Priscilla, Queen of the Desert Puts a Dime in the Jukebox; Musicians' Union Cries Foul

By , Columnist

Does a Broadway musical strung together from disco and Madonna chestnuts need a full orchestra, complete with a string section? The producers of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (based on the 1994 cult movie) think not. But Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians wants us to feel its members' pain.

Cue the violins.

A bitter strike in 2003 ended with musicians agreeing to fewer bodies in Broadway pits. A large theater like the Palace, where Priscilla just received a Best Musical Tony nomination, now normally demands a minimum of just 18 live players. But producers can use even fewer if the nature of the show calls for it.

So, does it?

Dance pop of the '70s and '80s is replete with string parts, of course. But weren't they sometimes synthesized? Priscilla, which opened in New York in March after establishing successful runs in Australia and London, is scored for just nine musicians - along with recorded, processed string parts.

A moderator already decided against the union, agreeing with producer Garry McQuinn that "[t]his is not an orchestral show - it's a show with disco music." An appeal is going to arbitration. As a new website pressing the musicians' case trumpets, "Live music on Broadway" is "a great American tradition under threat."

Musicians have a tough enough time in today's culture and economy. The last thing players need is even fewer opportunities to ply their trade. But, rightly or wrongly, full orchestras on Broadway seem to be one "great American tradition" on its way out - now thanks, in part, to a trio of Australian drag queens.

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Jon Sobel is a freelance writer, web editor, theater and music critic, marketing writer, and musician. His newest project is the blog Park Odyssey, where he is visiting and blogging every park in New York City - over a thousand of them.

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