An article by Mallery MacGrath
To say that theater is elitist is an understatement, of course. Ask any teenager who is involved in their high school’s winter production of Into The Woods whether or not they can afford to see their favorite shows. The answer, at least to the majority of Broadway’s new generation of fans, is no. Despite that, these are the kids who know every line to every song and learned the opening number choreography in their bathrooms. How do they develop these intense connections with shows without seeing them?
The answer: bootlegs. They watch these bootlegs, or illegally recorded videos of a theater production, that is then shared. There is a large community across the internet of people creating and distributing them. These can come in the form of kids uploading Waitress on YouTube under the name “Pregnancy Baking Slime Tutorial,” or Google Docs folders brimming with copies of Hadestown organized by angle, date and actors performing. Fans everywhere are sharing these bootlegs with each other. Before the internet, bootlegs were a much more lucrative business, with only two or three people filming them and selling them to others. People who owned bootlegs would peddle them or trade them for shows they didn’t have yet. This community of bootleggers still exists, but the accessibility of the internet has also made bootlegs more widely available. Most popular shows, whether on Broadway or off, have a few bootlegs that can be found in a few places around the internet. These videos are shot usually on a cell phone from the audience. While these recordings aren’t the best quality, they bring some of the magic of live theater to those who have all the appreciation, but none of the opportunity to see it.
This is theft, we know. But, these are desperate times. Therefore desperate measures are called for. To the people whose work is being filmed and shared for free online, this doesn’t feel like a desperate action. Actors in Broadway shows are often vocal about disliking the bootleg community. Criticisms include the fact that people don’t profit from bootlegs, or that some of the beauty of a show is lost when it’s filmed on an iPhone 6 with a cracked screen. Yet, no one provides an alternative. Bootlegs are about providing options where there are none. Which leaves me to ask, why are there no other options? At this point, it’s not enough to say that those who want to see popular plays and musicals should save up the money to travel to New York and see one. That plan is often unachievable. National tours make this easier for some, bringing shows a lot closer. However, this counts international fans out. Further still, the experience of going to a theater is not possible for some even if they happen to be close to New York or a city visited on tour. Disability can make it so an outing to see a play is simply not going to happen, whether due to sensory issues, immune system concerns, theater accessibility, or any other preventing factor. For all of these people, for a variety of reasons, watching bootlegs at home is the only viable option.
So, what else can be done? Professionally shooting productions has been suggested, but often shot down. I’m going to be honest, I’m not exactly sure why that is. Professionally shot musicals, called proshots, mean that fans can see the shows they love with great quality, and the people who worked hard to bring a show to life get to share it on their terms. Fans that are going to see these shows live will still do so, but now they, along with fans everywhere, are able to experience that show whenever they like.
A prominent musical with a proshot is Newsies. This show was recorded by Disney in 2017 with much of the original cast. Newsies is a show with a large fanbase, even today, eight years after its Broadway run! Much of this is due to its availability. Yet, Newsies hasn’t escaped the elitism that is ingrained in Broadway’s structure. Newsies is the story of the Newsboys Strike of 1899. It centers on Jack Kelly, leader of a band of newsboys who strike against Joseph Pulitzer when he raises the price of their newspapers by 10 cents. For these children who depend on the money they make selling newspapers, this is a bed and a meal for two days. This show is based off of a Disney movie from 1992 of the same name. The stage adaptation gained a much more significant fanbase than the movie, but the professionally filmed version of the stage show is what cemented the popularity of Newsies. While recording and releasing this musical has been able to combat some of the elitism of Broadway, the story of the poor newsboys has still been twisted by capitalism.
This show is about the poor, disadvantaged children of New York striking against the rich newspaper moguls so that they are able to have enough money to eat every day. It’s a show that resonates deeply for people who can relate to financial struggles. Those people, however, are not the ones who were able to spend the money to support Newsies. How was Disney able to make this story into one that the rich people who have the means to see Broadway shows would find palatable?
The 2012 Broadway version of Newsies is changed quite a bit from the original. Most notably, Jack Kelly’s love interest, who was once a young Jewish girl named Sarah, sister of two boys who join the band of newsies after their father loses his job after an injury, is changed to Katherine Plumber. Katherine is the daughter of Pulitzer, and is a newspaper reporter who has to write at a different newspaper because her father refuses to hire her. This seems like a small shift, condensing the amount of characters needed and simplifying the plot a bit. But, it makes a huge shift in the meaning of the newsboys’ story. In the 1992 version, it was centered around a class issue. These boys were fighting against the rich for a chance to support themselves. With Katherine added, this became a different issue. She wasn’t struggling with poverty, she was struggling with being a young woman. It isn’t the rich that are holding her back, it’s the older generation. This becomes what’s seen as the newsies’ story as well. Towards the end of the musical, a young Theodore Roosevelt gives a speech. He talks about how the strike was a beautiful thing because it allowed the older generation to pass on the world to the younger generation. But this struggle of the old vs. the young is not what Newsies was about. Pulitzer wasn’t starving children because he was old. He was starving children because he was rich. Changing this dynamic so that the stage show can be something sweet and comfortable for rich people to watch loses some of the punch that it had before.
This is not an uncommon story. So many Broadway shows tell the tale of the poor, cleaned up nicely for the rich to enjoy. Shows like Annie or Rent, which are stories about poor people whose struggle is directly related to being poor, are twisted so that the rich consumers don’t have to feel uncomfortable. Bootlegs bring these shows to the audiences that resemble those depicted, but they do so illegally. The people that Broadway makes its money off of aren’t intended to see themselves in shows. This is increased exponentially for people of color, who struggle to even find themselves represented in shows that aren’t explicitly about racism (which can get exhausting to only see yourself in shows about trauma). With the addition of professional recordings of musicals, these audiences can be depended on. They can be valued as a part of the consumers for Broadway musicals, and their voices and opinions about the kinds of shows they want to see can matter more. To be honest, I’ve got no clue why the Broadway big wigs aren’t all over this idea, but I’m sure money has got everything to do with it. Until then, I will be content to watch the shaky, vertical copy of Hadestown stored in my Google Drive.