Musicians Union Responds After Here Lies Love Characterizes Them as 'Artistic Gatekeepers' | Playbill

Broadway News Musicians Union Responds After Here Lies Love Characterizes Them as 'Artistic Gatekeepers'

The David Byrne musical's decision to perform to pre-recorded tracks has come under fire from the American Federation of Musicians

The floor view from the side of the stage, looking towards the mezzanine and VIP lounge Courtesy of David Korins

The Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians, the trade union representing musicians working on Broadway, has responded to the Here Lies Love's statement released May 30—a statement that defended the show's decision to forgo live musicians for its Broadway production in favor of pre-recorded tracks.

In a post on Here Lies Love's Instagram page, the production explained that the decision comes from David Byrne's artistic concept of constructing the score to pay homage to disco track acts and the Filipino tradition of karaoke, both of which they claim require "pre-recorded, synthetic tracks." Byrne reportedly chose to use these references after a research trip to the Philippines, where he learned that karaoke was part of Imelda Marcos' political strategy. "The slickness and artificiality of the music relates directly to the synthetic seduction of political figures," explains the statement.

While not explicitly calling out Broadway musicians or Local 802, the production statement goes on to assert that "Here Lies Love does not believe in artistic gate-keepers [sic]," a statement that 802 President and Executive Director Tino Gagliardi took special issue with in his own response.

"Let’s be clear about what’s happening here: rather than negotiate, David Byrne is trying to break the union," says Gagliardi in a statement to Playbill. "Broadway musicians are not ‘gatekeepers’ like David Byrne callously said. They are the best in the world and since 2020 have been severely hurt by the onset and effects the COVID pandemic had on Broadway. Instead of using his show to lift up musicians that are struggling, he’s denigrating their work, tossing them aside and saying they can’t do it. That’s not the way Broadway has operated for 157 years and we will not stand by as working musicians are told they are not good enough." Gagliardi continues to threaten "further measures to protect our workers and the experience audiences have expected for generations on Broadway" should the production not change course. 

Here Lies Love is scheduled to begin preview performances June 17 at The Broadway Theatre.

The complaint from Local 802 comes as workers across the entertainment industry work are striking to prevent their jobs from being replaced by technology. How to use A.I. in screenwriting is one of the major sticking points in the ongoing Writers Guild of America strike against the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which has paused film and TV production in Hollywood. Many entertainment unions, including many theatre unions, have shown support for WGA's strike. Whether Local 802's fight will draw the same solidarity from other Broadway unions remains to be seen. Actors' Equity Association has shared AFM's petition on social media without making any further statement.

Here Lies Love's statement has also inspired a number of responses from theatre fans. Some have shown support for the production, with opera singer Josh Page commenting, "It’s a part of his creative vision. I respect David enough to know that he is aware of the choice." 

Others comments were more critical, pointing out that the musical's argument is undercut somewhat by its 2013 Off-Broadway cast album, which credits more than 40 musicians. The show's actors have performed to pre-recorded tracks in all of the work's major productions, but the album's use of live musicians brings into question why those same musicians could not be employed to play live in a theatre. Broadway actor Josh Lamon commented, "It isn’t a typical musical and that is part of why I was excited to see the show. But it is in a Broadway theatre being labeled as a Broadway show and is going to market itself on winning Broadway awards. There are unions here."

For the union and the musicians themselves, the issue goes far beyond Here Lies Love. With producers understandably on the hunt to maximize profits to recoup some of the cost of the COVID-19 pandemic, industry insiders worry that the move could be the first of many musicals to dispense with live music regardless of this individual musical's artistic explanation for the choice.

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 too many it was more surprising that the production was deemed a musical than it was that it performed to canned music. More recently, the also-dance-heavy The Little Prince performed without any live musicians. 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.

In the meantime, Here Lies Love is continuing to engage in a "contractual review process" with AFM, and has asked the union for a waiver to allow the show to use no musicians. 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."

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.

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