The West End production of The Phantom of the Opera has confirmed it will use a reduced orchestration written for 14 musicians when it resumes performances in July, a nearly 50 percent reduction from the 27-member pit orchestra the staging was using when the spread of COVID-19 shuttered live theatre in London last March.
But across the pond, Phantom on Broadway has committed to returning with its full, pre-pandemic pit, telling Playbill they will be using the "same full orchestrations." The Best Musical Tony winner opened on Broadway in 1988 with a 29-piece orchestra, though in the years since it has cut two of eight violin chairs for a pit of 27 players—consistently one of Broadway's largest. Eleven members of the original pit were still with the production as of March 2020. Both the Broadway and West End productions have confirmed that safety and technology updates may also be made to the long-running productions' sets.
The London production's orchestral reduction comes as many in the theatre industry are bracing for similar cuts when Broadway reopens. Long layoffs have typically allowed producers to designate reopening shows as "new productions" with the various Broadway unions, which can allow for changes to the amount of performers, pit musicians, and stagehands, along with ending any contracts termed to the "run of show."
Such was the case when Disney's Beauty and the Beast closed for just over two months in 1999 to move from the Palace Theatre to the Lunt-Fontanne, which was accompanied by the elimination of seven cast members. The American Federation of Musicians Local 802 had established contractual Broadway musician minimums (based on the theatre's size), which prevented a pit reduction in the case of the Disney musical. Such a measure may leave Broadway orchestras relatively untouched once performances resume.
"The professional Broadway musicians of NYC are troubled by the downsizing of musicians in London’s West End," says AFM Local 802 President Adam Krauthamer. "Producers who take advantage of a worldwide pandemic in order to cut live music are cheapening their productions and robbing the audience of the full experience of musical theatre. As we emerge from the pandemic, industry leaders in powerful positions must remember the devastating impact the pandemic has had on musicians and other arts workers, many of whom have lost all income and healthcare for the last 13 months. There is a moral, ethical, and artistic imperative to ensure that those workers are protected as they go back to work. NYC is the arts capital of the world and sustains a theatre community that values arts and culture. We must support those who make possible the musical theatre experience that we love."
The move echoes a similar pre-pandemic change to Les Misérables, which like Phantom is produced by Cameron Mackintosh, in the West End. The original production closed in July 2019 and returned in December with an entirely new physical production and orchestrations that reduced the amount of musicians to 14, a loss of eight. But Les Misérables' new orchestrations, penned by Christopher Jahnke, also substantially changed its sound, modernizing John Cameron's synth-heavy original 1985 orchestrations. Phantom's new orchestration, prepared by the show's original orchestrators David Cullen and Lloyd Webber for a 2012 UK touring production that has since been mounted internationally, leaves the musical's original sound largely intact while using synth keyboard technology to reduce the amount of players necessary.
In a joint statement, Lloyd Webber and Mackintosh said they believe the new orchestrations to be "just as thrilling and rich as the original," and that the shift would help "ensure that the music of the night will soar for decades more."