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May 26, 2011

Protest to 'Save Live Music on Broadway' merits support

If you're in New York City Thursday night in the vicinity of the Palace Theater (Broadway, between 46th and 47th), you'll find some interesting action outside.

The Save Live Music on Broadway campaign -- described as "a coalition of Broadway composers, lyricists, musicians, performers and top professionals from the New York Philharmonic, the Metropolitan Opera and The Julliard School" --- will protest the producers of "Priscilla, Queen of the Desert."

Those producers, you may have heard, recently cut the size of the orchestra for that show at the Palace, and reinforced the remaining players with a recording.

The half-hour demonstration, starting at 7 p.m., may do little to change the situation in "Priscilla" or any other Broadway show where live music is threatened. But I think it's ...

an important gesture, one well worth making.

I still haven't forgotten the experience of seeing the celebrated revival of "South Pacific" at Lincoln Center, where the audience burst into rapturous applause partway through the overture simply because a cover over the pit opened to reveal the sight of an honest-to-goodness, Broadway-sized orchestra -- an experience as rare for most of us as obtaining a $500,000 revolving charge account at Tiffany's.

That "South Pacific" crowd knew what a treat that orchestra was, and just how much difference it made to the overall experience.

It's pathetic how persistently the number of players has been whittled away in one musical after another over the decades, so that the impersonal sound of heavily amplified synthesizers now is expected and tolerated. Thus holds true beyond Manhattan, of course; touring shows cut corners in the pit all the time.

Something about this "Priscilla" protest seems all the more fitting at a time when musicians in the symphonic and operatic arenas are confronting threats of reductions in force, too. Each time someone decides that a human being, trained and eager to serve the art, is disposable in an effort to increase profit margins, we all lose. Each time someone chips away at even a little of the visceral quality of live music-making, the damage is great.


Posted by Tim Smith at 10:21 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Clef Notes, Drama Queens


Everyone agrees that musicians are an important part of the live theatre experience. What's misleading here is that the orchestra has not been "cut." It was always 9 players from the inception of the show 5 years ago. I understand other concerns, but it was a creative decision from the beginning. This sounds like cuts were made for Broadway which is not true.

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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