I’ve been seeing this debate going on in a lot of Broadway groups I’m in. Some people support them completely, others, like many Broadway actors and producers, tell people that if they were “real” fans, they wouldn’t watch them. I’m going to say straight up that I am a fan, but to a certain point, which I will explain why while looking at both sides of this debate and why you should support or degrade bootlegs.
For those of you unfamiliar with the term “bootleg”, it is a recording of a popular Broadway show (usually musicals), usually with the original cast, that someone has recorded illegally (it is sometimes ironically recorded in the video of the theatre’s warning before the show with the cellphones) and posted online for fans to watch and enjoy. Think of it as someone who goes into a movie theatre with a video camera and sells/posts it online for free or a fraction of the price of a movie ticket. So it’s basically a very low quality of a show that you would have to pay hundreds, or go back in time, to see for free.
One of the main arguments of why bootlegs shouldn’t be watched is that it prevents them from going to Broadway or a community theatre version themselves and seeing the show in person, causing the show and theatre, in general, to be in danger. The reason why Broadway tickets are so expensive is that they need to pay the actors (especially celebrity ones) and break even on expenses such as electricity or materials for props that need to be remade every show such as the pies in Waitress.
Here’s the thing, some people will never be able to afford to see their favorite show on Broadway, or any theatre show. Sometimes they live too far away or they want to see someone like Ricky Martin play Che in Evita but they cannot find the time or money to go before they leave, sometimes a show may close before they even get the chance to see it. Some Broadway shows go on news shows or talk shows to promote the show, but it usually doesn’t show a fraction of what it’s supposed to look like with the set, and lines are cut. So what’s your only option? Watch a low-quality version of said show for free.
I personally think that seeing a low-quality version of the show actually promotes you to want to see the real thing even more because you want to see things with your own eyes. Sometimes, even bootlegs aren’t enough to satisfy your want to see the show. For example, the Heathers bootleg that’s posted endlessly on YouTube has the understudies playing JD and Heather Chandler, not the full original cast. On top of that, the camera is shaky at the beginning and a few other moments where if you were sitting in the audience you wouldn’t experience, and it can be hard to understand what they actors are saying because of the low quality. It makes you want to read the script, which is sometimes available to buy in bookstores. There are also shows such as The Great Comet where it’s presented in an arena stage so you only get to experience that one place where you sit (which you would if you bought a ticket too), and because they interact with the audience you will never get that experience either.
Some shows are recorded professionally and sold in stores such as Rent and Cats, which are fantastic for reference if you want to watch it all the time, but both of these recordings (and many others) are not of the original cast. There are others that have yet to be released, there have been rumors that Hamilton was professionally recorded for home viewing, but the problem is that it won’t be released until after the show closes, which could be five to a hundred years from now, and that’s a very long wait. These methods make it so the only way you can see the original cast is by time traveling, impossible at the time this article is written. So, what is there left to do? You can either cry with the rest of the theatre community and wait to hear stories of that time when Idina Menzel looked at your friend when she played Elphaba in Wicked over and over again, or you can bootleg it and push through what low-quality cameras used to be like in 2003 (and they are low).
I know that bootlegs are illegal, and I believe that anyone who is caught should be punished, but I also think that it’s unfair to deprive those who are unable to afford a $300+ USD ticket of a show they want to see. I think it’s disrespectful to the actors who are in the show then and now, but if there isn’t a recording that’s out there that’s done professionally, what harm is watching a closed show going to do? Theatre is art, art should be paid for, but certain moments can’t be bought.
Maybe one-day time travel will be possible so we can travel back to when a certain actor or show is on Broadway and we can use it when we can afford tickets, but for now, bootlegs and seeing other actors play a role are the closest thing we can get on a budget. Broadway will never deflate their prices as long as theatre continues to be a dying art, and bootlegs will most likely survive as long as someone keeps uploading them. In the end, no one knows for certain if the digital age will save or destroy theatre. We’re all hoping for it to become the unexpected here, but hey, I guess we’ll never know.
Aly is a University student in Canada majoring in Dramatic Arts. She doesn’t know what she’s going to do with her degree, but she doesn’t care as long as she stays involved with the love of her life: theatre.