Friday, November 04, 2005

Music Isn't Live, but Rockettes Keep Kicking

New York Times
November 4, 2005
Music Isn't Live, but Rockettes Keep Kicking

The only live music yesterday at Radio City Music Hall was this: A lonesome saxophone player, belting out "Joy to the World" on the street to the accompaniment of Midtown traffic.

For what hall officials said was the first time in memory in the 73-year history of the annual "Christmas Spectacular," Radio City's 35-piece orchestra was silent. Live musicians were replaced with a digitalized, prerecorded score as the backdrop for the famously lifted legs of the Rockettes.

The musicians' union, Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians, is either locked out, or, according to the musicians' employer, Radio City Entertainment, on strike. The two sides held dueling news conferences that left reporters scurrying from stage door to marquee, while tourists filed in for a show without an orchestra.

No calamity appeared to befall the theatergoers. "It was really good," said Wendy Coulson, of State College, Pa., who had come to see the show with her daughters, Madeline, 14, and Rebecca, 12. "I didn't notice a difference at all."

Union members, in tuxedo, showed up with their instruments for the early show and said they would go on, with or without a contract. "We're here to give our gift for the holiday season to the tourists of New York," said David Lennon, the union president, as musicians toting black-cased horns and such gathered round. "We're here on good faith to play. We intend to go to work."

But officials at Radio City, owned by the media giant Cablevision, say the musicians are on strike - apparently because the two sides have yet to agree on a final contract - and will not be permitted to play until a final deal is signed. Barry Watkins, a spokesman for Radio City Entertainment, said that the musicians had walked off the job on Wednesday night and had missed a crucial Sunday rehearsal. Union officials said the dispute left workers unclear about whether the rehearsal would be held.

"It's a nice idea to come in and put on a tuxedo and say you want to go to work," Mr. Watkins said.

But the fact is, he said, Radio City has no guarantee that musicians working without a contract will return for future shows.

The musicians have been working without a contract since May, and negotiations between the union and Radio City stalled as the holiday season approached. On Wednesday night, the Rockettes followed the orchestra in protest, marching out of the theater during the final rehearsal for the Christmas show.

Yesterday, the musicians lingered on the sidewalk outside Radio City during the 11 a.m. debut show. When the 3 p.m. show rolled around, a tuba player, Andy Rogers, played a battle charge of "Ride of the Valkyries" and led the orchestra toward the stage door. Two large guards stopped them from entering. "We're late; let us in for work," Mr. Rogers called. Some tiny Christmas elves looked from a window with a laugh.

The Radio City dispute is somewhat murky. The union says it has agreed to Radio City's last offer of a two-year contract with annual salary increases of 3 and 4 percent. Radio City denies the offer was accepted.

Mr. Watkins said the musicians, an eclectic mix of top classical freelancers, Broadway artists and jazz players, make about $3,000 a week and have year-round health benefits for what is essentially 10 weeks of work.

John Babich, a bass player, said the union had agreed to all contractual terms, but nothing had been signed because "an unreasonable entity is trying to emasculate the orchestra" by refusing to let it play.

Two years ago, Broadway musicians darkened most theaters for four days with their own strike. At the time, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg urged both sides to resolve their differences quickly, but did not get directly involved in the negotiations. Mr. Bloomberg said yesterday that he would take the same tack now, while nonetheless ruing the lack of live music at the show. "New York City is about live music," he said. "Nobody suggests for a second that you would have the same quality performance if you just play a tape."

Yesterday, that tape was a "world-class musical score" played "through the most advanced sound system available," as Radio City's statement put it.

Julie Hoyt, from Springfield, Mass., found the performance flawless and said that, although she would have liked to have heard a live orchestra, the sound was great.

Billy Ward, age 9, had a big smile. "It was really good," he said.

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