Hamilton hit at just the right time. Originally promised for a 2021 release, Disney+ released it a full year early as the pandemic shut down multiple offices and Broadway theatres. The wave that Hamilton first experienced returned, Twitter and TikTok and other social media accounts flooded with commentary and tears of joy. Then the question became “Why doesn’t Broadway do this all the time?”
With the strike of COVID-19, there was suddenly availability to stream professionally filmed shows. National Theatre Live spent weeks raising funds by streaming some of their productions on YouTube, leaving each show up for a week before replacing it. What’s On Stage did the same thing, albeit with a shorter availability time that consisted of a weekend. Some local theatres have had to get creative and perform plays on Zoom, search through their archives to share performances from years past.
But the truth is that filmed theatre has always been here. It’s just She Loves Me and not Beetlejuice.
And then there’s the underground of filmed theatre that we dare not speak of.
My theatre education came from pro-shots that I would check out from the library. It was my introduction to Stephen Sondheim, a man that I consider one of my last great artistic influences as I transitioned from childhood into adulthood. In the eighth grade, I knelt in front of my television rapt in the concert production of Sweeney Todd. The tile floor was harsh on my knees, but I couldn’t tear my eyes away from George Hearn and Patti LuPone. I sought out Into the Woods, Sunday in the Park with George, Passion, and then onto other composers. The 10th Anniversary concert of Les Miserables, Jesus Christ Superstar, even CATS.
But eventually I ran out of material. Otherwise I had to spend my time relying on my imagination, listening to cast albums as I scripted the action in my head. I listened to Wicked, wondering what it would look like on stage, thinking of the dramatic build on a popular story.
Then one day, during my college years, someone had uploaded multiple videos of the Original Broadway Cast. Whatever homework I had, I abandoned. I spent my afternoon clicking through parts one and two and three and onward.
Did I like the show after all? No. Did most of the video look blurry and distant with some of the words muffled. Yes. But I got to see Wicked!
And then I learned that bootlegs were illegal. And I felt guilty. But what was I supposed to do? More and more musicals were being released by the year, and I didn’t have the money to travel to New York and buy a $300 ticket for Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.
What Can You Lose?
So why aren’t pro-shots done more often? Money.
This is why it’s easier to sell the right to Hollywood. Now, theatre fans have very strong opinions on film adaptations, especially when they are so attached to performances that already exist on cast albums. Why not just film it? Optioning a play or musical to Hollywood is how a lot of playwrights and producers get paid. And it’s a risk they are taking for more people to discover their work. Alan Moore complains about how he hates adaptations of his comics, but he still sells the rights to them. Creative types have to earn a living so that they can produce more artistically fulfilling work. Andrew Lloyd Weber has both pro-shots and Hollywood versions of his works. The pro-shots are arguably more beloved than any of the movie adaptations, but he’s all the richer for it.
The negative aspect of Hollywood adaptations is that, often, brilliant performances are lost. Even Bob Fosse was planning on a Chicago adaptation with Shirley MacLaine and Liza Minelli instead of Gwen Verdon and Chita Rivera. Not to mention the decades filled with a fan base campaigning for Michael Crawford to reprise his titular role in The Phantom of the Opera. But Hollywood operates on a massive scale. It’s business, they need to make money and a return on their investment. Even in the world of theatre, this is how it works. It’s the same reason we now have a Music Man revival in the works with Hugh Jackman and Sutton Foster.
Money makes the world go ’round, the world go ’round, the world go ’round…
The Beauty Is
Let’s imagine a world with more pro-shot opportunities. Keeping some cost-effective measures in mind, but focusing more on an ideal world. This is the closest I’m ever going to come to Shark Tank.
What can we learn from bootlegs?
Bootlegs and Zoom performances have proven that it’s not the quality of the video that is important. Multiple bootlegs are filmed on small digital cameras or iPhones, jostling back and forth when the person filming either applauds or has to hide their camera for a brief time. Patti LuPone would be very upset that this is how her Mama Rose was immortalized. Actually, a bootleg is how that infamous audio clip of her berating a photographer during the last week of her run in Gypsy was discovered. And that photographer was from the New York Times that was given permission to photograph her last moments. How the turn tables…
Fans of the theatre know that filming stage works are difficult. A simple camera set up is enough to tide them over just so they can have the chance to see Broadway performers in the roles the originated. Just two or three is all they need. If you look at the way National Theatre or PBS films their live productions, they have just enough to get the coverage that they need. But again, one lone individual with a Robin Hood mentality gets thousands of views on YouTube for one continuous shot with iPhone 8 before it’s taken down for copyright infringement.
Timeless to Me
BroadwayHD is America’s primary streaming resource for filmed productions of musicals and stage plays. But in its early days, it comprised mostly of stage productions filmed by the BBC. Again, pro-shots have always been here. It’s just that England was on top of it before we were and for longer. Digital Theatre continues to have their filmed productions available for both rent and purchase. National Theatre Live will schedule events with theatres so that they can use satellite to stream previously recorded shows like the 2016 revival of Angels in America or the original stage version of Fleabag.
The question then becomes whether it suits producers and creators best to have their productions available for rent or purchase, or have them as scheduled events in the same way as National Theatre. With the surge of video-on-demand due to the pandemic, there’s an opportunity for theatre fans to pay $20-$30 to have access to a show for one or two days in the comfort of their own home. There’s also an opportunity for a discounted package for educators.
The Money Song
I hate to say this about bootlegs, but the people uploading them are clever. To get small monetary advantages from what is already stealing, they allow YouTube to intersperse advertising throughout their poorly shot video. (I would like to reiterate that I don’t condone this, but if you’re going to be the Gus Fring of theatre bootlegs, I can’t deny that it’s smart.)
If a show is being performed live, there would have to be an intermission. Those in the theatre would be able to sit in long lines for the bathroom, pay for another plastic cup of $20 house red wine. At home? That’s fifteen minutes worth of advertising space. One could argue that no one would sit through fifteen minutes of advertising. You’re right, but it could play in the background while the person at home got their own wine, went to the bathroom, got a snack, and update their social media about what they were watching. Hamliton had one-minute intermission that you could pause. From personal experience, I did not pause it–I ran around doing as much as I could in 60 seconds.
Also, have you ever had insomnia? Fifteen to twenty minutes worth of ads is nothing like watching QVC into the wee hours of the morning. Plus, PBS has already operated on this model for years to raise funds for their programming. Hell, people watch the Super Bowl just for the advertising.
I Know Things Now
The primary argument that has existed for the continuance of bootlegs has been accessibility. Yes, there are national tours. Yes, a trip to NYC is often an opportunity for middle school and high school students to see shows as a part of an extracurricular activity. But there are people of all walks of life that can’t access theatre for whatever reason. In my own case, I grew up in a small Texas town and my family didn’t have the money to pay for those school trips. I was able to see Beauty and the Beast and Phantom, but what I really wanted was to see Urinetown or In the Heights.
The truth is that it was only able to do so because it became such a phenomenon. Those performances and the work of lighting designers and wardrobe assistants are preserved on film for Disney+. Compare that to In the Heights, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s first musical that spend 10 years in development hell in the Hollywood system. That first collaboration between Miranda, Thomas Kail, Alex Lacamoire, and Andy Blankenbeuhler is only preserved on a stranger’s shaky camera that is occasionally posted on Vimeo, Dailymotion, and YouTube.
As theatres across the globe have been shut down, it’s time to re-examine how theatres can continue to thrive. If it has to be a business that capitalizes on its audience, then it has to think of young kids in hours away from the big city. They already bought the cast album, they purchased a poster online, they have fanfic with 18 kudos on AO3. Let them have access to the thing they love most.