Show Business: Offkey Broadway

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Diners could have swung a baseball bat in Sardi's last week and never hit a waiter—or another customer. Broadway's most celebrated restaurant, like many of its competitors, was nearly empty. More than half of its staff was laid off. After ten days of negotiations with the League of New York Theaters and Producers over a new contract, the American Federation of Musicians Local 802 had called the theater musicians out on strike. The timing was metronomic. As Broadway was gearing up for what promised to be its biggest season in ten years, nine musicals went dark and some 875 people were thrown out of work. The League's chief negotiator, Gerald Schoenfeld of the Shubert Organization, estimated that Broadway theaters and related businesses are losing some $2.5 million a week.

Noise Today. "It will be a long strike," predicted Producer Adela Holzer. The union and the League are locked in a classic impasse over money v. productivity. The union is demanding a 50% raise to be prorated over the next three years on the minimum weekly salary of $290, for a seven-performance, five-day week. The League has countered with a minimum of $400 for an eight-performance, six-day week, provided that the musicians give up bonuses for such extras as performing onstage and playing more than one instrument. Says Schoenfeld: "It's incredible! They even want an increase for 'walkers.' "

"Walking," a costly piece of featherbedding pushed through by the union more than 20 years ago, requires the number of musicians to be scaled to a theater's seating capacity. Thus, in a house with more than 1,300 seats, a musical scored for only five musicians must still have a full orchestra of 25 plus a conductor. The extra 20 simply walk away with a check. Local 802 Leader Max Arons explains with Carrollian logic: "We have to protect the public from being cheated. A couple of instruments can make a lot of noise today, but the public is paying for an orchestra and they should get it."

Until the strike, there were 34 walkers on Broadway earning a total of $10,000 a week. Eighteen months ago, when Producer Hal Prince brought Candide to Broadway, he asked the union if he could use only 13 musicians. It insisted on 25 players, costing Prince an additional $180,960 a year. Despite Candide's success, the show is still in the red. Complains Prince: "If I didn't have to pay the extra musicians, I would have paid back my investors. They would have come into new shows. As it is, I have lost a lot of them."

Prince may also lose his Candide, which is the kind of borderline show that may not reopen if the strike is long. The union's refusal to work while negotiating has postponed Paul Anka's two-week S.R.O. one-man gig on Broadway. He was paying his musicians five times the union rate. Adela Holzer hoped to open Scott Joplin's ragtime opera Treemonisha last week. Now it is in jeopardy, and so is its 37-member orchestra.

The League is hunkering down for a long siege. Other unions as yet have showed no inclination to join the musicians; actors have demonstrated against the strike. Says Prince: "I feel a solidarity around me." Time is on the producers' side. Warns Schoenfeld: "It doesn't cost management anything to keep a show closed."