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Union Fights 'Priscilla' Producers Over Live Music

The kitschy hits of the disco era often included many over-the-top parts played by orchestras. But at the new Broadway adaptation of “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert,” audience members won’t be hearing many live string performances.

Those are the grounds for a new dispute between the producers of the musical and Local 802, American Federation of Musicians, which is the union that represents Broadway musicians.

According to the players' contract, the show is required to have at least 18 musicians in the orchestra pit during the show. The musical currently has just nine musicians playing on the production — the rest of the music is from a pre-recorded orchestral track.

Local 802 has said the show’s producers have inappropriately used a loophole in the contract to avoid hiring the required number of musicians.

"We’ve proven ourselves to be very flexible when a show comes out," said Local 802 President Tino Gagliardi. "But when you’re playing an overture and the music sounds like a 35-piece orchestra, it’s hard to argue that they require less than the number specified in the minimums.”

But the show’s producers said it chose to have fewer musicians in the musical for artistic reasons that were appropriate for a disco-oriented show.

The rocky relationship between the musicians' union and the producers of "Priscilla, Queen of the Desert" is nothing new. During contract bargaining in 2005, the Broadway League, which is the trade organization that represents the producers, attempted to eliminate the minimum number of musicians required to be part of a show. That led to a protracted public battle and eventually, reduced the number of "minimums" required.

Now, the union is hoping to use the "Priscilla" dispute to rekindle support for its cause. Local 802 has hired a public relations firm to run a campaign titled “Save Live Music on Broadway,” which is complete with a Web site and online petition. The union also commissioned a survey from pollster Bernand Whitman showing that Broadway audiences prefered shows with full orchestras.

The Broadway League said it would continue to support live music on Broadway, but that this particular incident shouldn’t be argued in public.

“The producers of 'Priscilla, Queen of the Desert' followed the rules for 'special situations' and a third-party expert agreed with them,” said Broadway League President Charlotte St. Martin. “This was an artistic decision of the show's creators, and is in no way indicative of an overall industry trend."

The "special situation” clause in the musicians' union contract was also used to reduce the number of musicians during the one-act musical “American Idiot,” which was adapted from Green Day's album of the same name.