The use of pre-recorded tracks in the David Byrne-Fatboy Slim musical Here Lies Love is pitting New York City’s musicians’ union against the show’s producers, with the union calling the concept an “existential threat to Broadway” and producers saying the tracks are “part of the karaoke genre inherent to the musical.”
The musical, which received considerable critical acclaim during previous stagings Off Broadway and in London, re-tells the story of former Filipina First Lady Imelda Marcos by setting the tale within a dance club environment. The immersive production will place a segment of the audience seated in a reconstructed section of the Broadway Theatre within the dance club.
Developed and directed by Alex Timbers, Here Lies Love features music by Byrne and Fatboy Slim, with additional music by Tom Gandey and J Pardo. The Broadway production begins previews at the Broadway Theatre on Saturday, June 17, with opening night set for Thursday, July 20.
The use of pre-recorded tracks has been an integral part of the musical throughout its long development. In a statement, the show’s producers (led by Hal Luftig, Patrick Catullo, Diana DiMenna and Plate Spinner Productions, Clint Ramos, and Jose Antonio Vargas) said, “Since Here Lies Love was first conceived seventeen years ago, every production…has been performed to pre-recorded track; this is part of the karaoke genre inherent to the musical and the production concept. The music for Here Lies Love was inspired by the phenomena of ‘track acts’ which allowed club audiences to keep dancing, much like this production aims to do.”
But to Tino Gagliardi, musicians’ union Local 802 President and Executive Director, the arrival of such a show signals “an existential threat to Broadway” and a “cultural threat to musical theater worldwide.”
“For generations, audiences have experienced Broadway shows with live music performed by the best musicians in the world, and by using just pre-recorded tracks it not only cheapens the art it’s putting jobs and livelihoods at risk,” Gagliardi said in a statement to Deadline. “Our musicians are heartbroken that David Byrne – a legend – is attempting this and we strongly hope he reconsiders.”
For several weeks now, Local 802 has been working to address a request by the Broadway League – the trade organization representing Broadway producers – for a “Special Situation” that would allow the use of pre-recorded tracks instead of live musicians. (The required minimum number of musicians at the Broadway Theatre is 19).
According to the union, the collective bargaining agreement between Local 802 and the Broadway League requires producers to “defend any attempt to hire less than the required minimum to a ‘Special Situation’ panel.” The panel consists of representatives from Local 802, the League and “neutrals” not affiliated with either party. The request would be examined and the panel, which would then vote on whether to allow the orchestra reduction. If the parties don’t accept the decision, it is submitted to arbitration.
The producers argue that the criteria for a “Special Situation” are met by Here Lies Love, in part because “the production is of a definable musical genre different from a traditional Broadway musical.”
“Following the Broadway announcement at the beginning of the year,” producers state, “the Broadway League contacted the Local 802 to start this contractual review process for Here Lies Love in full. There have been multiple meetings with the union to review in detail the basis for applying for ‘special situation’ status. The Union has been able to ask questions, receive information about the production, and voice their concerns. This process is on-going and may ultimately culminate in a final and binding arbitration decision, but until that time, we will continue to work in good faith with the union to move through the steps of the contractual process.”
With the negotiating process ongoing, the union is comparing the situation with the current WGA strike. “Just as TV and film writers are on strike for respect and job security in the face of technology and corporate greed, David Byrne is likewise using technology to try to replace professional musicians,” Local 802 said in a statement.
Here Lies Love features the first all-Filipino cast to perform on Broadway, including, among others, Arielle Jacobs as “Imelda Marcos,” Jose Llana as “Ferdinand Marcos,” and Conrad Ricamora as “Ninoy Aquino.”
The musical made its world premiere Off Broadway at The Public Theater in 2013, returning to the venue in 2014-2015. It debuted at London’s Royal National Theatre in 2014, and most recently opened at Seattle Repertory Theatre in 2017.