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Playing Second Fiddle

Local Musicians Protest Use of Machine in Stage Shows' Orchestra


THOUSAND OAKS — It's the hard-knock life for some local musicians, who feel they are being exiled from the orchestra pit at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza as the hits "Annie" and "Evita" roll into town.

Producers of the popular musicals are using "virtual orchestras"--keyboards with high-tech digital sampling capabilities--to create a wide range of instrumental sounds in place of several live musicians who might otherwise perform.

Virtual orchestras have taken hold in recent years, in stage shows from Las Vegas to New York. Controversy has followed. But locally, artists say, the debate hasn't been much of an issue--until now.

Area musicians have an obvious motivation: The more virtual orchestras abound, the less work they find and the less money they make.

They contend that their beef is also over a matter of principle.

"We'd like people to understand that they're paying for a ticket for a live musical, and it's not a live musical," said woodwind player John Mitchell, president of the 100-member Theater Musicians Assn. of Southern California. "There's a big difference between a sample from a synthesizer and what a real person can do."

Producer Mark Edelman sees it differently.

"This is the future. This is progress. We're putting on the best productions we can with this technology."

For the record, Edelman said, the entire orchestra is not being displaced. In "Evita," which opens in Thousand Oaks on Oct. 17, eight musicians will play alongside the electronic keyboardist. But the technology does eliminate the need for other musicians, he said.

Theater League, Edelman's Kansas City-based company, would otherwise have 13 musicians in the pit. Edelman is presenting another theater company's production of "Annie," beginning Nov. 28, but said he could not recall how many orchestral musicians would be used in that performance.

Musicians playing for such traveling productions are members of the American Federation of Musicians, Local 581 in Ventura, whose three-year contract with Theater League is set to expire at the end of the year.

Michael J. Smith of Ventura, president of the union chapter in this area, said he thinks virtual orchestras "stink."

"I feel the same way about it as karaoke or DJs," Smith said. "It's not the real thing."

But the union itself is not opposing the productions or planning any protest, he said. The union's current contract with Theater League does not prohibit digital sampling, and Smith is not convinced that the union should argue against the technology during the upcoming contract negotiations. "The solution is market driven," he said. "If audiences don't want to pay for an artificial representation, it will wither."

Margaret Travers, executive director of the Ventura County Arts Council, said it's a shame to substitute computers for performers. "A production that has all live musicians is just more lively, more sharp, more on the edge," she said, asserting that use of a synthesizer is "just less expensive for them, that's all."

At $4,000 a week to rent the keyboard and accompanying software, Edelman said he is spending only a little less than what it would cost to hire those extra five musicians, who typically cost about $1,000 each a week. What he gets from the keyboard "sounds a lot richer" than the five instruments he is doing without, he said. "I don't have the room in the pit or the budget to have as many sounds or richness as this gives me." And, he quips, "that machine always shows up; it always plays the right notes."

Many of today's Broadway productions commonly use virtual orchestras, Edelman said, reeling off examples: "Phantom of the Opera," "Les Miserables," "Miss Saigon" and "Beauty and the Beast."

And the fact is, Edelman said, Theater League has used synthesized enhancement during at least five of the seven seasons it has brought its musicals to Thousand Oaks, including for "Pippin" and "Tommy."

Tom Mitze, theater director for the city, said it's of no concern to Thousand Oaks officials how much of the music is synthesized, as long as Theater League productions keep filling the house as they have in years past.

As far as his personal opinion goes, Mitze said he will wait for "Evita."

"I'm looking forward to seeing it and hearing it," he said. "I don't want to prejudice my opinion before I actually hear it."

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