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Home » Recent News » Herein Lies Solidarity!

Herein Lies Solidarity!


Under Fire on Broadway, Byrne Concedes to Union

David Byrne created the disco-pop musical Here Lies Love with the intention of launching it on Broadway. Ironically, he never envisioned the show as a musical—and certainly not one with live musicians. The former frontman of the Talking Heads—a rock band largely popular in the early 1980s—snubbed Broadway’s union contract, which requires a live orchestra of 19 union musicians, in favor of a prerecorded soundtrack.

Byrne and producers of the show became mired in a months-long, contentious labor dispute with Local 802 (New York City). While Byrne cited creative reasons—the show is inspired by karaoke—the union wasn’t buying it, calling Byrne’s request an “existential threat” to the art form. In response, Byrne issued a facile statement, saying in part, “Here Lies Love does not believe in artistic gatekeepers.”

At the time, Local 802 President Tino Gagliardi said, “[He] is trying to break the union” and attacking members by “denigrating their work, tossing them aside, and saying they can’t do it.” More than gatekeepers, Broadway musicians are union workers who need jobs—a point lost on the Local 802 member and New York City-based arts advocate.

Local 802 decided to go public with its objections after failed efforts to quietly reach an accord with Byrne in private. The union embarked on a dynamic media campaign. There was an outpouring of support. Over 15,000 people signed its public petition. Musicians weighed in on social media. Ultimately, it was the damaging publicity that brought Byrne to the bargaining table.

Byrne’s concession followed weeks of negative coverage for the musician. It was revealed that in 1986, Byrne admitted that he chose to shoot a musical-comedy film in Texas because it is a “right to work” state where unions have less power. The revelation undermined Byrne’s insistence that he wanted to use recorded music in Here Lies Love for creative reasons.

The show, which follows the story of First Lady Imelda Marcos, will be the first all-Filipino performance at the historic Broadway Theatre. Local 802 member and Filipino theater musician Steven Cuevas wants the show to be a hit, but says, “It’s insulting to think the best musicians and sound designers in the world can’t help achieve what you want sonically.” He adds, “My Off-Broadway production of Kinky Boots sounded like a pop album, thanks to great musicians and great sound design. It’s fully achievable to do this with live musicians.”

Byrne’s demand was unprecedented in a niche regional industry where unions remain influential. Local 802’s strength on Broadway helps make it one of the most powerful musicians unions in the US. With more than 5,000 dues-paying members, it is the largest affiliate of the AFM in the country.

The two sides struck a deal recently, and the show will employ 12 members of Local 802—nine orchestra musicians and three actor-musicians who play music as part of their onstage performance. Because 661 seats were removed to accommodate a dance floor—leaving 1,100 seats in the house—the venue’s capacity was sufficiently altered to warrant consideration to reduce the orchestra.

Still, the episode hit a nerve in the industry. Whether it’s sidelining musicians for prerecorded tracks or not fairly compensating them for their music on monopoly-based streaming platforms—it’s an example of the sort of cost-cutting tactic aligned with big business.

“We will continue to safeguard the incredible sound of live musicians, which is what the public deserves and what makes New York City the cultural capital of the world,” says Gagliardi. “Our eyes are on Broadway. Producers who try to eliminate live music on future shows should look to this as an example of how crucial saving live music on Broadway is to both audiences and to Local 802.

“This victory shows us the power of collective action we can achieve as musicians when we band together in solidarity in conjunction with audiences who care deeply about live culture and art,” says Gagliardi.

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