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Sound of silence on Broadway

Washington, March 8: It was New York’s darkest hour in almost 30 years. Or at any rate since the terrorists brought down the twin towers on September 11.

“The sound of music stopped on Broadway” last night, as one of the city’s striking musicians picketing its theatres put it.

Actors and stageheads who refused to cross the picket lines put up by the musicians literally helped turn off Broadway’s bright neon and white lights that attract thousands of tourists every night.

Twenty shows, including big box office hits such as Chicago, Mamma Mia, The Lion King and Rent closed down. Broadway’s famous musicals will remain shut through the weekend.

Cabaret, which has a special agreement with musicians, will be the only exception.

At the heart of the strike is an effort by producers on Broadway to further commercialise the already commercial theatre business in the Big Apple. Producers want to replace live musicians in the theatre pit with computerised virtual orchestras and digitised sound to increase profits.

This would have reduced the minimum number of musicians required to perform at a Broadway musical as per the existing agreement with the musicians’ trade union.

Harvey Fierstein, who acts in Hairspray told reporters as he joined musicians in their picket lines that “the virtual orchestra is not a live musician. It is a computer programme made to sound like a roller rink”.

The last time a Broadway musical shut down because of a strike was nearly three decades ago. The issue then was the same: the minimum number of musicians in a show.

Shows other than musicals went on last night as usual, but it is the musicals which attract hordes of tourists to Broadway every day, especially at this time when spring marks the start of the visitors’ season.

Theatres in Manhattan were closed on September 11 and 12, 2001 after the terrorist attack and fears about public safety have adversely affected the box office since then.

New York city already has a budget deficit of $4 billion and mayor Michael Bloomberg said last night: “The last thing this economy needs is a Broadway strike.... People come here for the cultural institutions. Broadway is not just a significant part of it, it is the most visible part of it.”

Broadway theatres directly generate $4.5 billion in revenue a year. In addition, hundreds of restaurants and after-theatre clubs in Manhattan thrive on the spin-off from the theatres.

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