Bring In The Clowns

by Polar Levine for popCULTmedia, March 8, 2003

Broadway shows are not my brew. In fact my wife's extreme distaste for them has always served as sort of an aphrodesiac around my house. But my old pal, Joe Cardello, the brilliant percussionist in my band, polarity/1, plays in the pits when not on tour with Diana Ross or awaiting polarity/1's ascent to the upper stratosphere. Joe is actively involved in the current turmoil that culminated in a walkout by pit musicians and actors and which has virtually shut down Broadway. The shutdown could be great for my domestic sex life, but not so hot for Joe and our culture in general.

There are two large issues, as I see it. One is another example of bottom line interests steering the Ship of Culture into a reef. The other is the utter lack of creativity in the labor movement that has turned the historical movement for workers' rights into a crass hustle, leaving us with a country whose unionized workforce is down to around 8%.

As for the Producers: From one perspective Broadway is literally The House That Ruth Built. The owner of the WWI era Boston Red Sox, Harry Frazee, was primarily a producer of Broadway shows. In order to finance his Broadway ventures he'd sell off the best players that the perennial world champion Sox had under contract. And that's how the Yankees got Ruth and how Boston got the shaft. It's that same sort of money first mentality that leads the guys with the dough to leave a trail of destruction, sadness, waste and bad quality in their wake. He may have been a Broadway big shot but history notes him unkindly. The recording industry in its monumental quest for self-immolation is another great example of profit-mindedness trumping quality in every way.

It's true, the producers could save a lot of money if they could eliminate some of, or eventually, all of those irritable guys in the pits with their blubbering babies to feed back home. They'll tell us that the results would be lower ticket prices. And we laugh. But back to the planet Earth... Do swarms of people drive over the bridges, under the tunnels and fly o'er the clouds to sit in a Broadway theater in order to see pretty people dance, kick and sing to canned music? Do these very rich and very dumb producers, these Angels of Broadway, have any idea what theater is? Hint -- it's not hamburgers, movies, TV or video games. I tell my pal, Joe, "Chill dude. Put on a polarity/1 T-shirt and play with your kid. These idiots will lose. And if they win, the folks still will pay outlandish prices for tickets, sit there with speakers blapping high quality canned bullshit in their faces and never show up again. The producers will rehire you and all the other musicians and all will be back to normal." But this might turn out badly.

I'd like to interject here that Broadway pit musicians are a varied lot. Some are rockers in real life. Some are symphony guys or jazz guys. But all are -- unlike the musicians we're used to seeing and reading about -- professionals. Lifers. They can read incredibly complicated charts. They show up on time. They practice practice practice. They are as expert, craft-conscious and talented as the guy who will cut out your appendix, enlarge your breasts and do your double bypass. (Disclaimer: don't hire Joe Cardello to do your bypass.)

And then you have the union. If you live in New York you often, while sitting in stand-still traffic, wonder, "Why is it taking two years to complete one lane worth of minor road construction?" "Why are there three guys strolling around with shovels and two guys sitting on their asses?" "Why is the public school system broke while custodians are better paid than teachers and say they don't mop puke?" Because, folks, our legendary labor movement has become as cynical as management and sucks the blood out of us all with oppressive contracts. My dad's a union guy. My lefty soul has a union sticker on it. But the overreaching of unions, not to mention the Soprano Effect, has left the whole idea of unions an easy mark for right wing exploitation of workers. Setting a minimum of 24-26 musicians (in most cases) that producers must meet is self-defeating and so stupid-sounding that the producer class knows it can use it to its public relations advantage every time this issue comes to a head.

What's the solution? Both sides need to get off the old arguments and onto some sort of real-world terrain. The Broadway show music medium is largely orchestral. Some shows feature a more contemporary musical aesthetic. Whatever the musical genre -- whether the strings are bowed or strummed, made of gut or wound steel -- human players, as ruled by the laws of nature, interact instinctively with human singers and dancers. What producer in his right mind thinks he can replace that experience? Yes, when shows are on the road they can get away with canned or partially canned music. But people come to New York to see a "BROADWAY" show. We can enjoy a cheap, fun day at a minor league baseball game. But we don't pay $40 a seat and $5 for Cracker Jacks in order to see minor league level play -- unless you're a Red Sox fan, thanks to Harry Frazee. When "Oklahoma" gets revived as a hip hop update it will make little sense to bring in the violins and flutes because the union demands 26 or 18 or 12 players. That aside, how could a chamber ensemble and a lap top make the conventional Broadway performance of "Oklahoma" worth paying for or worth calling a "Broadway" production?


Joe tells me of a friend of his who works in the pit for "Flower Drum Song." He feels ambivalent about striking against the producers because the producers generally treat him well. But he feels compelled to back the union. This ambivalence can be a powerful tool in resolving the conflict. Both sides benefit by perceiving themselves as being on the same team. After all, we're not talking about miners striking against the coal industry. This whole mess could end well if played with some finesse

The unions have so much going for them in this dispute that they don't need a number like "24" to get their point across. The musicians union (AFM) has archaic rules that hinder musicians in situations that are outside the scenario of journeyman employment. And though it will probably prevail in this dispute, rightly, there has got to be a point when the AFM, and unions in general, start getting creative and start developing a broader and more nuanced view of their role in the world.


In the mid 1980's when MIDI arrived, studio musicians were finding themselves replaced by drum machines poorly programmed by hamfisted producers. And we now have a legacy of brain dead quantized beats to jump up and down to. Many musicians complained that "real" music could not be made on machines and they complained themselves out of careers. The smart ones learned how to use the stuff and made up for the lost work by programming slammin' grooves that were live sounding and futuristic at the same time. Musicians started augmenting their acoustic instruments with MIDI alternatives. The union must force Broadway producers to maintain live orchestras and high aesthetic standards. But it must also find ways to ease reluctant musicians into the real world, just like workers in all occupations who are threatened by technology.


In the next decade or two the general aesthetic of Broadway musicals will be emerging from the days of Jolson and Zeigfield and the music and instruments required to play it will be very different from what we see now. The next contract that gets negotiated had better address this or someday the producers, at their own peril, will win and everybody will lose.

Polar Levine