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News From the Pits/Shubert's Suspicious Surcharge/Soccer Fest Boosts Disney; Jam Pursues Fab Three

Ed Ward of the Chicago Federation of Musicians: "People are going to forget what a full live pit orchestra sounds like."

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News From the Pits

Representatives from the Nederlander Organization, which owns and operates the 2,000-seat Shubert Theatre, and the Chicago Federation of Musicians Local 10-208 met last week to begin ironing out a new contract for orchestra pit musicians to replace one expiring at the end of this month. The likely outcome? That Shubert audiences will wind up hearing smaller live orchestras for long-running touring productions, even though ticket prices only seem to be getting higher. Observes federation vice president Ed Ward: "The sad part of all this is that people are going to forget what a full live pit orchestra sounds like, and more and more young people today already think music comes out of a box."

A new pit musicians' contract would replace a one-year agreement signed last year, the first the union has had with Shubert Theatre operators since 1988. "We operated without a contract for the last few years when the Shubert Organization owned the theater because so few shows played there that it wasn't really a concern," notes Ward, who says the negotiations thus far have been relatively cordial. By August 1991, when the Nederlander Organization purchased the theater, the Shubert Organization had practically given up on booking it because of lackluster business, and the handful of shows it did bring in were mostly nonmusicals.

According to Ward, money and benefits are not the issue in the current round of negotiations. What is at stake is the size of the pit orchestra for any musical that would run in the Shubert for more than six weeks, increasingly a rarity in this era of mostly two- and three-week engagements. For runs of six weeks or less the present contract stipulates that producers bringing shows into the Shubert use the number of musicians for which the show was originally scored. But for runs of more than six weeks a show must employ the same minimums it would in New York, currently anywhere from 22 to 25 pit musicians plus a conductor depending on the theater. The Nederlanders, according to Ward, would like to drop the six-week rule.

Should a show at the Shubert actually run for more than six weeks, such a change could mean thousands of dollars in savings for a producer and considerably less work for local musicians. Take The Secret Garden, a touring production concluding a three-week run at the Shubert this weekend. The program lists 15 players plus a conductor. Five musicians and a conductor travel with the show, meaning only ten local musicians are employed for the three-week run. Company manager John Pasinato insists that the Chicago production is using the exact number of musicians for which the musical was originally scored, though anyone who saw the original Broadway production at the Saint James Theatre might be excused for thinking otherwise; there The Secret Garden's pit orchestra numbered 25 musicians plus a conductor because of union minimums. Those contractual minimums for short-run shows still in place on Broadway disappeared in Chicago contracts in the mid-1980s, says Ward. But had The Secret Garden opted to extend its run to more than six weeks, the producers would have been contractually obligated to add ten musicians to the existing roster at the current minimum salary of $980 per week.

It may well turn out the union chooses not to fight the Nederlanders on the six-week rule under the assumption the Shubert won't be getting many musicals that could sustain a run of more than six weeks. (Nowadays most of those shows wind up at the Auditorium.) But Ward and others interviewed clearly indicated that the trend in many touring musicals is toward smaller orchestras. Some of that decrease can be attributed to producers' efforts to cut costs; the rest can be blamed on a wave of shows with a heavily electronic sound. Among them is the new production of the Who's rock opera Tommy, directed by Des MacAnuff and expected to arrive in Chicago next fall. Tommy is touring with an orchestra of eight players plus a conductor, and no additional musicians are likely to be hired for the Chicago engagement. A revival of Guys and Dolls, due at the Shubert in June for a four-week run with a $57 top ticket, will use a 17-piece orchestra (versus 22 plus conductor in the current Broadway mounting at the Martin Beck Theatre). Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat is using a 15-piece orchestra plus conductor at the Chicago Theatre and charging a top ticket price of $62.50. If you want to hear what pit orchestras at the Shubert sounded like 15 years ago, visit the Auditorium Theatre, where producers Cameron Mackintosh and the Really Useful Theatre Company are employing a generous 25 pit musicians for The Phantom of the Opera. But such luxury comes at a dear price: $65 for an orchestra seat on a weekend night, Chicago's highest price ever for theater.

Shubert's Suspicious Surcharge

Theatergoers who do attend the Shubert Theatre will notice something new included in the price of their tickets: a $2 restoration fee. The surcharge, instituted last fall, is double the $1 fee currently tacked on to tickets at the Chicago Theatre. Though presumably the Nederlander Organization, which owns the theater, would use the money to make improvements and repairs, a Nederlander spokeswoman said the organization would not comment on the reasons for the surcharge or on whether there are any renovations or repairs currently under way.

Soccer Fest Boots Disney; Jam Pursues Fab Three

After Walt Disney abruptly dropped out of negotiations to produce the World Cup's opening ceremonies June 17 at Soldier Field, Jam Productions and its west-coast partner MCA/Universal are back in the running to produce the 35-minute event, which will be broadcast live on television to an expected 1.5 billion people worldwide. According to a World Cup spokesman, the sticking point in the talks with Disney was content: the soccer organization thought the opening spectacular Disney had planned focused too much on promoting Disney and not enough on soccer. Earlier this week Jam executives were racing against the clock to try to land none other than Paul, George, and Ringo for the opening ceremony they want to produce; the temporarily reunited Beatles are currently filming a BBC special in England. "If we get the job, we would have to do an event in four months that would normally take a year to produce," says Jam honcho Jerry Mickelson. World Cup officials hope to announce the new producers next week.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/David Schulz.

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