We're only talking about five violins here. In the modern hierarchy of life-altering degradations, the layoff of five string players from "West Side Story" probably seems more misdemeanor than a crime against the art.

And yet . . .

It is sobering to know that, since July 13, a synthesizer has been playing five parts in the 1957 masterwork that Leonard Bernstein and his orchestrators imagined would always be connected to the heat of human vibrations.

The producers of the revival, which has been running for more than 500 performances at the Palace Theatre, have chosen to cut costs by dumping almost half of the 12-member string section. "The intent behind the cuts," they explained in a written statement, "is to keep the show running and protect the most jobs for as long as possible without compromising the integrity of the production."

But Paul Woodiel, one of the show's (still employed) violinists and a longtime colleague of the late composer, sees darker motives, part of a continued effort by producers "to marginalize live musicians." The offense is particularly chilling in what he calls "the most miraculous orchestration ever created for Broadway," with such love songs as "Maria" and "Tonight" written for 11 independent string parts. Despite "our talented synthesizer player," he says the blend and balance are off and "it sounds crummy."

This is all perfectly legal, spelled out in the contract signed after a bitter strike shut down most of Broadway for four days in 2003.

I'll get into the specifics of that agreement in a minute. First, however, let's fester on the bigger picture.

What is the value of live sound? For decades, this deeply sensual pleasure has been so diminished by amplification and mechanical imitation that we no longer comprehend the profundity of the connection or understand the real threat of its extinction. Microphones have replaced the thrill of natural sound for audiences who can't remember, or never heard, the difference. And, despite resistance from the musicians' union, many pits already have synthesizers to pump up the required player minimums per theater - a number reduced by the contract but still resisted by many producers.

On the surface, the issue is employment. But, really, the subject is quality. I'm not talking about rock musicals or shows designed to use the enormous potential of electronic sound. The danger involves revivals, the distortion of scores created for the handmade sounds of musicals that were Broadway for so long.

This is not some abstract idealization of purity. Anyone who has seen "South Pacific" knows I'm not romanticizing the impact of the golden-age sound. The Lincoln Center Theater production closes Aug. 22 after more than two glorious years luxuriating in Robert Russell Bennett's original 1949 orchestrations. One of the grand stage moments in recent years happens when, after the luscious overture, the stage rolls back to reveal 30 pit musicians in formal dress. Every night, that orchestra gets an ecstatic ovation.

Up until now, "West Side Story" has also used its original 29-player orchestrations, supervised by (and credited to) Bernstein, but really done by Broadway masters Sid Ramin and Irwin Kostel.

Cut five strings and what do you get? Tino Gagliardi, union president of Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians, says, "What has so many of us so distraught is that something we know so well, a landmark orchestration, is not being heard. The musicians hear the parts not being played. The audience doesn't understand that it's getting something different from the original production. I understand the economics. This is allowed in the contract. But it's a societal and artistic issue. Aesthetics are out for a dollar."

In the contract, Local 802 agreed to reduce the minimum number of musicians in the 13 largest theaters from 26 and 24 to 19 and 18. The bad part meant more than a 23 percent loss of jobs and, inevitably, a comparable reduction of live aural thrill. The good part was that the agreement holds the eroded line against technology until 2013.

Producers are free to dismiss "one or more or all of the musicians above the minimum" after the 10th week of the run. The Palace Theatre's minimum is 18 plus conductor, which puts the show above requirements. The producers say they worked closely with the Bernstein family estate and together agreed that, "although the contract allowed a reduction of seven musicians, only five would be cut." Clearly, Woodiel, who considers himself a friend of the Bernstein family, disagrees: "In this case I think they have taken a very shortsighted route. Who is going to defend Leonard Bernstein?"

By today's standards, this remains a relatively generous orchestra. But compromise can be a slippery road to bait-and-switch Broadway. Woodiel, who would be out of a job if the show closed, holds up "South Pacific" as a revival "that did it the right way." When business slowed, the producers chose to close "rather than cheapen the experience" by shrinking it.

At the other extreme, we have recently seen Broadway revivals in which the actors play their own instruments (John Doyle's riveting production of "Sweeney Todd" and slack "Company"), thus abolishing the orchestra altogether. More insidious, as I see it, are the revivals imported from London's hit-making Menier Chocolate Factory, where shows are staged small for its 150-seat theater and imported at budget-size for big-ticket Broadway.

Two years ago, the Menier sent us "Sunday in the Park With George" with a meager five musicians. Right now, we have "La Cage Aux Folles" with just eight and "A Little Night Music," also with eight. These are produced in theaters intended more for plays than musicals, which means their minimums are, respectively, four and three players.

The contract makes artistic allowances for these distressing erosions under a stipulation called Special Situations. Unless theatergoers notice what they're missing, such situations won't be special for long.