Note: I wrote this article in response to a lot of blog posts and tweets bashing bootlegs last fall, and I wanted to put in my own two cents. NewMusicalTheatre.com was nice enough to publish my post. It’s one of my favourite theatre blogs; I definitely recommend you check them out!
Let me make one thing perfectly clear: I do not in any way condone the filming of Broadway shows live onstage. But do I watch these bootlegs? Yes. I do. Moreover, I think the Broadway community as a whole often fails to mention the advantages of this practice. Bootlegs are not nearly as odious as certain articles make them out to be. These “dirty gems,” as one Broadway Tour article called them, can even be beneficial to the shows themselves.
I suppose it all comes down to exposure. One of the reasons why theatre is such a beloved art form is because it’s ephemeral. And the only way to properly experience this art form as it is meant to be experienced is in one single city. New York City. Its population – 8.34 million – is a lot of people. But that number isn’t even close to the number of theatre fans in the world. All those people want to see Broadway shows just as badly as the fans in New York. For many reasons, they can’t, and I find this extremely unfair. For the fans, of course, but also for the composers, playwrights, actors, and directors who miss out on all this exposure.
If there were a way for fans to watch a show that has come and gone on Broadway, to fall in love with the composer’s work or the director’s work or the actors’ work, wouldn’t they want to see a future show featuring these people and their art? I know I would. If you think about it, isn’t it better for a theatre fan to watch the cheap version of a show online (that in no way comes near the experience of seeing it live) than for them to not see it at all? If you look at it from an exposure-only perspective, the answer is clear.
One of the major arguments against bootlegs is that a person won’t want to pay to see a show live after having watched it online. Because they’ve already seen it in some way, the argument goes, we’re cheating all of the artists involved in a certain show out of their hard-earned money. I know firsthand that this is false.
First of all, seeing a musical or a play live is an incredible experience that is nothing like watching it from a shaky camera with lots of background noise. I know with certainty that I wouldn’t miss a beat in paying to see a professional production of my favourite musicals—especially if I’ve only ever watched it from one of these cameras. I will gladly pay to see it so that I can truly experience this show as it was meant to be. But I never would have fallen in love with these shows if I hadn’t seen the bootlegs first.
And what do I do when I fall in love with a musical? I buy the cast album. I order the merchandise online. I do everything short of actually seeing it (which I would do if I could), forking over as much money as I can to all the people who I’ve apparently stolen from when I clicked that lovely “play” button.
No particular production will last forever. They will disappear into the confines of the library of Lincoln Center, far from the reaches of us normal folk who could not afford a trip to New York at the right time. These productions deserve to live on, to be viewed by as many people as possible in as many places as possible. Besides, these shows are full of subtleties, and like I do with many good movies, I often want to see musicals I like over and over again until I know every line, every stage direction by heart. But for most people, doing so in a live setting is impossible.
I hear a lot of talk about the importance of representation and diversity when it comes to musical theatre. As the years go on, we’re seeing more and more characters of colour, characters in the LGBT+ community, and characters of different income levels. But by restricting accessibility to Broadway shows, we are decreasing the diversity of Broadway audiences. We are making theatre available to only a certain elite: often rich, white, straight people.
Yes, it’s against the law. Yes, it’s morally wrong to film shows live. But to only focus on the negative aspects of this practice would be to only tell one half of the story. It would be to ignore what is really important here: that fans out there are sharing their love of theatre with the world. If it weren’t for those fans, I wouldn’t be one myself.