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New York Times

The New York Times

March 9, 2003 Sunday
BYLINE: By Blair Tindall; Blair Tindall is solo oboist in the Broadway production of "Man of La Mancha."

The pit was picked clean. The musicians of "Man of La Mancha" had already removed photos, sweaters, electronic tuners, metronomes, instrument stands, and even the mattress for naps between shows. After the evening's bows, we took our trumpets, flutes and guitars away, too.

Our contract with Broadway's theatrical producers expired on Friday. Broadway shows went dark and prospects for a resolution look bleak. Negotiators can't agree on the number of musicians required for each theater. Producers want fewer players and more technology, while musicians aim to preserve jobs and live music.

After we walked off the job, our 16 music stands were replaced with a keyboard and computer. In fact, the cast had already been rehearsing with their new "virtual orchestra." I'm told the practice didn't go well, but I'm biased.

"Settle," a stage electrician told me before I opened the pit door for our last performance.

I thought about what he said as I watched the front row fill up. Some bubbly tourists asked about the strike. A man studied the trombonists intently, squeezing his girlfriend's hand. A surly-looking man crossed his arms over a newspaper on his chest, sighed, and glared at his wife.

I love that front row. And I love playing for a show. Every performance is different, shaped by the actors, the audience and us. Our last night was no exception. Halfway through the performance, one actor's timing sent us scrambling in a new tempo. During "The Impossible Dream," our guitarist played with such softness that his sound seemed to drift out of the wood-paneled pit. Deep blue light bathed the surly man, who was leaning forward, his head cocked, his anger gone.

Every show, when Don Quixote dies, he drops his sword and it rattles across the stage. The trumpeter always kids around, holding out his hand as if the sword were going to fall on us. On Thursday, it rolled closer than ever. For once, though, no one laughed.

During the exit music, the surly man smiled and patted his wife. After the lights came up, people seemed to be lingering in the theater.

But those of us in the pit moved on. We hauled the drum kit outside. The bass was zipped into its bag and toted to the curb. Locker doors slammed in the band room. This night, the music responded to the actors -- and the audience. If virtual orchestras take over, it will be mechanical and unyielding -- measured by keyboard velocity, musical software interfaces, and the zeros and ones of digital musical samples.

We looked around the pit, grabbed our instruments, and shut out the lights.