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April 1, 2023Ed Malaga - AFM International Executive Board Member and President of Local 161-710 (Washington, DC)
The agreement between AFM Local 161-710 (Washington, DC) and the Kennedy Center, covering the employment of the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra (KCOHO) for musical theater productions includes an article prohibiting the use of a virtual orchestra machine. This article has recently received the attention of the Disney Theatrical Group, which is bringing The Lion King to the Center this summer. As a result, I have received a request from Disney Theatrical Group to allow KeyComp (virtual orchestra) to be used in this production. That allowance would constitute a violation of our agreement, which is unacceptable to the musicians of the KCOHO and our local.
I have provided the following response to that request: “As President of the AFM local representing musicians performing in our National Cultural Center, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, our commitment to President Kennedy’s visionary support of the artist in our society is deep and unwavering.
“This commitment is reflected in our agreement with the Center, which provides that virtual orchestra machine technology (e.g., Real Time Sinfonia or KeyComp) will not be used in conjunction with any work covered by that agreement. We would like to be very clear that the use of this technology serves not only to completely undermine the ideals that President Kennedy championed by denying professional musicians their livelihood, it is antithetical to the principles upon which this monument to the performing arts was established. In the words of President Kennedy, ‘As a great democratic society, we have a special responsibility to the arts.’ We believe there can be no question that support for the arts is not possible without support for the artists.
“We look forward to celebrating with the Disney Theatrical Group their production of The Lion King at the Kennedy Center, which will honor that commitment to artists, a commitment which is etched on the marble facade of this great monument, through the thrilling performances of musicians performing live as originally intended. We can no more imagine this production without its full complement of musicians than we can imagine Fantasia without the Philadelphia Orchestra.
“Please accept this letter as official denial of your request to use the keyboard programming technology known as KeyComp for the production of The Lion King at the Kennedy Center for the upcoming engagement with performances June 21-July 29, 2023.”
In their request, Disney Theatrical Group cited the debilitating effects of the pandemic on the touring theatrical industry as their primary rationale for reorchestrating several of their tours to include KeyComp technology at the expense of musician jobs. I find the implications of that reasoning profoundly troubling. At a time when performing artists experienced an unprecedented and historic loss of work, Disney Theatrical Group made a strategic decision to make this layoff of musicians permanent.
Now that the worst effects of the pandemic have subsided, it is time that the Disney Theatrical Group shelve their playback machine and once again commit to providing an authentic theatrical experience as originally conceived—live artists performing for live audiences. The future of our art and of our artists depends on it.