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Broadway Musicians Object to David Byrne’s ‘Here Lies Love’

A labor union representing musicians is challenging David Byrne’s next Broadway show, “Here Lies Love,” saying it opposes plans to stage the production with recorded instrumental tracks instead of a live band.

The musical — an immersive, dance-driven spectacle about Imelda Marcos, the former first lady of the Philippines — is scheduled to start previews June 17 and to open July 20 at the Broadway Theater. Byrne co-wrote the music with Fatboy Slim.

The musical has previously been staged Off Broadway, in London and in Seattle, each time with a singing cast accompanied by recorded music. There are a few moments in which actors have instruments as part of the action being depicted, but there are no full-time instrumentalists.

“Since ‘Here Lies Love’ was first conceived 17 years ago, every production has been performed to prerecorded track; this is part of the karaoke genre inherent to the musical and the production concept,” the production’s spokesman, Adrian Bryan-Brown, said in a statement on Tuesday. “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 Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians says its contract with the Broadway League requires the use of 19 musicians for musicals at the Broadway Theater. (The number of musicians required under the contract varies based on theater size.)

The union says it is seeking to preserve jobs for musicians and quality for theater lovers.

“We’re not going to stand by and let this happen,” said Tino Gagliardi, the local’s president and executive director. “It’s not fair to the public.”

Since February, the producing team of “Here Lies Love,” led by Hal Luftig, has been seeking to have the show declared a “special situation,” which is a category in the labor agreement that allows for the employment of fewer musicians. The request is to be assessed by a panel that includes neutral observers as well as representatives of the Broadway League and the musicians’ union; it is not clear how long that process will take, and the ruling can be appealed to arbitration.

The League did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Tuesday, but Bryan-Brown said, “This process is ongoing 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.”

There have been multiple Broadway shows staged with reduced orchestra sizes over the years, but it is rare to have a musical without an orchestra at all. The best-known example was “Contact,” a dance show produced by the nonprofit Lincoln Center Theater that won the 2000 Tony Award for best musical. In 2011, the union objected to a reduced-size orchestra, along with recorded music, for the Broadway production of “Priscilla Queen of the Desert.” More recently, “The Little Prince” was staged at the Broadway Theater with music sung to recorded tracks; that show was not Tony-eligible and had a short run, so the union did not object.

The musicians say they are disappointed that the request is coming from a show associated with Byrne, whom they revere. Byrne’s last Broadway production, “American Utopia,” showcased musicians, with the band onstage playing instruments and dancing with the star.

“I was really excited that David Byrne was bringing something else to Broadway,” said Ray Cetta, a bass player and union member who has occasionally played in the band for “Chicago.” “The current situation is very surprising and disheartening. Any musician would want to work with David Byrne and bring his music to life.”

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