May 18, 2011
Some Broadway producers apparently don’t care about the critical interplay between musicians and musical performers that gives Broadway shows their special emotional spark. They would rather insult your taste with recorded music than give you the live show you paid for and deserve.
In 2010, producers of Leonard Bernstein’s classic West Side Story slashed five musicians after 500 performances, and replaced their extraordinary live instruments with a synthesizer, prompting violinist and Bernstein collaborator Paul Woodiel to write in an op-ed in the New York Times, “I don’t think Lenny would have approved.” Critics like the New York Post’s Barbara Hoffman agreed, stating “Something as sacred as that score, one of the most beautiful scores ever written—it’s blasphemous.”
The West Side Story incident is also a blatant example of producers’ frequent “bait and switch” tactics—opening a show with a full live orchestra and garnering positive reviews, and then cheating subsequent audiences by replacing much of the acclaimed orchestra with canned music. And when producers cheapen the quality of the show, do they ever reduce ticket prices? Of course not!—they continue to raise the cost of tickets to squeeze out even more profits.
Now, producers of the recently opened Priscilla Queen of the Desert have wildly escalated their war on live music by doing what for Broadway’s entire history was regarded as unthinkable—they have drastically cut the theatre’s live orchestra, and instead are forcing the remaining musicians to play along with a recording. Needless to say, theatre critics who reviewed the show have been appalled, calling it “synthetic to the core” (Time Out New York); “mechanical and monotonous” and “karaoke-inspired” (The New York Times); “a glossy costume party masquerading as a musical” (New York Daily News); “the songs… blend together into an undifferentiated morass” (everythingmusicals.com); and “an oversized karaoke party” (AM New York). This show deprives the audience of the robust, live musical experience they have every reason to expect.
Priscilla’s producers claim that artistic considerations are the basis for their actions, asserting that Priscilla is seeking a disco sound that can only be achieved by using a recording of live musicians and altering it with special effects. However, the result they are seeking can readily be produced (and sound better!) by using a full orchestra and adjusting the music with the show’s sound board, which can match any sound created in a recording studio. And unlike the producers of American Idiot and numerous other musicals that legitimately called for a smaller sound, the producers of Priscilla are NOT seeking a “stripped-down” sound. In fact, they are asking musicians to play along with a recording of the same parts the musicians are playing, and then adding a recorded string section on top of that—attempting to create the sound of a large orchestra. But with so much canned music, the quality of Priscilla’s sound is far inferior to a full live ensemble.
Does anyone really think that producers, always rummaging for new ways to pad their pockets, will stop with replacing just half an orchestra? If they get away with what they did in Priscilla, before you know it you might buy expensive tickets to a Broadway show only to see a lone pianist sadly playing along with a canned orchestra.
Maybe in the future they could just have the actors lip-sync to songs performed by a computer—we could call it Android Lloyd Webber! Some producers have shown that there is no limit to how much they are willing to debase the Broadway experience if it means a bigger payoff. There is nothing “special” about Priscilla that justifies slashing the orchestra, but the goal is clear: pay as little as possible for live music— degrading the quality of the time-honored Broadway musical—and pocket more profits.
Save Live Music On Broadway needs your help to stop this race to the cultural bottom. Sign our petition and help us fight back by being a part of our campaign to defend the integrity and authenticity of the musical theater—and KEEP BROADWAY LIVE!