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EntertainmentColumnistsLinda Winer

Musicals in theaters meant for plays could squeeze musicians

Michael Pearce, left, Bennett Sullivan, Rob Berman and

Michael Pearce, left, Bennett Sullivan, Rob Berman and Martha McDonnell play bluegrass in the musical "Bright Star." Photo Credit: Nick Stokes

This all started when I was watching “American Psycho” last month at the Schoenfeld Theatre. Although plenty of blood and sex and stuff kept happening all over the stage, I couldn’t help looking around for the orchestra.

The Schoenfeld, you see, is a playhouse, a theater built for plays, not musicals, which means, among other distinctions, there is no orchestra pit. I did locate a few musicians perched in two opposing balconies above the audience. But where were the rest of the musicians?

Live orchestras — preferably big live orchestras — are among the glories of Broadway musicals. You know it. Musicians know it. And, though some might pretend otherwise, producers know it, too.

More and more, however, musicals are opening in theaters meant for plays. The good part is greater intimacy for smaller shows. The down side, at least as I began to worry, is fewer employed musicians. Next door to the Schoenfeld, for example, the stripped-down revival of “The Color Purple” is at the Jacobs. Right across bustling 45th Street is “Shuffle Along” at the Music Box, which, contrary to its name, is also most often used for plays. A block east and uptown a bit is the bluegrass musical, “Bright Star,” at the Cort, and not far from that is “Waitress” at the Atkinson. Both of those have onstage bands.

Thus began my search into the website of Local 802, the musicians’ union, and what, you should know up front, turned out to be a different story from the one that set me off.

First I found the facts, the contract that stipulates the minimum number of musicians for each theater. I remember well the fierce 2003 negotiations, when the musicians struck and closed most of Broadway for four days. There were a number of issues, including the ever-encroaching electronic music synthesizers in the pit.

Arguably the ugliest fight, however, involved the minimum number of live musicians for each theater. The contract reduced the total minimums. In the previous contract, 13 of Broadway’s largest theaters had to have 24-26 players. The new contract cut that number to 18 or 19.

So you see my concern. Such big musical theaters as the Broadway (“Fiddler on the Roof”) and the St. James (“Something Rotten”) require a minimum of 19 musicians. Directly down the list are the Palace (“American in Paris”), the Shubert (“Matilda”) and a few others, each employing at least 18.

And way, way down the list, the Schoenfeld requires just nine for musicals, with eight each for the Jacobs and the Atkinson and a mere three for the Cort and Circle in the Square, where “Fun Home” has flourished in the nontraditional space for more than a year.

But think for a moment. Why is this bad? The biggest musical theaters are already up and running, many with long-running hits. As someone close to the union just pointed out to me, more musicals in the playhouses mean that more, not fewer. musicians are working this season. And, I am reminded, the minimums are negotiable upward. “Fun Home,” for example, has eight musicians — five more than its obligation.

Tino Gagliardi, Local 802 president, sent me a calming statement. “We know that audiences come to musicals for the thrill of live music and to experience the caliber of musicianship that has made New York the musical capital of the world,” he wrote. “In our dialogue with producers, composers and orchestrators around orchestra size, we passionately advocate for always using artistic criteria to determine what kind of orchestration will create the optimal sound and overall artistic effect for any given show.”

If the president of the union isn’t worried, what’s my problem? Still, the suspicious part of my psyche kept nagging at me. Given a choice between a big musical theater and one with a tiny minimum, is it not possible that more than one producer would choose the house with the smaller payroll and describe it as an artistic choice?

Not according to André Bishop, artistic director of the Lincoln Center Theater. Although that is a nonprofit and, thus, spared the more aggressive commercial Broadway pressures, Bishop says he believes that the playhouses are often a better fit than the big houses — many of which are booked with hits that may run forever anyway.

“A fair amount of the musicals being written now are smaller and need a more intimate space,” he told me in a recent phone interview. Then he said, trying not to shame my cynicism, “I’ve never known a producer who chose a smaller theater as a way to get around having to have a big orchestra.”

His theater is producing next season’s much-anticipated Broadway revival of “Falsettos,” the chamber musical that won Tonys for score and book in 1992. “We decided to do it in the Kerr” — orchestra minimum of three for a show that, after all, sings of its “teeny tiny band.” “It’s a relatively intimate space for a small musical and that made it perfect.”

He has business facts to go along with his idealism. “The small theaters cannot sell as many seats as the big houses,” which could cost the show more in grosses than a larger orchestra.

But if musicals take up all the playhouses, where will the plays go? “It’s a domino effect,” he admitted, “It has already made producing plays on Broadway much tougher.”

This makes me worried all over again.

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