Virtual Broadway

Broadway is all but shut down. The musician’s strike on Broadway raises two major issues One issue is being discussed; the other is not (or, if it’s being discussed at all, it’s hiding under the coattails of the other).

To my mind, the first issue — suggesting that so-called ‘virtual orchestras’ might take the place of live musicians — is a total no-brainer. Who in hell wants to go to the theatre to hear synthesized music? First of all, there’s no way that a machine can replicate the sound of a live orchestra. It’s not just a matter of replicating frequencies at predetermined times. When a singer sings with live musicians, each person is taking risks. There’s a collection of risks that happen every moment of the performance, and those risks, distributed among the participants, are a large part of what creates the excitement of a live performance. Take away the musicians, and you’ve got nothing more than slightly more sophisticated karaoke.

It doesn’t serve the long-term interests of Broadway to lower the bar like this. Let’s face it. Audiences have had the bar lowered significantly in the past couple of decades. They’ve already been lulled into believing that Andrew Lloyd-Webber is just as good as a real composer. Let’s not extend that so that they think that a collection of machine-generated tones are just as good as a real orchestra.

But here’s where I take issue with the musicians union. Let’s say I’ve composed an intimate little musical, scored for 10 musicians. It has a successful off-Broadway run and people are lined up looking for tickets. A Broadway producer picks up the show and moves it to a larger house where a minimum number of musicians is required (25 on average in the larger Broadway houses). As a composer, I have two choices. I can re-orchestrate the show for 25 musicians (which is likely to change the show’s flavor and eliminate the intimacy), or I can keep the original 10 musicians and pay 15 people to sit around and do nothing. Where’s the logic in that?

Extend the concept of enforcing a minimum number of musicians to actors. Can you imagine a world in which a play that has 10 characters would be required to hire 15 additional actors because the theatre had a minimum of 25 actors? The absurdity of the musicians’ union’s arithmetic gets revealed when you attempt to apply it to just about any other endeavor.

Enforcing a minimum number of musicians also implicitly states that there is a single ‘Broadway sound.’ Yes, many musicals of the past did seem to have a common sound. But if you look at the variety of musicals that have been composed recently, there is no single sound. Some scores sound better with large orchestras, some sound better with small ensembles. Why put such restrictions on the creative elements behind musical theatre?

My sense is that, until these two issues get discussed individually, there will be no long-term resolution to this issue.

Master Cook

Let me heap some unabashed praise on one of the great performing artists of our time. Barbara Cook, whose evening of songs is being performed at L.A.’s Ahmanson Theatre, continues to be one of the pre-eminent interpreters of American song.

This evening of tribute to Stephen Sondheim — in songs written by him and songs, she informs us, that he wishes he had written — is about as pure and simple a performance as one could hope for. Her characteristic clarity, coupled with her willingness to be vulnerable, is a perfect match for her song choices. Cook has the bravery to stand on a stage with simply a piano and a bass and she has the wisdom to know that no more than that is needed to fill a theatre.

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Big Al

When I was but a wee sprout, I spent a few years working at a daily newspaper. One of the editors once said to me that if I really wanted to learn about history, I should read the obituaries in the New York Times every day.

Today’s New York Times obituaries contain plenty of history – of the New York Times itself, and of the New York theatre scene – in the form of the obituary of caricaturist Al Hirschfeld, who died at 99.

His passing marks what seems to be the end of an era. His career spanned most of the last century and the beginning of this one. I can only pray that a retrospective of his work will remind producers, performers and audiences alike that there is so much more to theatre than Disney and Andrew Lloyd Webber.