Illicit Bootlegs on YouTube are Giving Musicals a Second Life
Some of Broadway’s hottest musicals have been given a jolt of life by bootleg traders using YouTube and other sites
When Jeremy O. Harris, the playwright behind the recently-opened Broadway show Slave Play, was growing up in Martinsville, Virginia, he yearned to see productions in New York’s biggest theaters. But more than 500 miles separated him from the Great White Way, and so he settled for the next best thing: copyright-infringing bootlegs illicitly shot from the stalls of those theaters and uploaded to video sharing websites like YouTube, or blogging platforms popular with teenagers such as LiveJournal or Tumblr.
“I grew up in a town where I had no access to any of the types of theater I wanted to see outside of YouTube and Tumblr,” the 30-year-old playwright explains. “I honestly feel like if those things hadn’t been there, I wouldn’t have had as rich a theatrical database to pull from when I got to my undergraduate degree.”
Harris is the rare person in the theatrical world happy to speak out publicly in favour of such bootlegs. Lin-Manuel Miranda, the playwright behind Hamilton, one of the world’s hottest musicals, has repeatedly castigated those who seek out illegal versions of his production, including changing the lyrics to one of the songs in the musical while on stage earlier this year to draw attention to a woman filming the performance in the fourth row.
Miranda does so in vain. Type in “Hamilton bootleg” on YouTube, and you’ll receive 14,400 results, including copies of the show in its entirety. The bootleg community thrives on YouTube, with video footage of almost any musical available to access, often collated in playlists entitled “These are not bootlegs” and “Definitely not bootlegs”. Others trade rarer footage on websites like LiveJournal, where collectors can swap exclusive footage or even offer it for sale to bidders.
Many of the videos are recorded illicitly by paying customers who smuggle in recording devices such as smartphones that are hidden under clothing, out of the reach of ushers. Rumors abound about the so-called “masters” who record performances: one is even alleged to book out an entire row of seats in a prime position within the theater so their friends can offer protection from officious ushers on the lookout for camera lights. Those masters then offer around videos for sale, with an unofficial embargo denoted by the term “NFT” (not for trading). Anyone who breaks the NFT embargo is blackballed from the vibrant bootleg trading community. Once the NFT date passes, videos are traded more freely on websites like LiveJournal or Tumblr, which loosely enforce their terms of service, and end up on YouTube.
Some masters smuggle equipment into theaters for monetary gain, but more often, it’s about widening access or gaining clout in the tightknit theater community, according to those who interact with the community.
It may seem like this is a modern media phenomenon, but devoted fans of musicals can see rare footage of performances dating back to the 1970s thanks to the gumption of some hobby camcorder owners. “Bootlegging has always happened,” says Terri Paddock, a longtime theater journalist and analyst. “You have more issues when there’s a famous person in the cast, or it’s a big name musical. But now that everyone has a camera in their pocket, it’s harder to police, and perhaps producers are getting a little less precious.” One legendary New York theater critic, Ken Mandelbaum, has often been cited as the source of many classic bootleg videos.
Bootlegs have even been attributed as the reason some musicals have seen revivals. An off-Broadway production of Heathers: The Musical lasted 126 days in 2014 before closing. Four years later, it was revived in London’s West End, produced by Bill Kenwright Limited. Advocates of bootlegging claim the revival came about thanks to the popularity of a bootleg of Heathers that appeared in the mid-2010s and became a viral success. (The London producers of the musical did not respond to repeated requests for comment made via email and phone over the course of three weeks.)
“The seats are just filled with excited young people who probably wouldn’t have had the chance to see it or had even heard of it if they hadn’t watched this bootleg,” explains Sarah, a 21-year-old theater fan from Calgary, Alberta who uploaded a video to YouTube dissecting the world of musical bootlegs. (She, like many quoted in this story, asked for their surname not to be used for concerns of privacy given the illicit nature of the bootleg world.)
Barrett Wilbert Weed, who played the lead in the original, off-Broadway production of Heathers, and who now stars in the Broadway production of Mean Girls, another musical, has taken a relaxed stance on bootlegs. She said she was happy that her work in Heathers had been recorded for posterity. Sarah argues that rather than being a net drawback to the theater world, bootlegs are a benefit. “I really like that bootlegs are able to bring “accessibility to people,” she says.
“The only people I see talking openly about bootlegs lived or grew up somewhere far away, a theatrical desert, and people who come from working class backgrounds tend to talk more openly about it,” says Harris. They include people like engineering student Bruce, based at a university in the north of England. He is keen to become a theatrical set engineer when he graduates, and first came across bootleg videos of productions on YouTube when trying to understand how musicals’ special effects were performed. “From there I realised people trade these videos, and ended up talking to people, setting up a site and trading,” he says. After just a few months of trading, Bruce has now built up
Producers have started taking different steps to mitigate against the impact of bootleggers. Some theaters, including Broadway’s Booth Theater, have begun asking attendees to lock their phones in pouches provided by a company called Yondr, which prevents audience members from accessing their phones — either to film or text, another bane of actors’ lives. Others have taken another tack: an officially videotaped 2017 production of Newsies, a popular Disney musical, can be downloaded from Amazon Prime Video for $19.99. Britain’s National Theater regularly films its productions and screens them at cinemas worldwide under the NT Live moniker.
“I think maybe producers are worried if they release professionally shot recordings of shows people will stop coming to see them,” explains Katie Sidel, who has investigated the spread of bootlegging in the world of theater. “I don’t think that’s true. Seeing a theatrical production is person is so much different than seeing a movie.” Sarah, the YouTuber, agrees. “Bootlegs are fundamentally different from pirating a book or a movie,” she says. “Unlike those experiences, a bootleg is never going to be a substitute for the real experience of seeing a Broadway show.”
It’s that argument — that bootlegs are essentially free marketing for productions, engaging audiences with a particular play and making them dedicated fans — that pro-bootleggers use to excuse their actions. Sarah, the Canadian YouTuber who has seen dozens of shows through bootlegs, made sure to buy tickets to see Heathers in the flesh on the West End when she visited London. “When it comes to shows I’ve had the opportunity to see, bootlegs have been invaluable in making me interested in them in the first place,” she says.
“Access to these things creates more hunger for them, not the opposite,” says Harris, the author of Slave Play. “If you think of theater like some disease that people can catch, if the disease is contained, it’ll never spread. But if you get the virus and the bacteria cultures into other spaces, maybe it’ll spread.”
Spreading the word is particularly important today given the demographic timebomb theater faces. The average age of a U.K. theater audience member is 52, according to analysis of ticket sales by The Audience Agency. Some productions — including Heathers and Waitress, a show currently playing in London’s West End — have cast YouTubers including Carrie Hope Fletcher and Joe Sugg in order to appeal to a younger audience. But younger audiences can be a double-edged sword. Not versed in the unspoken rules of theater, they ask valid questions that upend the no-filming rule. “Traditional theatergoers say: ‘We don’t understand: if you can go to a concert, you can film’,” says Sidel. “’We’ve paid money here. Why can’t we do this?’”
Such bootlegs can foster a digital fanbase who will eventually pay to come and see the production in-person. “However people are talking about it online, it’s important,” says Paddock. “Whereas in the past theater producers and marketers wanted to control everything, people realise now that’s just not possible.”
That includes Harris himself, one of the proponents of bootlegging and its ability to bring new audiences to the staid old world of theater. “Because I have always grown up in a digital age, I feel pretty sure there will be a bootleg of Slave Play,” he says. While he wouldn’t encourage anyone to make a bootleg of his show — which opened on Broadway earlier this month — he sees it as an inevitability. “The idea as a theater artist, thinking somehow me articulating that I don’t want the modern world to interact with my work would somehow stop it from happening, is funny,” he says.
To try and head off the need to bootleg Slave Play, Harris has tried to figure out how to make the live experience stand out. He’s investigating ideas such as releasing a podcast version, and making touring versions look different to the core production. And while he’s resigned to the notion his play will be bootlegged, he won’t be hunting it out. “I already dislike seeing my own work live; I wouldn’t want to watch some grainy cell phone version.”