Musicians Consider Strike Over Orchestra CutbacksDate: 20 January 2004
UPDATED: This story was updated, to include additional information from the Musicians’ Union, at 4.20pm on 20 January 2004.
Musicians are reportedly considering industrial strike action that could shut down the West End’s 16 musicals. According to today’s Evening Standard, members of the Musicians’ Union are angry at plans for Les Miserables to reduce the size of its live orchestra when it moves from the 1,400-seat Palace to the 990-seat Queen’s Theatre in April (See News, 21 Nov 2003) – a development which, they say, could soon lead to the use of cost-cutting ‘virtual’ orchestras and an end to live music in the West End.
A similar dilemma arose last year on Broadway, when theatre owners and union officials wrangled over a proposed abolition of orchestra quotas. Musicians went on a strike that, supported by actors and backstage staff, effectively silenced all 18 Broadway musicals for four days at an estimated box office loss of $4.8 million (See News, 11 Mar 2003).
The immediate problem for Cameron Mackintosh, the producer of Les Miserables, is a logistical one. The Queen’s – such as the RSC’s currently resident pair of The Taming of the Shrew and The Tamer Tamed - and it does not have an orchestra pit to accommodate Les Miserables’ 24-strong orchestra.
As it is, a theatre insider says, the front two rows of the Queen’s will have to be removed in order to accommodate any live musicians. According to the Standard, a total of 13 musicians jobs will have to be axed. Mackintosh's office has confirmed that the Les Mis orchestra will be downsized as a result of the move – as was the case when the impresario moved his musical version of The Witches of Eastwick from Drury Lane to the smaller Prince of Wales in 2001 - but a spokesperson told Whatsonstage.com that they are not in dispute with the Musicians' Union and that discussions will continue at a meeting scheduled for 4.30pm this afternoon.
Speaking to Whatsonstage.com, Keith Haynes of the Musicians’ Union explained that, though they will “oppose any introduction of machines that replace live musicians” and threaten jobs, all-out West End strike action was “highly unlikely” and “very much a last resort”. He added that, “we’ve got a very good relationship with Mackintosh, who’s one of the biggest employers of musicians in the West End, and we don’t want anything to spoil it”.
The last time the West End came close to industrial shut-down was two years ago when backstage and box office workers, members of the BECTU trade union, voted to stage work stoppages in protest over low pay. After intense negotiations with the Society of London Theatre, which represents theatre owners and producers, a last-minute compromise was reached (See News, 8 Apr 2002).
Les Miserables' final performance at the Palace will be on Saturday 27 March 2004. It’s now scheduled to move slightly earlier than planned into the Queen’s, where its first performance will be on 1 April 2004.
- by Terri Paddock