Broadway musicians go on strike. Talks continue in the hopes of keeping canned music out of theaters

By Gary Susman
Updated March 07, 2003 at 05:00 AM EST

When Broadway theatergoers attend Friday night’s performances of ”Hairspray” and ”Mamma Mia,” they will see a) live actors accompanied by live musicians; b) live actors accompanied by taped or synthesized music; c) no performances at all; or d) who knows? At this writing, the answer is d. The musicians went on strike at midnight Thursday, but talks continue in the hopes of reaching a deal by curtain time Friday. If no deal is reached, audiences will hear either canned music or nothing at all, as other Broadway unions may refuse to cross the picket lines and put on their shows.

At issue is minimums, the smallest number of orchestra members each show must hire, which varies from three to 26, depending on the size of the theater. The League of American Theaters and Producers would like to eliminate minimums, but the American Federation of Musicians is balking at more than minimal cutbacks. The musicians have been without a contract since Sunday, though they have continued to perform and negotiate.

Producers have said that, in the event of a strike, they would use taped music or ”virtual orchestras,” synthesized scores whose tempos can be adjusted without distorting the pitch. The New York City Ballet used tapes for performances of ”The Nutcracker” when the musicians picketed that show in November, 2000.

Although actors tell Variety that the canned music sounds like ”Nintendo,” it would allow the musicals to keep running, unlike the last musicians’ strike in 1975, which shut down nine shows for three weeks. However, the New York Daily News reports that as many as 14 other unions suggested they would strike in solidarity, forcing stages to go dark. Which means that on Friday night — and maybe for many nights after — it may be a good time to buy tickets to a Broadway comedy or drama instead.