Radio City band strikes up

Stagehands, auds caught in middle

You’d almost never guess that something’s amiss at Radio City Music Hall. Auds are filing into the annual Christmas Spectacular, and onstage the Rockettes are still kicking up their toes to exactly eye level. But the band isn’t playing.

The approximately 35 musicians of the Radio City orchestra have been on strike — or locked out, depending on whom you ask — since Nov. 3. While taped music plays onstage, the nasty dispute offstage has included accusations of lying, a public plea for resolution by the stagehands union and the filing of a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board.

Despite the canned tunes, auds are still coming. Is that cause for concern for proponents of live music in Gotham?

What if Cablevision, owner of Radio City Entertainment, can put up the Spectacular — which took in $73.8 million last year — without hiring an orchestra (and paying it overtime, the issue that originally set off the negotiation troubles)? And what if it happens in an atmosphere where some music lovers are already rankled by an acclaimed production of “Sweeney Todd” that eliminates the orchestra to showcase actors playing the entire score?

All that sounds like an encouraging precedent for cost-cutting producers, while signaling a dangerous reduction in leverage for the musicians union, Local 802.

With negotiations at a delicate impasse at press time, neither of the parties involved would comment, nor would other orgs such as the League of American Theaters and Producers. (The League has its own agreement with 802, hammered out after a strike that shut down Broadway in 2003.)

Still, upon closer inspection, the situation at Radio City doesn’t yet herald the death of live music.

In 2003, Broadway shut down because Actors’ Equity joined the 802 strike in sympathy. But the Rockettes have a no-strike clause in their contract, so they can’t put their weight behind the musicians’ cause.

Meanwhile, Radio City’s stagehands are clearly conflicted. Their union, Local One, issued a surprise public statement Nov. 4 calling for an end to the impasse.

If the musicians ever decide to picket, Local One would face a tough choice: Join their union brothers on the picket line — a choice likely to shutter the Spectacular completely — or cross the line and work, thereby preserving the 300 jobs at stake.

As for all those theatergoers, the majority of them bought their nonrefundable tickets before the strike, so no one can yet argue that auds are choosing taped music over live. (Radio City did not respond to requests for the status of current ticket sales.)

Clearly, though, some in the audience are not happy.”I understand they believe they have to strike, but I feel like it’s not the right time. It’s Christmas,” said Jenny DiMino from Woodcliff Lake, N.J., on her way in to a matinee Nov. 10. She and two friends had purchased their tickets to the Spectacular a month earlier.

All three were expecting to be disappointed by the taped music. “I think it’s gonna be a big difference,” DiMino said.

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