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Funeral dirge echoes in Broadway silence

New York, March 9 (Reuters): Actors and theatre workers who have forced the cancellation of Broadway shows this weekend staged a mock funeral through Times Square yesterday to protest proposals to cut the size of live show orchestras.

Led by four pall-bearers carrying a coffin emblazoned with the message “Don’t let producers kill Broadway,” about 40 musicians played W. C. Handy’s Broadway Funeral Dirge in a protest that stretched five blocks.

Much of Broadway will be dark for a second night — and for the first time since a musicians strike in 1975 — after actors and stagehands refused to cross picket lines set up by striking musicians just before Friday night’s shows.

Negotiations between theatre owners and the musicians' union remained stalled yesterday as the two sides bickered in a dispute about the size of Broadway orchestras.

Ticket holders at 18 Broadway musicals, including the hits Hairspray, The Producers and The Lion King, were left stranded after the League of American Theatres and Producers cancelled all weekend performances.

The League, a group representing Broadway theatre owners and producers, made a new proposal on Friday night, but “neither side has come back yet”, spokesman Pat Smith said yesterday.

Union spokesman Shawn Sachs said theatre owners labelled the Friday night proposal a “final offer” and effectively shut down talks because the proposal did not address union demands.

Musicians, on strike since midnight on Thursday, are in a dispute with producers who want to cut the size of orchestras at the largest theatres to 15 players from as many as 26.

Playing on Broadway makes up “probably 80 per cent of my income and if they cut the minimum down to 15, that could take away at least half of my personal paycheque,” said Don McGeen, a 53-year-old woodwind player who has been playing on Broadway for over 20 years.

Sachs said the union had not budged on its demand that current orchestra minimum be held steady, but League officials said the players offered to cut orchestras at big theatres down to 24 players from 26.

“We are sitting by the phone,” League president Jed Bernstein told a news conference yesterday.

Closing the musicals is costing the 18 theatres a combined $1.2 million in ticket revenues for each matinee or night time slot missed for a total loss of around $4.8 million for the weekend, Bernstein said.

Losses at restaurants, hotels and other city business without theatre-going crowds could reach $60 million a week, Bernstein added.

New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg said in a statement, “the darkening of Broadway casts a long shadow over the heart of the Big Apple,” and urged the two sides to settle the dispute quickly.

Six plays, and the musical Cabaret, were not affected by the walkout.

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