Why "Serious" Composers Should Support Broadway

During the last Broadway strike in New York City I had mixed feelings. Of course, like most local musicians, I did not want my hard-working peers fired by greedy, money-grubbing producers. But I am in a unique position: I am a “serious” composer and my wifeVictoria is currently playing in a  few Broadway Productions, and honestly, she pulls in more money than I do right now. How does this make me feel? Personally, I loathe most musicals, and part of me could care less whether most of them crash and burn. Alas, when my wife is supporting us by playing in one, I have to be somewhat grateful. One of the surprising, hidden ironies of the New York music scene these days is that Disney often ends up indirectly supporting new music. Often times, the income made from playing some of the most mundane gigs is what enables freelancers to play some of the most fulfilling ones.

Many full-time orchestral musicians in New York City and around the country have very little time to devote to new chamber music, let alone play much of it in their own orchestras. This is old news, of course, and has been for decades. I am generalizing a bit, as some orchestras such as the San Francisco SymphonyLos Angeles Philharmonic and Albany Symphony seem to work hard on trying to program as much new music as they can (without alienating their aging, donor constituents—but that’s another story). So what does this mean? It means that most of the new music gigs go to the freelance musicians, those gig warriors who play in many different groups all year round.

There are thousands of musicians in New York and elsewhere in the U.S. who freelance and play the bulk of the new music concerts around the country. There are also thousands of independent chamber groups, and it is quite common for freelancers to have piles of W-2 forms when tax season arrives. It is a comical event to hear the reaction of our tax consultant (or at least imagine what she’s thinking) as we present our pile of W-2 forms. “What are those?” she asks. “Why can’t you have just one form? What exactly do youdo for a living?”

For “normal” people, it is inconceivable that someone could make a living from as many as twenty separate jobs per year. Perhaps this is the new age we live in: the age of the freelancer—the exact opposite of the idyllic, 1950s Leave it to Beaver family life cushioned by a single (stereotypically male) breadwinner with a cozy corporate job. Unless you are a marathon teacher, in a major orchestra, an opera, in a famous chamber group or are a renowned soloist, your life is probably not this vision of loveliness, at least financially. (Even if you are one of the previously mentioned elite, you might still have problems!). Most often, these energized martyrs are young struggling musicians, fresh out of college. Or, they are “those crazy new music people” who love new music and have no desire to fit into a one of society’s pre-formed molds. Either way, these musicians end up playing some good gigs but also a lot of questionable ones. Some gigs, such as Broadway musicals, may not be that interesting but are “barrels of family fun” for audiences.

This recent selfish act by the theater producers to try and erase the minimums for the number of musicians used for Broadway shows is not just a kick in the pants for performers, but also for composers. Although hidden and indirect, when the performers can’t make a living and pay the rent, they will opt out of wanting to play in upstart new music groups, or do that occasional non-paying new music concert. They will even not want to play established, paying ones because many new music groups have tiny seasons and just do not pay enough to cover the bills.

What can we do? Composers and the organizations devoted to or run by composers (ASCAPBMI, the American Music CenterSCI,NACUSA, etc.) should speak up and lobby as much as possible. When the livelihood of performing musicians is at stake, it is in our best interest to never let up when negotiation time rolls around, in any town across America. It is in our best interest as composers to make sure as many musicians as necessary are hired as possible for these shows. When I say necessary, I mean a combination ofwhat the composer intended, what will make the music sound alive and fantastic, and what will comfortably fill the orchestra pit.

Even if the group or organization in question does not directly program new and/or adventurous music, they probably support musicians who would otherwise not be able to afford to play it. The truth is, as I mentioned earlier, most musicians could not make a living solely by playing new music. This makes “art music” composers sad because of course, we feel that people should love and embrace and support the art music of our time, music that hopefully makes you feel intense, unique feelings you might not feel otherwise. But unfortunately, we live in a culture of American Idols and La-Z-Boys, musical or otherwise.

As an aside, there is a reason they are called “musicals”: music is supposed to accompany the actors, not some hurdy-gurdy synthesizer player behind The Wizard of Oz pit curtain. This is not supposed to be staged Kareoke: it is a musical. How are children going to feel when they peer over the edge of the pit during intermission and see some clown playing a rack of synthesizers, waving up at them with a sheepish smirk? How pathetic. Canned music, like a can of peas, is just not as good as fresh, and it never will be. How are the actors going to react someday when they are replaced by holograms? Laugh now, but someday in the not too distant future, it will happen. In fact, why don’t we just dispense with live performers all together and just show a movie? The magic of the alive, the glorious synchronized teamwork of people who have spent years perfecting their craft so they can entertain you without the crutch of digital editing for a TV screen, this is what goes out the door and into the trash heap of civilization.

Is this situation ideal? Absolutely not. On principal, musicals meant for Broadway are generally designed to appeal to the masses. Therefore, it is inevitable that like cliche film scores, many musicals end up quoting or rehashing musical devices that will immediately trigger an audience reaction. It’s like liberally using fats and salt when cooking: every experienced chef knows that there is an immediate, sensory appeal to this; this is why fast food restaurants thrive. Likewise, mass appeal entertainment is what currently enables new art music to thrive.

So for now, may Broadway in all its hackneyed, cliched glory live on. That is, as long as musicians continue playing our “serious” music.

February, 2007