'Priscilla' Plays Canned Music; Union Claims Desertion

Musicians Local 802 is protesting the Broadway show Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert for its use of fewer musicians than the minimum required. The show is the first musical in Broadway history to use a prerecorded soundtrack that a small group of musicians accompany. NPR's Jeff Lunden reports.

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When "Priscilla, Queen of the Desert" opened on Broadway in March, there were fewer musicians in the orchestra pit than union agreements normally require. The producers had won this concession over the musicians' objections. The dispute is still in arbitration, but the musicians have taken their case to the public.

Jeff Lunden has more.

JEFF LUNDEN: "Priscilla, Queen of the Desert" is a fun-loving, splashy $15 million jukebox musical filled with disco hits and lip-syncing drag queens.

(Soundbite of music)

LUNDEN: The show wants little more than to entertain Broadway audiences for a couple of hours, and it's been packing them in on a pretty consistent basis. So why were there eight concerned musicians standing outside the Palace Theatre handing out leaflets before the show last Thursday night?

Mr. BILL RHODEN (Retired, Trumpet Player): Please support the musicians on Broadway.

LUNDEN: Bill Rhoden, a retired trumpet player who worked in Broadway pit orchestras for 40 years, thinks "Priscilla, Queen of the Desert" represents a threat to the very livelihood of his fellow musicians.

Mr. RHODEN: When you go into this show, you're going to hear the sound of strings coming through the sound system, but there's not a single string player in the orchestra. It's all been prerecorded. And we are very concerned about the live tradition of Broadway and how it is being undercut here at this show.

LUNDEN: For the first time in Broadway history, most of the songs in a musical utilize a prerecorded soundtrack, while nine musicians play along with the recording.

Lead producer Garry McQuinn insists this is not about cost-saving, but aesthetics. He says the creative team wanted to emulate the cheesy sound of drag clubs in Sydney, Australia, during the 1970s and '80s.

Mr. GARRY MCQUINN (Lead Producer): It's a very kind of particular sound. And it's a sound that's actually, if you like, synthetic. We never wanted the lush orchestral sound. We never did want that. We still don't want it.

LUNDEN: But Tino Gagliardi, president of musicians' Local 802, doesn't buy the argument.

Mr. TINO GAGLIARDI (President, Local 802): There is no artistic reason why they had to record a whole string section and have it play along, the way it does. There is only one consideration and that, in my opinion, is financial.

LUNDEN: And Gagliardi isn't only concerned that the show employs half the musicians than normally play at the Palace. He thinks it undercuts a very basic aspect of what makes a Broadway musical a Broadway musical a live orchestra.

Mr. GAGLIARDI: It's not even a labor/management issue, as much as it is an aesthetic one. People, wake up. This is what's happening to theater, okay? Before you know it, we're going to be another Branson, Missouri. And I'm sorry this is the capital - the Great White Way, for crying out loud.

(Soundbite of song, "I Will Survive")

Ms. ANASTACIA MCCLESKEY, ASHLEY SPENCER, JACQUELINE B. ARNOLD (Actors/Singers): (as Divas) (Singing) Weren't you the one who tried to hurt me with goodbye? You think I'd crumble? You think I'd crumble? You think I'd lay down and die? Oh no, not I. I will survive.

LUNDEN: Producer Garry McQuinn says if the arbitrator rules in the union's favor, he'll abide by the decision. But he's still not going to change the show.

Mr. MCQUINN: If this dispute got to the point where we, essentially, were forced to employ musicians, strings or otherwise, we wouldn't put them in anyway. They'd have to sit there doing nothing, because that sound is terribly important to us.

LUNDEN: And McQuinn wonders why Local 802 has brought the dispute to the public, months after the show has opened and while both sides are engaged in arbitration.

Mr. MCQUINN: That feels to me like the 802 is actually trying to pre-empt the proper processes that are actually laid down in those industry agreements. I mean, they're outside our theater, handing out leaflets and picketing. That's just not appropriate, in my view.

LUNDEN: But after the show on Thursday, as happy crowds poured out of the Palace Theatre, most seemed oblivious to the brouhaha.

It was the third time New Yorker Steve Cordoves had seen "Priscilla, Queen of the Desert."

Mr. STEVE CORDOVES: It's amazing.

LUNDEN: Were you aware of the musicians outside before the show tonight?

Mr. CORDOVES: No, I wasn't.

LUNDEN: They were protesting the fact that some of the songs were prerecorded and the orchestra plays along. Does that bother you at all?

Mr. CORDOVES: No, it doesn't.

LUNDEN: Both sides expect arbitration to be decided within the next few months.

For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.

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