Impresario Cameron Mackintosh has confirmed that Les Miserables will move as planned from the 1,400-seat Palace to the 990-seat Queen’s Theatre in April. The transfer appeared threatened last month when members of the Musicians Union protested over a reduction in the show’s orchestra in favour of the Sinfonia synthesised music system (See News, 20 Jan 2004).

In a statement released today, Mackintosh said that “whilst discussions continue between the Society of London Theatre (SOLT), the Theatre Management Association (TMA) and the Musicians Union (MU) over usage of synthesisers in the West End and regional theatres”, the remaining 11 musicians in Les Miserables’s orchestra have now accepted and signed their contracts to make the move.

Some will view the agreement as a climbdown on the part of the Musicians Union. Only a few weeks ago, it issued its own statement saying that it “vehemently opposed” the introduction of the Sinfonia, which stores samples of every instrument in a score and then allows an operator to simulate performances without conventional musicians.

John Smith, the MU’s general secretary, said at the time: “The reputation of West End theatre has been built on the professionalism and the world class standard of its live performers, and the reputation of the Musicians Union rests on its long-standing campaign to 'Keep Music Live'. Our members would resist at all costs any system which would result in not only the loss of employment opportunities, but also the delivery of a product of inferior quality to the public. They are very concerned about the impact this may have upon the ability of the West End to attract theatregoers from both home and abroad.”

Les Miserables will be the first show to employ the Sinfonia in the UK, and many fear it may set a dangerous precedent. 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).

According to the Times, as the costs of moving and reconfiguring the production for the Queen’s (not to mention box office losses at a smaller venue) are likely to outweigh any savings made through the use of the new technology (estimated to be as much as £270,000 per annum), Mackintosh does not plan to make any changes to the ticket prices of Les Miserables, which currently peak at £45 for a top-price seat.

Musicians Union leaders are due to report back later this month to its members, who may still decide to push for industrial action or further protest. Les Miserables' final performance at the Palace will be on 27 March 2004, and its first performance at the Queen’s on 1 April.

- by Terri Paddock