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The Sound Of Music Returns To Broadway

March 12, 2003|Paul Lieberman | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — 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.

"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.

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.

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.

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