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THE SOUND OF MUSIC RETURNS TO BROADWAY

Times Staff Writer

The sounds of “Springtime for Hitler” and the “Circle of Life” echoed again through the city’s theaters Tuesday night as Broadway producers and musicians reached a settlement ending the first strike to silence the shows here in 28 years.

“Broadway is no longer dark,” Mayor Michael Bloomberg declared Tuesday morning in announcing an end to the labor dispute that had shut down 18 musicals, including such box office leaders as “The Producers” and “The Lion King,” since Friday.

Leaders of the League of American Theaters and Producers negotiated all night with their counterparts at Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians before reaching a new 10-year agreement on the issue that has divided them for decades -- requirements that producers hire a minimum number of musicians for all Broadway musicals.

Under the pact announced Tuesday, the number of musicians required at the 13 largest theaters will be reduced to 18 or 19 from the current minimums of 24 to 26. About 300 musicians work on Broadway at any given time, a number that has remained relatively steady for several decades.

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“We have preserved live Broadway, and we continue to have the largest staff minimums in the world,” said union President Bill Moriarity.

The union had accused Broadway producers of seeking to save money by eventually replacing musicians with recorded or virtual music created by synthesizers. But the producers complained that the real issue was antiquated union rules that require them to pay musicians even when they don’t need them, creating positions for what used to be called “walkers,” musicians who walked in to pick up a check, then walked out.

“This was an extremely difficult negotiation.... Neither side got everything it wanted,” said Jed Bernstein, the leader of the producers’ organization, as the settlement was announced at Gracie Mansion, the mayor’s official residence.

In another compromise, the two sides agreed to reconstitute the panel that reviews requests by producers for waivers of the minimums at specific theaters. The producers have complained that the panels have been dominated by union members, who perpetuated the use of unneeded musicians.

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City officials said canceled performances over the weekend cost producers $4.8 million in ticket sales alone, and resulted in millions of dollars more in losses to restaurants, taxis and parking facilities at a time when New York has been struggling to recover from a drop in tourism after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.

“This city has suffered greatly.... We need the tax base, [and] this industry is a very important part of that,” said Bloomberg, who Monday asked a former city schools chancellor, Frank J. Macchiarola, now the president of St. Francis College, to mediate the theater district dispute.

“I asked the parties, ‘Do you want to get it done? '" Macchiarola said after the overnight talks at Gracie Mansion, “and they all said, ‘Yes.’ There was never any rancor.”

As theater hour approached Tuesday, a line began to form at the half-price TKTS booth in Times Square. Among the crowd was Miguel Cunha, 24, a student from Portugal who had come to town with his girlfriend only to find that their Sunday tickets to “Beauty and the Beast” were useless because of the strike. “I was disappointed,” Cunha said. “But now I’ll try to see the same show for a discount.”

A mother and daughter from Buffalo, who gave their names only as Sue and Carolyn, said they hoped to see “Chicago” or “42nd Street, “at this point anything,” said the daughter. Minutes later, they came away waving half-price tickets to their first choice, “Chicago.”

The last Broadway musicians strike, in 1975, dragged on for more than three weeks, silencing a dozen musicals including “A Chorus Line” and “The Wiz.” Although pay levels were the most publicized issue at the time, with the musicians earning a base then of $290 a week, the practice of guaranteeing jobs was central to that walkout, as well.

The musicians argued at the time that their survival was at stake, given how other areas of employment -- in hotels, radio, television and variety shows -- were disappearing, making Broadway jobs even more precious. But producers chafed at the minimum requirement that at the time had them paying 34 union members full salaries and benefits though they did not perform.

Under the eventual settlement in 1975, the union gave up some of its pay demands in return for maintenance of the “walker” and theater minimum systems, with up to 26 jobs mandated for the largest theaters and nine at smaller ones. In the years since, those numbers have been decreased some, to a point at which as few as three musicians were required in the pits of the smallest theaters.

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A 1993 agreement was supposed to end the use of walkers, while creating the review panel that considered producers’ requests for waivers from the minimum requirements. But that sometimes resulted in odd compromises, like giving actors toy instruments and counting them as musicians.

Through all the wrangling over the years, many producers have never made their peace with the minimum requirements that were first established when most theaters had their own in-house orchestras, and musical scores were written to use them.

Veteran producer Barry Weissler, who with his wife, Fran, has helped stage “Chicago” and many other musicals, said the system often has put him in a bind, as when composers create a score calling for just 10 or 15 musicians but the show is placed in a theater required to have a minimum of 26. Weissler said he can go back to the composers and ask them to “double or triple up on musicians” -- to create parts for more violinists than they want, say -- or else “pay musicians not to come in.”

Other times, he has found himself in intense negotiations for compromises with the union or the review panel, he said, as when he produced a small show, “Falsettos,” whose score called for three musicians while the theater required six. “I had a big battle and wound up with four,” Weissler said.

But that was a minor cost compared with the settlement reached for the ill-fated Broadway run of “Seussical,” he recalled, when the score called for 14 musicians in a house requiring 20. “We hired one walker and put five actors on stage” -- with the toy instruments -- “and during the play, we let them blow one note.”

The actors were paid just as actors, he said, but he also had to pay full pension and welfare benefits to the musicians’ union. “How do you like that scam?” Weissler asked. “That’s what the fight’s about.”

But a union spokesman said Weissler’s account distorts the true problem, which was that “they refused to have an adequate amount of musicians ... they went through the process and lost.”

With each musician costing an estimated $88,000 a year in salary and benefits, there was considerable money at stake. But each side also cast the dispute in artistic terms: Producers such as Weissler compared the system to the actors union trying to tell Tennessee Williams that he should put three “gentlemen callers” in a scene, not one. The musicians, in turn, accused the producers of trying to undercut the quality of shows to increase their profits.

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“We don’t want a machine replacing us, and we don’t want musicians around who don’t perform,” said Bill Dennison, the assistant to the union’s president.

During the buildup to the strike, some producers spoke of holding out to abolish the minimums once and for all, and the union kept warning that live music might be replaced altogether. But it became clear early in the negotiations that the current system would remain -- just with lower numbers. The producers first said they might agree to use at least seven musicians in the largest theaters, then 12 to 14, while the musicians insisted they would go no lower than 24.

The strike began Friday night after producers announced what they said was a final offer, of 15-musician minimums, and other theatrical unions -- representing actors and stagehands -- lined up behind the musicians. As the weekend saw picket lines greeting disappointed theatergoers, the city’s tourism bureau estimated the overall cost to New York at more than $7 million.

In addition to reducing the size of the orchestras required, the settlement reached Tuesday also provided small yearly salary increases for the working musicians. Union officials praised the revisions to the review panel, which they said would do away with sham arrangements such as counting actors with toy instruments as musicians.

“In the new agreement, if [producers] lose at such a panel, then they have to hire playing musicians and they’re not allowed to hire walkers,” the union’s Dennison said. “It makes the system honest.”


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