This story has been updated to include a new statement from the creative team of Here Lies Love.
Here Lies Love, already planning to make history with Broadway's first all-Filipino cast, looks to be making history somewhere else: the orchestra pit. According to a report in The New York Times and confirmed by Playbill, the upcoming Fatboy Slim-David Byrne musical currently plans to perform without any live musicians, electing instead to use pre-recorded tracks for accompaniment. The move is a watershed moment for musical theatre on Broadway, with the production set to arguably become the first major Main Stem musical to dispense with live music when previews begin June 17 at the Broadway Theatre.
The musical, according to production spokesperson Adrian Bryan-Brown, has always performed with tracks since it was conceived in 2006. In a statement to Playbill, Bryan-Brown calls the choice "part of the karaoke genre inherent to the musical and the production concept." Here Lies Love contains an electronic and disco-inspired score.
"The music for Here Lies Love was inspired by the phenomena of 'track acts,' which allowed club audiences to keep dancing, much like this production aims to do," continues Bryan-Brown. (It should be noted that earlier stagings included some of the musical's cast playing instruments in two musical numbers and there is also a live DJ.)
The decision has predictably drawn criticism from Broadway musicians. Local 802 of American Federation of Musicians (the union representing Broadway instrumentalists) President and Executive Director Tino Gagliardi told The New York Times, "[W]e're not going to stand by and let this happen. It's not fair to the public."
Our request for comment from union representatives was not returned by time of publication. But AFM is circling a petition, urging signatories to "say NO to canned music on Broadway" and calling Here Lies Love "a direct attack on Broadway audiences, a direct attack on the professional musicians of NYC, and a direct attack on the long tradition of live music on Broadway."
AFM typically enforces orchestra minimums set for each individual Broadway house, which is dependent on the theatre's size—the minimum at the Broadway Theatre is 19 musicians. Productions wishing to use less than their theatre's minimum can either apply to the union for special permission, or hire non-playing AFM members as if they were part of the pit. The former situation is far more common on Broadway, where in recent years we've seen shows like American Psycho mounted with just three credited musicians and a conductor. And last year, KPOP had only four musicians in its pit.
The use of pre-recorded tracks is not entirely without precedent. Contact, which won Best Musical at the 2000 Tony Awards, performed entirely to pre-existing, pre-recorded tracks—though the production's designation as a musical rather than a dance show drew critique from many in the industry, since there was no live singing. More recently, the also-dance-heavy The Little Prince performed without any live musicians, though, like Contact, the piece was not what most would call a traditional musical theatre production.
Here Lies Love would stand alone as the first inarguably musical theatre production on Broadway to not use live musicians.
The development is the latest in a long battle between producers and AFM over Broadway pit sizes. Since the development of electronic keyboards, which can augment other instrumental players or outright replace multiple players with just one keyboardist, AFM has struggled to keep the large, orchestral pits of yesteryear alive. Large orchestras as we're currently seeing with Camelot and Sweeney Todd (both, worth mentioning, revivals of well-loved titles with baked-in audience interest) have become the exception rather than the norm. It has been suggested that The Phantom of the Opera's large orchestra size is among the reasons the long-running production closed. The West End version returned after the COVID-19 shutdown with a new and dramatically reduced orchestra that relies more on keyboard instrument replacement and augmentation, an orchestration that is expected to be used in any potential Broadway return for the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical as well.
The use of sequencing platforms like Ableton in recent years has further muddied the waters. Productions using Ableton (which on Broadway includes Hamilton and SIX, among others) can program pre-recorded material that would normally be played on a keyboard or other instruments, allowing one operator to handle far more material than when a single musician is playing a keyboard. The platform has come into fashion with the rise of modern pop-influenced music on Broadway, as a way to mimic the seemingly endless layering that happens in studio recording. But the tool has the ability to go beyond that and outright replace musicians itself.
Even with previews just about two weeks away, Here Lies Love is continuing to engage in a "contractual review process" with AFM, and has asked the union for a waiver to the minimum. The union's typical considerations for this designation include "the musical concept expressed by the composer and/or orchestrator, whether the production is of a definable musical genre different from a traditional Broadway musical, and the production concept expressed by the director and/or choreographer."
In a letter sent to its membership, Local 802 writes that, "As stipulated in the collective bargaining agreement between Local 802 and the Broadway League (Article 5, Section G), producers must defend any attempt to hire less than the required minimum to a 'Special Situation' panel. The panel consists of representatives from Local 802, the League and includes neutrals, not affiliated with either party. The production is examined and the panel votes to determine whether to allow the orchestra reduction. If the parties don't accept the decision, it is submitted to arbitration."
Update: In response to the outcry on social media, the creative team of Here Lies Love has released a statement on Instagram defending its artistic decision, saying that "the performance of the live vocals to pre-recorded, artificial tracks is paramount to its artistic concept." It went on to say that the show is trying to transform the Broadway theatre "into a nightclub, with every theatregoer immersed in the experience. In many ways, Here Lies Love is pioneering this kind of dance club track-act immersion on Broadway." The production also added that, "Here Lies Love is on Broadway because Broadway must create space for boundary-pushing creative work."
Though the synthesizer-based sounds are an important part of a pop and electronic score, it should be noted that other pop-based shows on Broadway have also been able to use live musicians alongside synthesizers and backing tracks, such as & Juliet, KPOP, and the upcoming Once Upon a One More Time. Read the full Here Lies Love statement below.
Based on a real story, Here Lies Love follows Imelda Marcos, whose husband Ferdinand Marcos was the 10th president of the Philippines and ruled as dictator for 20 years until 1986. During his regime, Philippine senator Ninoy Aquino was the Marcos family's leading critic until being assassinated in 1983. His murder sparked the People Power Revolution, which led to the removal of Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos from power.
The musical is scheduled to begin previews at the Broadway Theatre June 17, with opening night set for July 20. Arielle Jacobs is starring as Imelda Marcos, with Jose Llana as Ferdinand Marcos and Conrad Ricamora as Ninoy Aquino.
Salonga will play Aurora Aquino in a limited guest engagement July 11-August 13. Aurora is the mother of Ninoy Aquino. Following her run, guest stars from the Philippines will take over the role. Both Llana and Ricamora reprise their performances from the musical's Off-Broadway run.
The musical features a score by Grammy, Tony, and Oscar winner David Byrne and Grammy winner Fatboy Slim, with music by both and concept and lyrics by Byrne. Returning to the project are original director Alex Timbers (Moulin Rouge) and choreographer Annie-B Parson. The quartet, led by Timbers, have developed the musical over the course of a decade. Tom Gandey and J Pardo will also contribute additional music for the production, which will feature an immersive dance club staging in the recently reconfigured theatre.
Following its original 2013 Off-Broadway run at The Public, Here Lies Love ran at the National Theater in London in 2014 and Seattle Rep in 2017. Each production was met with a variety of responses, and conversations have cropped up again on social media as attention returns to the musical with the upcoming Broadway run. In response to online criticism, the official Here Lies Love Broadway accounts on Twitter and Instagram published a lengthy statement that included the production's intentions in portraying this vulnerable moment in Filipino history onstage in 2023. Read more here.
Alex Timbers' creative team will include choreographer Parson, music director J. Oconer Navarro, Tony-nominated scenic designer David Korins, Tony-winning costume designer Clint Ramos, Tony-winning lighting designer Justin Townsend, sound designers M.L. Dogg and Cody Spencer, Tony-nominated projection designer Peter Nigrini, cultural and community liaison Giselle “G” Töngi, and musical director J. Oconer Navarro. Casting is by Tara Rubin, Xavier Rubiano, and Gail Quintos. Bobby Garcia served as casting consultant. General management will be by Foresight Theatrical