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Dirty Dancing tour faces protests over use of recorded music

Rehearsals for Dirty Dancing. Photo: Michael Wharley Rehearsals for Dirty Dancing. Photo: Michael Wharley
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A tour of popular show Dirty Dancing is to be hit by protests, following a bitter dispute over the production’s use of recorded music and the scaling back of musicians.

The Musicians’ Union claims the show has just five musicians instead of eight employed on a previous tour, and that an “unauthorised” recording of backing music made in Italy is also being used. It says audiences are being cheated as a result. Its members plan to begin protests when the show opens in Blackpool this week.

However, Dirty Dancing co-producers Karl Sydow and Paul Elliott have strongly refuted the MU’s claims, clarifying that the show is a “play with music” and has always featured at least 40% pre-recorded music.

Elliott accused the MU of trying to blackmail producers by demanding backing tracks be recorded in the UK. He has resigned from trade body UK Theatre, which negotiates employment terms with unions on behalf of producers, as a result of the dispute.

He said: “I decided that after 50-plus years of membership of UK Theatre, I would not submit to this blackmail and took the decision to resign.”

According to the MU, the dispute began when Elliott and Sydow approached the union about getting rid of the show’s band completely. The MU objected, which it claimed had resulted in the show agreeing to add five actor-musicians to the production.

MU assistant general secretary Horace Trubridge said: “There seems to be not a great deal of clarity about how much [the actor-musicians] do on stage compared with the recording. We suspect the majority of what the audience hears is the recording made in Italy.”

Trubridge said many touring shows used recordings to augment an existing live band to make it sound bigger, which the MU said it accepted as necessary in terms of touring economics. However, he said Dirty Dancing was doing the opposite, by predominantly using a recording with “some live music mixed into it”.

“We think there is an issue here for the ticket-buying public, as we gather that prices are not reflecting the fact it is effectively a reduced production,” he said.“The MU believes that live theatre should be just that – live.”

The MU did not reveal what form protests would take, but Trubridge said its “presence would be felt by the audiences and theatres”.

Responding, Elliott said he deplored the “uninformed and crude attempt” some MU members were making to “prejudice the audience against our production”. He claimed the show’s publicity did not refer to itself as a musical, that “none of the leading characters sing” and that the music was used as an underscore.

The producer said the tour was playing more venues for shorter runs, and that smaller stages meant the show had needed a “redesign”.

“By employing five actor-musicians we have been able to keep the performing company the same size as before, so audiences will be given the same artistic value,” he said, claiming he did not see any problem using a “fully licensed backing track from Italy in the UK”.

Elliott said he had employed 2,931 musicians during his 55 years as a producer.

In 2014, the National Theatre faced criticism for dropping live musicians from its production of War Horse.

The MU was also in dispute with Spanish production Peter Pan El Musical in 2009 over its use of recorded music.

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