which I’ve heard since the 2003 musicians’ strike, however. In its contract negotiations in 2003 (which ostensively focused on a different issue, the mandatory minimum number of instruments assigned to each Broadway house), the union lost several guaranteed orchestra seats in the pits and Priscilla employs only nine musicians (in a theater, the Palace, contracted for 18), supplemented by some recorded music for the score, made up of disco-era songs of the 1980s. (Though there is the sound of strings in the score, there are no string players in the Priscilla pit. The play is the stage adaptation of the 1994 Australian movie The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. It contains no original songs in the score.) Smaller orchestras, with the acquiescence of Broadway composers, are the goal of many producers. The sound of a show may then be enhanced by music from recorded sources, synthesizers, and electronic keyboards that simulate the live music with electronically manipulated sounds.

There’s no mounting trend on Broadway to replace live instruments with electronic simulations, but producers argue that they should have the freedom to create shows that use only the musical ensembles they feel are needed for the production in question, and there is a contract provision that permits this. “Local 802 has recognized and acknowledges that due to changes in culture, some Broadway shows call for a different kind of musical sound than the traditional Broadway musical,” wrote a current 802 vice president, resulting in a “special situations” clause that accommodates musical ensembles like those in Memphis, Baby, It’s You, and American Idiot. The president of the League of American Theatres and Producers—the predecessor of today’s Broadway League—at the time of the musicians’ strike insisted, “The existence of the virtual orchestra was meant as insurance. Management has no plans to use virtual orchestras to wipe out live music.” But musicians and composers, having lost chairs in the pit already, are afraid that producers’ reliance on electronic music is a dangerous omen. “[I]t’s about the art, and we have become the gatekeepers of this art on Broadway,” wrote Local 802’s current president. They assert that theater audiences expect the experience of a live orchestra of a minimum size as part of the enjoyment of a musical theater performance. A recent example union leaders cite is the 2008 Lincoln Center revival of South Pacific with its 30-piece orchestra, much appreciated by both audiences and reviewers. In addition, the Roundabout Theatre Company’s 2003 revival of Nine was contractually obligated to use an orchestra of nine instruments, but had 15 in its pit. A recent poll commissioned by Local 802 showed, not surprisingly, that spectators of Broadway musicals preferred live music over recorded sound by 91%.

That’s where I fit in. I’m not a musician so I hold no brief for AFM. I’m not even particularly musically astute and can’t expound on the musical or acoustic benefits of live sound in comparison to electronic music. Neither do I know much about theater economics and what things cost on Broadway (except, of course, a ticket), but I don’t want producers to go broke over unnecessary expenses—and therefore reject potential productions because there are too many musicians required (or actors, or sets, or costumes either, for that matter). No, I want all shows to be mounted in the ideal production for the script—the best lighting, the best costumes, the best cast, sets, orchestra, and so on. (Yes, I know: it’s a pipedream. But a cat can look at a king, right?) I’ve also never been a musical actor, but I am an avid audience member. So, all I can go on is my own, personal response as a lover of musical theater. (Remember, ROT readers, that I copped to being “A Broadway Baby,” ROT, 22 September 2010.)

Twenty-three years ago, Michael Kimmelman wrote a New York Times column called “Amplification: Making It All Clear” (3 September 1988), and I wrote a letter in response, published under the headline “Amplification Endangers Theater’s Live Quality” (23 September). At the time, the technical trend on stage was miking actors, first in musicals then in straight plays, and such luminaries as actor Jason Robards (who died 12 years later) and playwright David Mamet deplored the development. I said then: “In the end, the things that make live theater exciting and unique, the immediacy and presence of living performers, will be destroyed.” That was before synthesizers and digital sound production encroached on the territory of stage musicals, but my sentiment then applies to the current situation, no matter how much further along the technology’s advanced. In fact, respected music reviewer Anthony Tommasini deemed amplification “the first step toward the virtual orchestra” as early as the 1960s. It “merged” the singers and musicians into a “wall of sound” that “destroyed the spatial sound relationships onstage.” In my letter, I made the same observation about simple miking, and Robards concluded, "It's like putting a piece of glass between the audience and the stage." Opera diva Marilyn Horne averred that “enhanced sound,” as it came to be called, would be the “kiss of death for good singing”—and, I’d assume, good musicianship.

Tommasini asserted that the miking of Broadway musicals has diminished the art form. “[W]e will never again experience the rapt atmosphere of Broadway theaters in the days when musicals relied on natural vocal talents and nurtured attentive audiences” as they did when a stage star like Mary Martin could stand head to head with opera basso Ezio Pinza and be his vocal equal, he lamented. Making matters worse, Tommasini added that the constant use of “enhancement” has made Broadway audiences “less alert, more passive” as they no longer need to “lean forward and pay attention” when a small-voiced performer like a Fred Astaire, for whom the great composers of the day explicitly wrote and orchestrated, was singing. (The music critic noted that, with the exception of Stephen Sondheim, today’s theater composers write “sappy lyrics” for a musical theater that has become “less literate and more obvious,” though he thought things were looking up again.) The musical has made its accommodation with amplification, Tommasini said, but “in doing so the art form has diminished . . . .” As orchestrator Michael Starobin (The People in the Picture, Next to Normal, Assassins, among many others) said of amplification: “This can kill the live quality of theater.” It’s still true today, applying even more aptly to electronic sound as a substitute for music played right in front of us by living instrumentalists.

Local 802 went out on strike on Friday, 7 March 2003, in part over the threat they saw represented by virtual orchestras, leaving theaters dark for almost a week. (Mayor Michael Bloomberg intervened with a mediator to resolve the walk-out, which ended on Tuesday, 11 March. Broadway theaters lost as much as $7 million overall during the strike and several shows barely survived the shut-down.) But three years earlier, the New York Times reported the appearance of a virtual orchestra in a New York City technical college revival of Evita for which no live musicians played in the pit to accompany the singers, a mix of students and pros. Where the players usually sat was a collection of various-sized speakers, one dedicated to each instrument in the score; 16 high-tech speakers, for instance, replaced the string section’s wood violins, violas, and cellos (not to mention their players). The report added that synthesizers in theater orchestra pits had been appearing for at least a decade; AFM first recognized synthesizers as a legit part of the Broadway orchestra in contract negotiations in 1987.

The creators of the system used in the Evita revival, Drs. David Smith and Frederick Bianchi, like the president of the producers’ league, insisted that the intent of the virtual orchestra wasn’t to displace live instruments in theater but to help small troupes like schools and community theaters enhance their limited ensembles. The problem with that claim, of course, is that once a technology has been invented, no one can really control how or by whom it’s used. In fact, Producer Cameron Mackintosh declared that a recent use of a virtual orchestra machine in London was “a showpiece to display to producers in America.” Allegro, Local 802’s newsletter, contended that since Smith and Bianchi formed their company, RealTime Music Solutions, in 1988, “their focus has been on a product that completely replaces an orchestra.” Indeed, during the prelude to Local 802’s strike in 2003, both RealTime and its competitor, Musical Arts Technology, founded by former 802 member Brett Sommer, a keyboardist, submitted proposals to Broadway producers to replace striking musicians. I keep thinking of all those advanced weapons developed for defensive use—but which find their ways into offensive hands nonetheless. If it’s out there, someone’s going to use it!

While Bruce Weber of the New York Times said that digitized music wasn’t “unworthy or cheap, just not as thrilling as it might otherwise be,” the Charleston, South Carolina, Post and Courier asserted in an editorial on the issue, “There is nothing as tacky as canned music in a musical . . . .” I couldn’t agree more. If a composer writes a score incorporating synthesizers and digital sampling—they’re unquestionably part of the 21st-century sound-and-musicscape—I say, fine. Just like with CGI, mo-cap, projections, and holograms, I want writers, composers, directors, and designers to use whatever’s available to create their images and express their ideas. If a show requires two kazoos or a one-man band, go for it, I say. (Yes, I know there are contractual constraints; I’m pretending there aren’t for the sake of argument.) It’s akin, I think, to Leroy Anderson’s writing a composition that incorporates an actual typewriter in its orchestral arrangement. But music meant to be played by a live, 20-piece band sounds wan and lifeless if there are just ten musicians in the pit backed by a digital music machine. As one Broadway violinist put it: “First they take away 10 of our 15 violins, and then add a synthesizer, but it’s not the sound of live people.” That’s exactly what I warned could happen at the dawn of the technical theater era if amplification proliferated: “What makes theater special—its liveness—will deteriorate.” As the Post and Courier advised: “Why not just go to the movies and see virtual drama instead?”

The union’s fears are not entirely unfounded. In addition to the threat by producers to use RealTime’s and Musical Arts’ virtual orchestras to break Local 802’s strike in 2003, most “live” shows in Los Vegas (where lately a number of Broadway musicals have moved after their New York runs) and Branson, Missouri, are performed to recorded scores. Recent tours of The Music Man and Miss Saigon went out with synthesized orchestras, Cameron Mackintosh replaced half the musicians in the pit at London’s Les Miz with a virtual orchestra in 2004, and machines are in use in small regional theaters. The Miss Saigon touring company, for example, performed with 11 musicians and a “music-making computer” that replaced 19 others. (The original Broadway production had been scored for 26 instruments.) Newsday’s Linda Winer asked, back in 2003: “Has the deeply sensual pleasure already been so diminished by amplification and mechanical imitation that we no longer can comprehend the profundity of the connection or understand the real threat of its extinction?” She added: “[T]urning the great tradition of the American musical into karaoke is not exactly waving the flag for national pride . . . .”

The synthesizer can have its place in practical theater. Aside from just filling out a short-staffed pit band, it can substitute for exotic or unusual instruments, such as the Asian percussion in the score of the traveling Miss Saigon. Composer-lyricist Maury Yeston, who generally rejects virtual musicians in favor of living ones, recounted that tours of his musicals Titanic and Phantom of the Opera, one originally scored for 26 instruments and the other for 24, could only afford to travel with 10 each. On one-night stops at large theaters, where there wasn’t time to hire and rehearse supplemental musicians locally, the companies relied on synthesizers—which Yeston said performed admirably and permitted the 20 players to have a year’s gig that otherwise would have been lost. But road shows are “streamlined,” as Bruce Weber characterized it, out of necessity and as Yeston pointed out, a Broadway house is a different matter. Weber wondered, however, “how much streamlining turns a Broadway show into something less than a Broadway show.” Furthermore, in supporting the 2003 AFM strike, Actors’ Equity (whose members were among the Broadway guilds refusing to cross Local 802’s picket lines) stated: “Our members have made it clear that they do not wish to perform to virtual orchestras,” and several prominent actors recorded statements in support of live music on Broadway even though some actors’ agents advised against such open opposition to the producers. As I said, I was never a musical actor, but I can’t imagine playing to computerized accompaniment. “You can’t hear the downbeat,” said one actress-singer, “there’s no conductor. It’s kind of a mess.” No matter how well-programmed, it will always feel “mechanical and unyielding,” as one musician expressed it. An operator of a virtual orchestra machine seemed to agree, saying that it was a useful device but would never replace live musicians: “It’s the same way you wouldn’t want a player piano to replace a piano player.” An actor in musical plays and a writer of musicals as well, Harvey Fierstein declared: “That’s not why people go to live theater. It’s not why I want to be in live theater.” And veteran Broadway music director Paul Gemignani observed: “Music has movement to it. There’s a give and take, and you take that away and it becomes one color. There’s no life.”

It’s the give-and-take Gemignani misses that’s the main deficiency in computerized accompaniment. It’s what most musicians, singers, dancers, and music directors comment on when they compare virtual musicians to live ones. No matter how well the computers can be adjusted to changing tempos and rhythms, the human heartbeat that imbues musical performances with life and warmth is never quite there. Continuing his one-color painting allusion, Gemignani concluded: “[T]here is no nuance.” The connection between a stage performer—a dancer or a singer—and a musician is visceral and, when both are talented and experienced, having rehearsed and performed together for an intense time, nearly instantaneous. A computer, even in the hands of an expert technician, can’t make that connection. A dancer and a violinist, say, have learned to speak each other’s language: they know the subtleties, gestures, and idioms of each other’s art, including the private idiosyncrasies. A technician and the dancer are like a German and a Frenchman trying to communicate: the languages just don’t line up precisely. It’ll always be an approximation.

There are other potential problems from producing with a virtual orchestra. A machine can’t compensate for an error someone else makes, either in the pit or on stage. It can change tempo if a singer speeds up or slows down, assuming the computer operator is on the ball, but it can’t jump in or improvise, skip some bars or anything that only a human player can do. Contrarily, if the computer or the operator makes a mistake, then, say in the case of the Miss Saigon tour mentioned, it’s the equivalent of 19 musicians screwing up all at once. There is also the irony inherent in the proposition that if you fire musicians (or don’t hire them) on the excuse that you don’t need them, and then replace them with a recording—aren’t you just proving you really do need the instruments (but you just don’t want to pay the players).

My friend Kirk (who’s appeared many times now on ROT) and his wife saw Priscilla. Kirk, who’s more musically knowledgeable than I am, says that in the light of the report on the AFM action, he and Pat talked about this aspect of the production. (Aside from going to many musicals, both Pat and Kirk are experienced musical theater performers and directors. Kirk composes musicals and also occasionally plays keyboard for both concerts and plays, while Pat teaches musical-theater acting. They know whereof they speak.) Their first response, Kirk told me, was that they couldn’t really hear any difference. On reflection, Kirk continued, they also decided that a synthesizer worked in Priscilla because the music is supposed to have a sort of “radio” sound to it, as if we were listening to an over-the-air broadcast or the songs had been taped from a radio program. The producers are aiming for a “synthetic pop flavor” in an attempt, they said, “to emulate the cheesy sound of drag clubs in Sydney, Australia, during the 1970s and '80s.” In other words, as I understood Kirk’s explanation, the “canned” timbre some critics of synthesized scores have heard suits Priscilla’s intention well because its music is canned. (Linda Winer characterized musicals with a digitized accompaniment as “karaoke”—but in Priscilla, many of the songs are lip-synched: they’re not really even singing karaoke.) In fact, Priscilla’s producers assert that even if the arbitrator rules in favor of the union, they’d abide by the ruling but still not change the orchestration of the show—they’d pay the string players just to sit in the pit and not play, returning to bygone tradition of “walkers,” because the play’s sound is set the way the creators want it. This situation is what I meant by a show for which a synthesizer is actually an appropriate part of the score. American Idiot may fall into the same category: its intent was to reproduce the sound of a three-man, punk-rock band in concert (or on record)—it’s not a lush Richard Rodgers score swelling up from beneath the stage. While that may not call for computerized music as Priscilla might, it does argue against predetermined, mandatory minimums for the make-up of the pit orchestra (19 for the St. James, where American Idiot ran). Even producers like Margo Lion (Hairspray) acknowledge, “We all love live music; it’s integral to the experience of going to a musical.”

Tino Gagliardi, president of Local 802, wrote:

We, as musicians, have picked Broadway as a venue to express ourselves musically. When we are required to play with a tape or a click track—supplanting the conductor’s guidance and limiting our ability to play expressively—we are deprived of the full experience of live performance.

The magic of live performance is the reason we all became musicians in the first place. When audiences hear it—when they feel it in their bodies—they know that it is incomparable.

Harvey Fierstein characterized working with digital accompaniment by declaring: “We’re professionals, we’re artists—a machine is a dead thing.” Working with a virtual orchestra, Fierstein said, is no substitute for live instruments. “It’s a computer made to sound like a roller rink—it’s not a pretty sound.” New York Times music reviewer Anthony Tommasini described the “weird, disembodied” digital music as “thin, tremulous and phony.” Bruce Weber, who went out to California to hear the 2003 tour of Miss Saigon, reported that “you can tell the difference between a fully human-powered orchestra and a part-machine-powered one. The latter has a tinnier sound, a little less round, not quite as, well, beautiful.” What digitized music sounds like to my untrained ear is the way an impressionist sort of sounds like the famous person he’s impersonating, but it isn’t quite the same. (It’s definitely Memorex.) Linda Winer summed up the experience of being in the audience of a synthesized musical, alluding to the prevalence of amplification of both onstage performers and pit instruments that make the sound in a theater so artificial and inhuman in general, by lamenting: “When the whole theater sounds like a jukebox, why should anyone care if it becomes one?”

[Local 802 has joined with the nonprofit Council for Living Music to commission a survey of Broadway audiences. In their monthly magazine, Allegro, the union will publish some of the results over the next several issues. In the June issue of Allegro, the “President’s Report” includes quoted remarks about the question from the union’s website (www.Local802afm.org), all of them in support of the musicians’ position on live music versus recorded sound. The union is also a sponsor of www.SaveLiveMusicOnBroadway.com, which includes a petition collecting signatures to support live music in Broadway theaters.]


  1. On 18 July, Anthony Tommasini, whom I quoted in “The Sound of Muzak,” published a review in the New York Times of a revival of Irving Berlin’s 'Annie Get Your Gun' at the Glimmerglass Festival in Cooperstown, N.Y. Tommasini, reiterating what he and I said about amplification and synthetic music, wrote:

    “Speaking of doing things naturally, this production uses no amplification, employs a full orchestra of 42 players and adheres to the original keys of the 1946 production. . . .

    “Hearing ‘Annie’ with natural sound and a proper orchestra was a revelation. What a relief from the cranked-up amplified world of a typical Broadway musical. . . . A rare thing happened for an audience at a musical. I could sense everyone leaning in a little, attentive and involved, not wanting to miss a single word of Berlin’s charming lyrics.

    “In amplified productions the words and music are blasted at you. In Glimmerglass’s wonderful 900-seat theater the words came through beautifully, wafting over the orchestra. You just had to focus a little, as audiences routinely did in the golden days before Broadway became amplified.”

    Obviously, Tommasini is no fan of electrified musicals, but I appreciate the support for my own argument.


  2. In the September issue of 'Allegro,' its monthly magazine, AFM Local 802 published an article on the revival of Stephen Sondheim's 'Follies' and its employment of a full orchestra for its Broadway transfer, opening on 12 September. I'm considering running the article on 'ROT' in the near future because it makes the same points I made in "The Sound of Muzak," but next to the article, the monthly quoted Jonathan Tunick, the orchestrator for the production of 'Follies.' Here's what he had to say:

    "'Follies' is a unique musical, wrapped in romance and a sense of theatrical mystery. Included in Sondheim's beautiful, finely crafted and probing score is a panorama of musical styles from America's Golden Era of popular music.

    "Its orchestra--full strength at 28 musicians and uncontaminated by electronic devices--provides not only accompaniment for singing and dancing, but color, atmosphere and subtext.

    "I can think of no musical that better shows what the orchestra can do for the theatre, if given the chance."

    Conductor, arranger, musician, and singer Ted Sperling, a Broadway regular who's not associated with this production, adds:

    "I'm so pleased to hear that the revival of 'Follies' will be using the original compliment of 28 musicians. The music is the soul of a musical--it's important to feel that it's being made live and in the moment, supporting and reacting to what's happening on stage."

  3. In the June 2012 issue of 'Allegro,' the publication of Local 802 of the musicians union, Pres. Tino Gagliardi reports that the union and the producers of 'Priscilla' are "in the process of finalizing a settlement" of the issue of recorded music in the show. The agreement requires that the terms of the settlement be kept "confidential," so the details haven't been released; however, Gagliardi asserts "that Local 802's position on the use of recorded music to replace live musicians is unchanged." Meanwhile, the Broadway production of 'Priscilla, Queen of the Desert' has posted its closing notice and its final performance will be on Sunday, 24 June.