On Bootlegs, Broadway and Breaking Barriers
Bootleg. What a simple, unassuming term. The child of the words boot and leg, all she wants to do in life is to perform her duty of giving us very low quality audio and video recordings of popular Broadway shows, but there are people out there who seek to destroy her humble goal: to combat the problem of theatre accessibility and find a way to distribute theatre to those who otherwise could never see it.
Okay. That was a terrible introduction, but I think you get the point of where this article is going – the recording and distribution of bootlegged theatre material is obviously morally wrong, but what about all the ways in which it’s right?
Often, I come across a quote or a tweet in which a Broadway star or writer laments the rise of the bootleg, and goes on to say that the special thing about theatre is that it is fleeting, and one particular performance can never quite be recreated. Theatre is an ever-evolving piece of art, and to change the form of performance it is to destroy the art altogether. (As Sherie Rene Scott once said: “In theater, the process of it is the experience. Everyone goes through the process, and everyone has the experience together. It doesn’t last—only in people’s memories and in their hearts. That’s the beauty and sadness of it. But that’s life—beauty and the sadness. And that is why theatre is life.”) While I agree with the lovely sentiment, I also have to sit back and ask myself: are those facets of theatre fair to different groups of people, or are they the barriers that are keeping theatre out of mainstream conversation and understanding? It’s a complex issue, and maybe bootlegs aren’t the answer, but something else needs to be.
As much as we all hate to say it, theatre is not easily accessible to every person, and there is a process that eliminates underprivileged people from participating in the art form. The location of theatre meccas such as Broadway and the West End are problem enough when you remember that (gasp!) not all theatre fans live in New York or London. Add to that the issue of the astronomical cost associated with attending a show, barriers for people of color, for physically or intellectually disabled people, for women (an entire gender, to my utter disbelief) to become involved in or see theatre, and you can see that words such as “fleeting” are no longer a pretty sentiment, but are in fact the very thing that will keep you away from enjoying the entertainment medium that you love, or expanding your horizons through sitting in the dark for a few hours.
As a regular attendee of Australian theatre, I also understand the limits set upon my country’s theatre scene. Currently staring down the barrel of a season that is completely unremarkable, when faced with the tragedy of yet another Rocky Horror tour (a re-tour, in fact), as well as another CATS tour, I have actively considered looking for a Hamilton or Hunchback of Notre Dame bootleg. How would it feel if I, like my privileged American friends, could sit in the audience of a show that is at the forefront of developing theatre (Finding Neverland, Ever After, anything presented by new MT composers at 54 Below or Joe’s Pub, etc.), rather than repeatedly sitting in the house of a show that broke barriers multiple decades ago? It’s easy to forget that if most people who watch bootlegs had a choice of watching the live show over the shaky recording with massive spotlight wash, we definitely would.
Lin-Manuel Miranda was absolutely wonderful in the way that he addressed the issue of an illegal recording of his revolutionary show. I commend him for working for the fans and telling us that he is intent on getting us a cast recording to love as soon as possible. However, I fear that cast recordings may not be enough to solve this problem either. I remember all the way back in 2010 when I first heard and fell in love with “96,000” from In the Heights. I learned it by heart in under an hour from a YouTube video of the recording session, and then opened my iTunes account to purchase the album only to find that the cast recording cost over $50. For a kid working six hours a week at $8 per hour, that was not going to happen. (Oh, and by the way – to those who have told me that a show as successful as Hamilton will eventually come to Australia – are you nuts? Producers in Australia think Book of Mormon is too risky, can you imagine a show based on American history playing over here? I’ll save Australian productions of Hamilton and Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson for my sweet, sweet dreams, because they will never be a reality.)
I wish that every country could have their own new and developing theatre scene, but because we do not, the theatre industry and its fans need to make a conscious effort to remember that accessibility is a difficult issue for a large percentage of the population. We need to remember that the next Sondheim, the next Lin-Manuel Miranda, the next Pasek and Paul may not come from an American family in which theatre is an affordable luxury. The next person to re-design the wheel of musical theatre composition may come from Australia, Manila, France – theatre accessibility must be a priority if we want the form to survive and create a new generation of artists.
So, how can we work to make theatre more accessible to international or similarly access-challenged theatre fans, yet still put money into the industry and the pockets of those who spend their lives in service of the stage? Could we record Broadway shows like they do for the archives at the New York Public Library, but create a database that allows overseas customers to pay to view shows that have been closed for over three years and therefore won’t impact ticket sales? Is there someone out there that could find a way to record and broadcast specials of Broadway shows, like Lincoln Center occasionally does? (Come to think of it, could Lincoln Center work out their copyright (?) issues and at least make Kelli O’Hara’s Carousel and South Pacific available to the public?)
Bootlegs have raised a question, but they cannot be relied upon to be the answer. I’ll leave the logistics up to someone much smarter than me, but please, help me out here. If Grease makes another “triumphant return” to Melbourne within the next ten years, I’m probably just going to give up.