NEW YORK (AP) -- A battle could be brewing over the sound of music on Broadway and how many people play it.
Negotiations begin Tuesday between the American Federation of Musicians' Local 802, the folks who play instruments in the pit and on stage, and the League of American Theatres and Producers, the organization representing the producers of Broadway shows.
''This negotiation, in our opinion, is about live music -- the continuation of live music,'' says Bill Moriarity, the union president.
Not so, says the league, which wants to frame the discussion around artistic freedom, specifically the number of musicians required to play in a Broadway orchestra pit. Right now, there are union-mandated minimums, depending on the size of the theater. They range from three in some of the smaller houses to between 24 and 26 for larger Broadway theaters where such big shows as ''The Phantom of the Opera,'' ''42nd Street'' and ''Mamma Mia!'' are playing.
The league wants to do away with minimums altogether, giving producers a free hand to hire as many -- or as few -- musicians as they want.
''Labor minimums went out sometime in the last part of the 19th century -- it's featherbedding,'' Jed Bernstein, league president, said Tuesday. ''This is an archaic rule left over from the time when there were house orchestras at all theaters.''
However, Moriarity said that composers, orchestrators, music directors and arrangers ''have no control over the size of the orchestra ... and the only thing that gives them any leeway within to work at a reasonable artistic level is these minimums in the contract.''
During the negotiations for the last musicians' contract in 1993, minimums were cut and a special situations provision was adopted that allowed producers to petition to use a smaller number of musicians. According to Variety, 7 of 19 petitions to lower the minimum have been approved over the last decade.
Both sides have been talking tough, preparing for the February meetings and trying to muster popular support.
''The tradition of live music on Broadway is under attack,'' proclaims the union, which enlisted the help of actors, including Patty Duke, Ben Vereen and Tom Wopat, to do radio spots supporting Local 802.
''The idea that this is somehow about live music is simply the union's spin on an indefensible position,'' Bernstein has countered. ''They think they are the lions at the gate who are going to protect live music on Broadway. But it's insane to think that Broadway is not going to have live music played. Live music is endemic and indigenous to what Broadway is all about.''
Producers have been silent about the possible use of virtual orchestras, computer-generated systems that could replace live musicians if there is a strike. The technology is there and keyboard synthesizers already are an important complement of many Broadway orchestra pits, including ''Mamma Mia!'' and ''The Producers.''
But what would the music sound like?
''Certainly, there is a noticeable and prominent difference between a wholly live orchestra and a wholly synthesized sound system,'' Moriarity said. ''How well they use the synthesizer is a matter of an orchestrator's skills. Many of the orchestrators have learned to use the synthesizers within the minimums that we currently have on Broadway in a very effective way.
''But there is a whole emotional and intellectual and physical kind of experience with live music that's much diminished when you have electronic sounds.''
The contract between the league and Local 802 expires March 2.
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