National Theatre decision to ditch War Horse musicians sparks dispute

A scene from the National Theatre's War Horse.   Photo: Simon Annand
A scene from the National Theatre's War Horse. Photo: Simon Annand
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Musicians from the West End production of War Horse are in dispute with the National Theatre after the organisation terminated the performers’ contracts.

All five musicians were made redundant from the show’s New London Theatre run last month, in a decision the NT says was supported by the show’s creative team.

The South Bank organisation, which also has productions of War Horse touring the UK and the US and another playing in Berlin, said it had decided to terminate the musicians’ contracts for both artistic and financial reasons.

It said that all of its other productions of the show that have either run or are currently running do not use live musicians and it described the New London Theatre version as an “anomaly”. The NT claimed that it used 25% of its annual £1 million music budget on the London production of War Horse and that this was not a “good use of money”.

The NT also said that the musicians were based off stage for the majority of the show, were only visible to the audience for about two minutes of the production and accounted for a small proportion of the music in the show, which is largely pre-recorded.

It said it aimed to only include live music in shows where musicians are on view to the audience.

A spokeswoman for the NT said: “If War Horse were produced at the National Theatre now it wouldn’t have live musicians because productions at the NT now have live musicians when it’s in the production’s best artistic interests and essentially when the audience can see the musicians playing live in view.”

She added: “In War Horse the band was on stage for just two minutes in one scene and played around 12% of the music in the rest of the show, backstage. All the other very successful productions of War Horse have recorded music so it is artistically absolutely successful and this change is supported by the creative team.” The spokeswoman confirmed that the show’s songs would continue to be sung live by the cast.

She added that the NT hoped to resolve the dispute with the musicians through mediation.