NY Musician Strike Shuts Down 18 Broadway ShowsDate: 10 March 2003
Musicals may maketh Broadway, but this past Friday, it was the musicals - or rather the musicians - that shut the Great White Way down. Disagreement over orchestra contracts resulted in a strike on 7 March 2003, forcing the closure of hit shows such as Mamma Mia!, 42nd Street, Hairspray, Aida and Chicago. In total, 18 musicals were shut down for the entire weekend, costing the theatre industry an estimated $5 million in box office losses and with still no end in sight to disruptions.
The crisis was sparked off after the expiration last week of the musicians' long-standing contracts - negotiated by their union, the American Federation of Musicians - which set minimum numbers of anywhere from three to 26 musicians on a musical, according to the size of an auditorium and the history of the venue.
When the contracts ran out, show producers wanted them renegotiated and, critically, pushed for an abolition of quotas. Musicians protested, saying they needed to protect jobs as well as the Broadway tradition of live - as opposed to pre-recorded - music.
Even once strike was declared, producers confidently planned to continue with normal performance schedules, using "virtual" orchestras conducting computer-generated music. However, the musicians' industrial action was supported by actors and backstage staff who refused to cross picket lines. At 7.00pm on Friday evening, the League of American Theatres, which represents theatre owners, announced that all that weekend's performances would be cancelled. Dates for further renegotiations have not yet been announced.
The only Broadway musical that has continued performances is Sam Mendes' long-running production of Cabaret at Studio 54, where a separate contract had been previously agreed. The strike also disrupted rehearsals for upcoming productions of Gypsy, also directed by Mendes, and Nine. Plays have been unaffected by the strike, except, in a positive way, by experiencing a box office rush from theatregoers unable to get into musicals as planned.
Aside from a mere two days of darkness on 11 and 12 September 2001 in the wake of the World Trade Centre terrorist attacks, Broadway hasn't shut down in 28 years. The last time it did so was in 1975, also at the hands of a musicians' strike.
- by Terri Paddock