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Union musicians have kick about Rockettes’ show

By Laura Collins-Hughes
Globe Staff / May 24, 2011

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Decked out in new costumes, high-kicking their way through new scenes, the Rockettes will inhabit a redesigned “Radio City Christmas Spectacular’’ this December when they return to the Wang Theatre. One production element, however, promises to be the same: The music to which they dance will emanate from a recording, not live musicians.

For that, “Spectacular’’ producer Madison Square Garden Entertainment places the blame on the Boston Musicians’ Association, the union that campaigned heavily last year against the show’s use of recorded music. Offered a deal in which seven union musicians would be hired to play along with a recording, the union recently turned it down, saying it would need 21 performers to do the job right.

Madison Square Garden Entertainment’s overture was not part of any effort to improve the show by putting live players in the orchestra pit, said Josiah A. Spaulding Jr., president and chief executive of the Citi Performing Arts Center, which includes the Wang. Rather, he said, “it was an attempt to include local musicians’’ in a touring production that has been performed to recorded music ever since it first came to Boston in 2004.

“It was a good-faith effort on Madison Square Garden’s behalf,’’ said Jessie Lyons, a spokeswoman for Madison Square Garden Entertainment. The company, she said, made “several offers on several occasions,’’ all of them rejected by the union.

But Gail Eaton — a public relations consultant for the association, which represents more than 1,600 musicians in the Boston area — likened the scenario the company proposed to “a sophisticated karaoke’’ that would constrain the spontaneity of musicians, dancers, and audiences alike.

“Some of the life is gone from the live performance because there’s this unrelenting engine that drives the performance from start to finish,’’ she said, arguing that the association’s disagreement with the company is not purely a labor dispute.

“It’s not about saying, ‘We want to hire 21 guys or else we walk,’ ’’ Eaton said. “We want the performance to maintain its integrity.’’

Nonetheless, she acknowledged, the show’s 50 planned performances this December would be “an enormous gig,’’ making “a very important financial difference’’ to a local musician’s year.

The company, for its part, appears to be sensitive to the labor issue, which it raised in its own press release about the Boston engagement. The show “creates more than 175 local jobs, the majority of them union positions,’’ the release said.

Lyons also provided the Globe with copies of letters to Spaulding from the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees Local 11, which mentions its “longstanding harmonious relationship’’ with the Wang, and from Teamsters Local Union No. 25, which notes the “many necessary and important jobs’’ the show generates for its members during the holiday season.

At IATSE Local 775, the wardrobe union, a woman who answered the telephone yesterday but declined to identify herself said that the local would have preferred that the Boston Musicians’ Association had accepted the offer of hiring seven musicians.

The disappearance of jobs is an ongoing issue for musicians’ unions. In New York, the American Federation of Musicians recently launched a campaign against the Broadway musical “Priscilla Queen of the Desert’’ over its use of recorded music in place of some musicians.

Last holiday season, the association protested the “Spectacular’’ by putting musicians atop a flatbed truck and driving them around as they played Christmas carols.

They also leafleted outside the Wang and other theaters, Eaton said, and bought radio and billboard advertising.

“I don’t know that the union’s protests had any effect on sales,’’ said Lyons, who noted that more than 450,000 people have seen the “Spectacular’’ in its three Boston engagements.

Ultimately, whether the “Spectacular’’ or any other show at the Wang hires musicians is up to the company and the requirements of the show, Spaulding said.

“Alvin Ailey’s been in here for 40 years; they’ve never used an orchestra,’’ he said, adding that other productions need full orchestras. “We hire them on a regular basis.’’

In the union’s view, the company could afford to do that for the “Spectacular,’’ whose New York version employs a live orchestra. The producers, Eaton said, are part of the company that owns the New York Knicks, and they would not keep returning to Boston if they did not expect to sell tickets here.

“Would they send three of the Knicks out on the floor to win a game because it was cheaper?’’ she said. “Of course not. It takes a full team.’’

Collins-Hughes can be reached at lcollins-hughes@globe.com.

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