Musicians' Local Protests "Fever' Orchestra Size

The Broadway theatre orchestra musicians' union, Local 802, was scheduled to protest the reduced, 16-member orchestra playing for "Saturday Night Fever" at the Minskoff Theatre, in a leaflet distribution to audience members outside the theatre at 7 pm on Nov. 10. The union contract for that theatre calls for 24 pit musicians. The show's producers, citing a "special situation" provision of the 802 contract with Broadway theatres, had requested the smaller orchestra for "demonstrable artistic reasons."

The producers had claimed that six cast members who sometimes play "mini-keys," small electronic keyboards, from a backstage dressing room where the mini-keys are wired into the theatre's sound system, were "musicians" who augment the pit orchestra. However, the six cast members are also vocalists who occasionally appear onstage in the "Fever" chorus. Both the union and a contractually provided "committee of neutrals," made up of Broadway producers, musicians, arrangers, and conductors, decided that the "special situation" clause did not apply in this case. The producers went ahead with 16 pit musicians and six mini-key players anyway.

"We feel it's important that the audience understand what's going on here," Judy West, a spokeswoman for Local 802, told Back Stage. She said that musicians from every current Broadway musical orchestra would be participating in the passing out of the protesting flyers, which were headlined: "The music deserves better. And so do you."

Critics have universally panned "Saturday Night Fever," which opened officially Oct. 21 after several weeks of previews. The show, based on the movie "Saturday Night Fever" and incorporating the Bee Gees music composed for the film, was previously staged in London with great financial success. The current Broadway incarnation, with a different cast, reaped a decent but not blockbuster advance ticket sale, and is doing respectable business despite the reviews. Many critics excoriated the sound of the show, characterizing it as "distant," "tinny," "hollow," "like a rock concert," and even "like a souped-up eight-track tape system," referring to a 1970s relic.

"This show is the most egregious example of the "dumbing down' of the music of Broadway," said Bill Moriarity, president of Local 802. "Our members remain concerned about the quality of music presented generally on Broadway, where there is far too much reliance on synthesizers and amplification, and not enough on the acoustic orchestra sound that we believe is one of the great attractions of Broadway."

Earlier this season, the musicians' union had protested the reduction of "The Scarlet Pimpernel" orchestra when it moved from the Minskoff to the smaller Neil Simon Theatre. That show, in its third Broadway version, has announced its closing in January, at a financial loss and prior to a national tour.

Local 802 has raised a grievance with the League of American Theatres and Producers in the "Saturday Night Fever" case, and requested a meeting this week with the league, with the Actors Equity Association sitting in as an involved observer. By press time, the meeting had not taken place. The local's protesting flyer urged calls to the league at (212) 764-1122, and to the producers of "Saturday Night Fever," at (212) 382-3410

The musicians' union contract includes a "no-strike pledge."

On a related issue-the move of the hit "dance play" "Contact" from the Off-Broadway Mitzi Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center upstairs to the "Broadway" house, the Vivian Beaumont Theater-Local 802 will not take any action. Like many major dance programs, "Contact" uses all taped music, in an eclectic range from Tchaikovsky and Puccini, to Dion and the Belmonts and Robert Palmer.