Musicians ready to strike over 'virtual orchestra'

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The Independent Online

Musicians playing in some of the biggest shows in the West End are threatening to go on strike to stop the theatre impresario Sir Cameron Mackintosh replacing them with an electronic "virtual orchestra".

The Musicians' Union is holding an emergency meeting tomorrow to decide what action to take. About 150 musicians from the 17 principal musicals, including Phantom of the Opera, Chicago and Blood Brothers, will meet in central London to discuss possible strikes.

The orchestra row started last month when officials from the musicals company Cameron Mackintosh confirmed to representatives of the MU that the orchestra for Les Miserables would be cut from 22 musicians down to 10.

The production is moving from its existing home, the Palace Theatre, at the end of next month to the Queen's Theatre, where the orchestra pit can accommodate no more than 10 musicians.

The 12 redundant musicians will be replaced by an electronic virtual orchestra known as Sinfonia, which is operated by two technicians.

The West End theatre players fear that the decision to use Sinfonia in Les Miserables will set a precedent for the machine to be used in other shows.

One official close to the negotiations said the musicians were "extremely scared and angry" and described the most likely option as "going to war with Sir Cameron".

Under legislation preventing secondary strikes, musicians on other productions will be unable to walk out. However, if tomorrow's meeting votes in favour of a strike ballot, the musicians are hopeful it will send a message to other producers that they are prepared to strike if Sinfonia is introduced elsewhere. In the event of a strike ballot, only members currently playing in Les Miserables would vote.

Horace Trubridge, assistant general secretary of the MU, said: "We are at a very sensitive stage of the deliberations. The strength of feeling in the West End has grown rather than reduced."

A spokesman for Sir Cameron said there were no plans for any of his other shows to use a virtual orchestra instead of musicians. "None of them are moving theatres," he said.