Playing sidemen to strike
NEW YORK — They are the men in the middle.
Broadway’s producers bet on them. The musicians hate them.
Until now, the guys who created the virtual orchestras have been virtually invisible. Prior to the musicians strike that has closed 18 Broadway tuners, they were under contractual obligation not to talk to the press about the individual productions they were working on. Suddenly, they’re at the center of what many in the theater are calling a public relations disaster.
“I was shocked to learn that ‘La Boheme’ had been canceled due to technical difficulties. It had gone so well in rehearsals,” said Brett Sommer, founder-CEO of Music Arts Technologies, home to virtual orchestra system the Most. “We didn’t need rehearsals the next day.”
Computer tics were reported as the reason for the missed rehearsal.
On Friday, the “Boheme” producers canceled that evening’s perf even before the stagehands and thesp unions threw their support behind the musicians later in the day, effectively shuttering all musicals. A press release stated the production would not perform in order “to continue rehearsing.”
Ben Brantley of the New York Times reportedly called the “Boheme” publicity office to request press tickets to the Friday perf. A spokesman for the show said there was no connection between Brantley’s potential review of the show’s virtual orchestra and the perf’s cancellation.
Brantley’s second choice Friday were comps to “Movin’ Out,” a show that prominently features its musicians onstage.
“Boheme” producers could not be reached for comment.
Sommer said too much ink had been spilled on whether the virtual orchestras sounded good or bad in rehearsals. “How long did the actors perform with a live orchestra?” he asked. “What are people expecting? You turn on the system and it is perfect?”
The virtual orchestra world is a small one. At present, the Most has only one major competitor on Broadway: Realtime Music Solutions produces the Sinfonia, based at Atlantic’s N.Y. headquarters. A less sophisticated product, OrchExtra, is used in high schools and community theaters.
Realtime CEO Jeffrey Lazarus objects to the term “virtual orchestra.” “It emphasizes the technology, all bits and zeros,” he said. “Sinfonia is a musical instrument that uses advanced software and hardware and needs to be played by a human musician who can influence performance.”
Beyond Broadway, Sinfonia and OrchExtra have been used in more than 4,000 productions since 1999. However, except for a Kentucky Opera production of “Hansel and Gretel,” it has never been used as the solo source of musical accompaniment.
Neither has the Most. “It shouldn’t be used alone, and it isn’t used alone on the road,” Sommer said. “It is called an orchestral enhancement system.”
So why make an exception for Broadway, where Sinfonia and the Most were to make their solo debuts Friday? “To keep people’s jobs,” Sommer shot back. “I don’t care if they keep a monkey organ down there.”
Sommer does not understand the fuss the Most has generated. “This technology has been used for 15 years on Broadway to enhance orchestras,” he said. “With Matthew Bourne’s ‘Swan Lake,’ critics raved about the wonderful acoustical orchestra, which was enhanced by the Most.”
Sommer dismissed actors’ recent pans of the technology. “What did you expect them to say, it’s terrific? They would be stoned,” he predicted.
On the road, Sinfonia and the Most currently enhance orchestras with seven to 15 members. Tellingly, seven and 15 musicians were the League of American Theaters & Producers’ first and last offer to Local 802 union regarding musician minimums.
New wave rocking boat
For his part, Lazarus is not surprised by the virtual orchestra brouhaha. “Being at the nexus of this controversy is not where I want to be. Musicians see us as Frankenstein, but that is a common reaction when something new is introduced.”
Lazarus said Sinfonia had been licensed by the producers of “Thoroughly Modern Millie” and “Les Miserables.” He was not at liberty to divulge the titles of the other Broadway shows that have done so.
While the use of taped music might have been a better PR move on the part of producers, it costs a lot more than virtual orchestras. To record a musical score can run up to $400,000. Sinfonia and the Most come in at between $30,000 and $60,000 (plus rehearsal costs and load-in) per show.