Instead of Demonizing Bootlegs, Make Professional Recordings Available

Bootlegs of musicals are a temporary fix for the problem of accessibility in the theater community, which would be solved by professionally recorded shows.

Alexandra Chan, Staff Writer

As a fan of Broadway musicals, it was fantastic to come to New York for college. I watched a matinee of “Beetlejuice” with my dad before I started school and fell in love with the show after seeing it live. It was a privilege to do so. Paying for a plane ticket, food, lodging and show tickets racks up thousands of dollars of expenditure for anyone, and even more so for those who live overseas. Broadway-quality shows are only consistently put on in New York and London, so theater fans often have to turn to bootlegs.

Bootlegs are illegal recordings of shows that are sold or released online. These recordings are often the only way for many theater fans to get a glimpse of a show. There’s an intense disdain for bootlegs by Broadway actors and playwrights, who say that they detract from the theater experience and cheat staff out of their salaries.

But Broadway shows shouldn’t be locked away from members of the theater community — be they online viewers, local play companies or high school kids who look to these shows for inspiration in life and art. Bootlegs exist because of a desperation for the arts, to see representation and because musicals are an outlet for self-expression.

The reaction to people asking for recordings of shows shouldn’t be angry, self-righteous indignation. Those who are offended should try to see that this art form is inaccessible to many people, and we should work to make it more accessible. Many shows close before they go on tour, and oftentimes the tours do not leave North America. And for the fans of shows that do tour, it can be difficult to scrounge up the time and money required to go watch a show — especially when the closest show to wherever a fan lives could be hours away by public transit.

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Now, shows are professionally recorded — they’re just not available for public consumption. Instead, they’re often used as commercials. The natural next step should be to release those recordings online.

Releasing professionally recorded shows doesn’t put these productions at a disadvantage; it helps to expand the fan base, publicize the show and draw attention to its quality. Fans who love the show will come to see it in person whenever possible. After all, they idolize these works so much they are willing to try to watch something blurry shot on an iPhone hidden behind a jacket just to get a taste. We can spend hours listening to the soundtrack over and over again trying to imagine the performance, but we know it’s not the same. The actors certainly deserve the admiration they receive, but pro-recording shows can give more appreciation for set designers, choreographers, light design, sound technicians and the orchestration. High quality recordings can display the extent of these people’s work and present it as they intended it to be seen. This can be done at minimal cost to the production — since most shows already have existing professional recordings — with great returns. 

Putting shows online widens their audience. Newsies” on Netflix made a big impact in the theater community and made the show accessible to new fans, though it regrettably left the streaming service in March. People love watching filmed shows. Team Starkid is an independent show production company that puts up their shows on YouTube for free a few months after the show runs and they garner millions of views online. A few Broadway shows — such as “Into the Woods” and “Sweeney Todd” — are available on DVD and BroadwayHD, but most of them were recorded before this decade. Accessibility makes the arts thrive; imagine what putting shows online could do for everyone? 

Playwright and composer Lin-Manuel Miranda is one of the most vocal individuals about bootlegs — namely, about how they disrespect his craft. But of all people, he should know that the arts need to be more accessible. His most famous work, “Hamilton,” as well as his earlier shows, “In the Heights” and “Bring It On,” center around young people rising out of poverty and poor situations to do great things. But the cheapest “Hamilton” ticket is $250, and orchestra seats run into the thousands. The only way for someone of lower income to actually see the show is to win its ticket lottery. Who, then, is theater’s inspiring message really for?

Slave Play” and “Lightning Thief,” shows that are both currently on Broadway, make sure their tickets start at $39 for the sake of accessibility. Productions have the ability to make their shows accessible to the public without compromising on quality.

The arts suffer when the public has no way of appreciating them. Broadway was seen as a dying art form and then there was a revival in popular culture because of technology, including music and video streaming services and social media platforms like Twitter to discuss it. Don’t demonize the people who want to appreciate the show through bootlegs. Instead, look at why people make bootlegs and fix that problem by releasing professionally shot recordings. As the new season of Broadway shows hits New York, we must bear in mind that musicals and performing arts should be available for all, not only the wealthy.

Opinions expressed on the editorial pages are not necessarily those of WSN, and our publication of opinions is not an endorsement of them.

A version of this article appeared in the Monday, Oct. 21, 2019 print edition. Email Alexandra Chan at [email protected]

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