Don't replace musicians with machines

The tension of live performances does apply in the pit as well as on the stage
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The musical Les Misérables is known among theatre folk as "The Glums". And glum they certainly were backstage this week. The show's producer, Sir Cameron Mackintosh, said he was planning to have the music played in future by a semi-virtual orchestra (a computer replacing 12 of the 21 musicians). He is transferring the show from the Palace Theatre to the smaller Queen's; and there isn't enough room in the pit, apparently, for a full orchestra.

Replacing half the orchestra with recorded music is a massive change to theatrical performance. No doubt that is why the Musicians' Union is threatening the first ever West End strike over the issue. But "losing" the orchestra is not actually unprecedented. Last year I saw a performance of Matthew Bourne's Nutcracker! in Wycombe. For that, the entire orchestra seemed to have been lost.The pit was empty and the dancers danced to music from a machine. I'm not sure why this was acceptable to the Musicians' Union. I wonder if it was loath to raise a fuss about Matthew Bourne's Nutcracker! tour because Bourne is a darling of the arts world, whereas Sir Cameron is a rich impresario. But whatever the reason, either "losing" the orchestra is artistically wrong or it isn't. The objectors have to be consistent.

And the artistic question is the key one. The loss of jobs is undeniably painful, and the break with tradition discomfiting, but for audiences the only question that matters is whether Les Miz and other musicals will be a worse experience with music from a machine. And I stress "other musicals"; for, if Sir Cameron's plan goes ahead, there is no way that his fellow producers won't be looking and learning from the cost-cutting. This may be a one-off for Sir Cameron, but not for theatre as a whole.

Dance is, of course, different from musicals, but the changes experienced by the loss of a live orchestra are common to both art forms. Watching that performance of Bourne's Nutcracker! there was a feeling of loss, not huge but nevertheless palpable. On one level it was the loss of the spectacle of the orchestra in the pit, the animation of the conductor, the technique of the musicians. Admittedly, in most theatres the orchestra is not visible to the whole audience. But those who can see it gain extra enjoyment.

On another, and more important level, we lost the interplay between orchestra and performers. And this is as true with musicals as it is with dance. Performers watch the conductor who should be reacting to their performance, reflecting its special animation that evening or, indeed, slowing it down or speeding it up or a dozen other things. To use recorded music is to say that an orchestra and conductor are the same every night. It is to say that the critic's perennial comments about the performance in the pit on a certain evening were meaningless. It is to say that there is no inter-reaction between conductor and performers; that every performance of Oklahoma! or Cats or Les Misérables sounds exactly the same; it is to deny that the much-vaunted uniqueness of live performance over film applies only to actors and not to musicians.

But that is wrong. The tension of live performance does apply in the pit as well as on the stage. Why else would we bother going to symphony concerts when we could sit at home and listen to the CD? Sir Cameron has not suggested axing the conductor or even the whole orchestra. But his introduction of virtual musicians will inevitably lead to empty orchestra pits in the future. For once, Sir Cameron may have got it wrong.

*I had an interesting lunch recently at Sadler's Wells with its new chief executive, Jean-Luc Choplin. The former Disneyland Paris and Paris Opéra Ballet man was bursting with ideas for international dance and theatre at the Wells, and shared my concern that the venue needed a clearer identity. He was an impressive figure, and I was as surprised as most of his staff to see this week that he is leaving to go the Châtelet theatre in Paris. Arts administrators are clearly becoming like Premiership footballers - desperate to join the most glamorous club around. Considerable upheavals took place at Sadler's Wells to accommodate Monsieur Choplin. What's the French for loyalty and commitment?

* It's a pity that news of Monsieur Choplin's decision to leave might have kept another departure out of the papers. On the same day Philip Hedley announced that he was to step down as director of the Theatre Royal, Stratford East, in London after 25 years at the helm. Hedley has been a tireless campaigner for theatre and a visionary director, building numerous bridges between his venue and the local multi-ethnic community.

He has been a notable champion of black and Asian actors, writers and directors. Most recently he persuaded the Richard Rodgers estate to let him stage a hip hop version of the Rodgers and Hart musical The Boys from Syracuse. And many locals discovered theatre for the first time. He will be mighty hard to replace.

d.lister@independent.co.uk

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