I know you’ve seen those FBI warnings that run on the front end of DVDs, warning of the dire consequences of recording and distributing a movie. Have you ever seen one of those go up on a Broadway stage just before the curtains part? Of course not, but there is always a bold warning that cameras and video taping devices are strictly prohibited during the performance. Just like there are $5 knockoffs of those current box office films hiding down NYC’s back alleyways, there are Broadway bootlegs floating around the Internet. A lot of them get yanked down in the name of copyright promptly after they’ve been uploaded yet some persist much longer than you would imagine.
It begs the question why is there a need to bootleg a show in the first place? Generally, Broadway shows are recorded yet nine times out of ten the general public will never see those recordings. They stay squirreled away in the vaults of the library at Lincoln Center. We covered the question of why Broadway plays aren’t recorded for sale a few months back (article). So similar to the digital music revolution of the late 90s and early 00s, people have shown that they prefer to digest their media in different forms. Some may not like to go to the theatre (dealing with the crowds, forking over the high ticket costs). Others may not live in New York and the touring company productions usually only send out a fraction of what Broadway serves up each year. Others still may just like to lazy about on their couches, and consume their theatre through their iPads. Each is a perfectly valid reason for watching productions outside the theatre. Since they aren’t for sale and normally don’t go streaming on Netflix, something has to enter to fill the void — bootlegs.
Now let’s be perfectly clear. Bootlegs aren’t like the well-polished Hollywood pre-pre-releases that circle the Internet after opening weekend. Broadway bootlegs are usually shot from the balcony of the theatre. The distance and low lighting can spell some rough picture quality. The sound is usually the better of the two, but again the distance from the stage can add a lot of exterior noise to the recording. Plus, you are at the mercy of what the filmer choose to focus on. No one would look at these copies and think they were a competitive substitute for the real experience as say Memphis the Musical was.
You can find these recorded shows on torrent sites like Pirate Bay. But you can just as easily find them on YouTube and Tumblr where fans have stepped up to curate this illicit content. Here is a particularly nice list of bootlegs contributed by Kate on Tumblr. There are a mix of links to YouTube videos and places you can download the shows to your computer. As copyright claims come in and render the links null and void, these shows are struck through. With that said, you can still find copies of some of Broadway’s hottest shows like Book of Mormon, Wicked, Jersey Boys and Kinky Boots. Granted, some of these recordings are of the touring productions and not on the Great White Way, but the result is largely the same. Think there are only older shows available? Think again. Rocky, Pippin and A Gentlemen’s Guide to Love and Murder all make the cut.
Users have setup entire channels on YouTube devoted to Broadway bootlegs. theatregurl21’s list includes the likes of The Phantom of the Opera and Spamalot. cypriotgirl08 has gems like Les Miserables, Hairspray and Legally Blonde. Over time, YouTube playlists largely become Broadway bootleg graveyards. The hollow place each show used to occupy in the playlist goes black under the shadow of copyright removal. It really makes you wonder how some shows have survived through the rain of cease and desist letters lobbed by the lawyers of Broadway producers.
So I’m sure some of you are rubbing your hands together thinking, “I can enjoy Broadway and never have to pay a dime again” (some kind of evil laughter follows). As I mentioned, the film quality can be dicey at times, and you have to consider the ethical dilemma as well. Most of us avoid downloading music from shady Russian MP3 sites and file sharing platforms because we fear viruses, but mostly because we feel artists should be fairly compensated for their work. Now do we really need to give Taylor Swift another million to blow on shoes? That’s another discussion for another time. The same fairness applies to Broadway performers and producers. If you are watching a bootleg, you aren’t contributing to the arts and paying back those who took the chance to bring this unique property to the Broadway stage. Regardless, the convenience factor will be too large a draw for some to resist.
I, for one, am amazed it even occurs. I’ve seen ushers sternly shut down cellphone users during a performance (quite rightly) so how in the world are these guys holding up a camcorder for the entire show without drawing notice. It is illegal in the state of New York to record a performance without permission. They can confiscate your gear for the duration of the show and/or kick you out of the theatre. Long story short, don’t go getting any ideas you industrious tapers.
If nothing else, seeing this underground community of Broadway bootleg videographers is a curious thing. I normally think of the Broadway crowd as a little more educated, a little more well to do and certainly law abiding citizens. This rouge element that has to capture the magic on a digital reel seems to fly in the face of those perceptions. Regardless, bootlegging is as old as the invention of recording devices, and its not going away anytime soon. I’ll leave it up to your discretion whether you choose to partake in the fun or leave these dirty gems for others enjoyment.
Author: Mark Runyon