Kicking the Bootlegs: The Case for Legally Filmed Musicals
“I’m sorry theater only exists in one place at a time but that is also its magic. A bootleg cannot capture it.”
Due to geography, cost, or the desire to re-live an amazing live experience, fans of theatre want live-recorded videos of Broadway musicals. Producers and creatives have been resistant to allow filmed live recordings, but other theatre mediums have shown it is possible.
Filmed recordings of musicals give a wider audience access to productions, and productions a vastly wider audience. Filmed recordings also give a show a longer lifetime. It is worth asking the question: would Rodgers and Hammerstein, Sondheim, or Lloyd Webber be as popular or well-known as they are without filmed performances of their musicals? Would sold-out events like the Into the Woods Original Cast Reunion have been possible without the 1988 Original Broadway production being made available on VHS and subsequently DVD?
It is accepted practise that musicals will have a cast recording available for purchase. What if it was also accepted practise to be able to buy, rent, or stream a (legal, and professional) filmed recording? Audiences don’t experience cast recordings as a replacement for the live theatre experience, but a supplement to it. Filmed live recordings can work in the same way.
When no legal live-recorded video is available – as is the case most of the time – fans often turn to bootlegs. Earlier in the year, Lin-Manuel Miranda reached out to fans seeking bootleg recordings of his new hit show Hamilton, explaining that bootleg recordings cannot possibly capture theatre’s magic. As one fan lamented, we don’t all have the funds to see Broadway shows, nor do all fans live in close proximity to the Great White Way. For an in-demand show like Hamilton, die-hard fans can’t get a ticket for love nor money. Even still, many critics of filmed live theatre are concerned that making videos available will hurt ticket sales at the box office.
Companies such as The Met Opera, National Theatre, the Globe, Cirque du Soleil, and a few Broadway productions have shown that legally filmed musicals, taken as live recordings, not only increase a production’s potential audience, but can also directly boost ticket sales at the box office. They may even be a step towards addressing piracy and use of recording devices in the theatre.
Filming live musicals is not a new phenomenon. In the 1920s, movie studios filmed short clips of vaudeville stars performing their routines. The clips promoted Broadway shows and were advertised as talkie-shorts before silent feature films. Broadway productions became fodder for Hollywood scripts, and, in the early movie musicals, whole scenes from currently running Broadway musicals were filmed and incorporated into the story.
Television, too, became an important vehicle for filmed live musicals. Programs such as Bell Telephone Hour (NBC), The Ed Sullivan Show (CBS), and Tonight on Broadway (CBS) all featured live excerpts from Broadway shows. Between 1950 and 1955, the Colgate Comedy Hour featured popular shortened versions of contemporary musicals such as Annie Get Your Gun, Anything Goes, Kiss Me Kate, and Wonderful Town.
In 1955 NBC screened a full-length production of Peter Pan, starring Mary Martin. The production was immensely popular and continued to be screened well into the 1960s. In 1957, CBS aired a live broadcast of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella starring Julie Andrews. The production was viewed by over 100 million people.
With the advent of VHS in the 1980s and DVDs in the 1990s, there has been a steady increase in the number of Broadway musicals being filmed for commercial release. Productions such as Sunday in the Park with George (1986), Into the Woods (1991), Candide in Concert (2004), and Company (2011), have been filmed and distributed for public consumption.
In 2007, Legally Blonde: The Musical became the first musical to air on television whilst still playing on Broadway. The producers aimed to use the broadcast to boost ticket sales, both on Broadway and for the national tour. It worked. Two years after the screening, Variety reported that the telecast, along with the reality television program Legally Blonde: Search for the New Elle Woods, had helped to ensure strong ticket sales and a successful national tour.
PBS’ invaluable program Great Performances has brought live performances to American television audiences with screenings of Billy Elliot: The Musical Live, Oklahoma, Company with the New York Philharmonic, Phantom of the Opera at the Royal Albert Hall, and many more. In addition to screenings on television, many Great Performance episodes are available to stream online or to purchase on DVD and blu-ray.
The Met Opera and the Royal National Theatre have demonstrated the success of filmed live productions being made available as cinema events. The Met Live is now in its tenth year of operation and plays in over 2000 venues in 70 countries around the world. Productions are later made available on television, and many are available for purchase.
Made-for-television live musical events are having somewhat of a renaissance. In 2013, NBC premiered The Sound of Music Live! Although the production received mixed reviews from critics and viewers alike, the production was viewed by 18.4 million people across the United States. Its success led to the broadcast of Peter Pan Live! in 2014. While viewership was lower than the 2013 event, Peter Pan Live! was deemed enough of a success for NBC to announce another Live TV Musical Special, The Wiz, to be aired in December 2015. Interestingly, producers NBC and Cirque du Soleil plan to bring the production to Broadway in 2016/17. Fox will air Grease Live in 2016.
The internet has provided an incredible resource for making theatre more accessible, and a wealth of professionally filmed live theatre already exists online. In addition to Great Performances, sites such as Digital Theatre, Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, and Cirque du Soleil (through Cirque’s website and on Hulu) all provide reasonably priced productions to view on demand, rent, or buy.
Filmed recordings widen a show’s audience, capturing for posterity performances that in the moment are fleeting. They are not a replacement for the magic of live theatre, but a means of making theatre more accessible. Professionally filmed, legal recordings of Broadway musicals are not new, but they should be part of the future of musical theatre. Hopefully producers will look at the history of these recordings, see their benefits, and film the shows their audiences are seeking out bootleg recordings of.
Luisa Lyons is an Australian actor and writer living in New York City. Her writings have been featured online at StepAway Magazine, CancerCare, My Fair Lipstick, and Wolverine Farm, and published in the Fort Collins Courier, Unsweetened, and Origins. Luisa has performed original works in Sydney and London. Follow her on twitter @luisalyons or visit www.luisalyons.com.
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