A few weeks ago, the orchestra for Broadway's West Side Story was gutted. In a cost-cutting measure, five violinists were told to clean out their lockers, and their parts were replaced by a synthesizer piped in from another room. Overnight, Leonard Bernstein's lush score, widely considered a masterpiece of American performing arts, went partly mechanical, manipulated by an engineer whose job is to trick audiences into thinking they are hearing the real thing.
The top ticket price for West Side Story is $121.50, but for that skyscraping rate, don't think you're getting a full orchestra. Escalating costs and changing musical tastes have downsized theatrical orchestras to the size of small bands, and in some cases, like the recent [title of show], just a pianist. When the current revival of 1957's West Side Story opened 15 months ago with its full string section and amply-staffed pit, it was a throwback to a richer American musical tradition.
But after it passed the 500th-performance mark, producers decided it was time to stretch the profit a little farther and axed live musicians, just as other Broadway long-runners such as Les Misérables have done before. Doing so may keep it open for a while longer, but at what price to American artistic tradition?
A violinist for the show (one who'll keep his job) sounded the alarm in a New York Times opinion piece. Jobs are scarce for skilled musicians, he acknowledges, but devaluing the experience of hearing live music performed is something that we owe, if not to Bernstein, then to Broadway, which we assume is the gold standard for American live entertainment. "Here's my proposition:" wrote Paul Woodiel. "If the show is no longer profitable, the producers should simply close it with its dignity intact."
"When you pay over $100 a ticket you should hear real music the way Leonard Bernstein intended it," New York Post arts writer Barbara Hoffman told the AFP. "Something as sacred as that score, one of the most beautiful scores ever written -- it's blasphemous."
Broadway long ago became what I like to call "Netflix on Stage," where your favorite movies (Legally Blonde, Billy Elliott, etc.) are turned into palatable crowd-pleasers and where every show presents the soothing promise of showing you something familiar (The Addams Family, American Idiot, etc.) even before the curtain rises.
Just as remakes have infected Hollywood, cultural re-treads dominate the theater, as producers prefer taking financial risks on something they feel audiences already know and cherish. Performers are forbidden from introducing new characterizations or interpretations, forced instead to hew to their assigned "tracks" and replicate what was established long before.
Arguments rage over what's to blame for the current state of our Push-Button Broadway: producers and theater owners for being greedy, the performers' unions for demanding too much cash, or audiences' declining standards. In my observation, it's all three working together.
The issue of consolidating orchestral parts into synthesized versions may be separate from one of cultural tastes, but both are evidence that times have changed for the Great White Way, and beautiful traditions are steadily trickling away despite the fact audiences are being forced to pay ever-rising prices. I think they attend with the assumption that they're getting something more immediate and fresh than is actually being delivered.
No matter the reasons, harsh economics have turned Broadway, and the Broadway road-show circuit, into a $121-dollar jukebox, designed mostly to feed tourists echoes of their favorite entertainments from other media.
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