Since its opening in 2007 the National Theatre's production of WarHorse has attracted widespread critical acclaim. Michael Morpurgo's story set to music was a massive success at the Olivier Theatre and has gone on to prove equally successful in the West End at the New London Theatre. Nick Starr and Nicholas Hytner have been rightly acknowledged for the way in which they have led the National to success after success.
I suppose that is what makes the latest noises from the National regarding the way that they feel that music should be presented in their productions even more troubling in the view of the Musicians' Union. Nick Starr has gone on record to say that he would rather have actors miming to a pre-recorded soundtrack than have musicians play the music live in the current production of WarHorse. Furthermore, he has said that he doesn't think it's worth having live music unless the musicians are visible to the audience. This is an extraordinary thing to say and, I would suggest, deeply insulting to lovers of musical theatre. Ask any punter who has just come out of Her Majesty's after experiencing Phantom Of The Opera or Les Miserables at the Queen's whether they would have been happy for the music to have been pre-recorded and they would scoff at you. However, in both of those productions the live orchestra is rarely if ever seen by the audience. Since when do you have to see the musicians to enjoy live music?
Does every member of the audience at this year's Proms have to see the oboe player in order to enjoy the solo? Of course not. Furthermore, if Nick Starr believes that actors pretending to be musicians is preferable to actual live musicians then why don't we just bung a tape on and fill the pit with actors at the Albert Hall? I know, I'm being absurd, but I didn't start it.
Am I being hugely controversial to suggest that live music is primarily an aural experience? Yes, it's nice to see the musicians (not actors, they're better at other things) playing but it's far from essential.
If the statements made by the National regarding the live music in WarHorse had been made by some fly-by-night chancer of a producer, looking to cut costs, corners and crotchets then maybe we could forgive them for their crassness. But for this to have emanated from such a previously well respected and highly regarded art house as the National should give us all cause for concern.
As Richard Morrison suggested in his article in The Times on this subject, if you embark upon a process of eliminating every 'inconvenient' element of a live performance you end up inevitably with an audience that would just as soon sit at home and watch a DVD.
The Musicians Union has launched a petition: https://www.change.org/en-GB/petitions/the-royal-national-theatre-save-the-war-horse-band-keepmusiclive
Within days of the launch we have attracted more than 5,000 signatories. If you care about live music as much as we do please sign the petition. Finally, if the response to the petition and the comments on the WarHorse Facebook page are anything to go by The National has scored a massive own goal with this one.