The 2019 Tony Awards opening highlights everything wrong with the Broadway industry
James Corden's opening number to the 73rd annual Tony Awards is an exhilirating visual spectacle, a love letter in song and dance to the magic of Broadway theatre. It's obviously been a lot of fun for the performers to put on, and extremely well-received by the audience. It's a great opening number, and everyone involved should be proud of the end product.
But, entirely separate to its artistic merits, the opening number also provides a convenient example of a range of pervasive structural issues within the culture and industry of contemporary Broadway theatre.
The refrain of Corden's chorus proudly exclaims how ‘live’ Broadway is, how it is ‘unrepeatable’, unstreamable, intimate and personal. In short, how exclusive an experience it is. It's no secret that Broadway's image is associated with middle-aged rich white audiences; a certain air of snobbery and elitism that surrounds the genre. Undoubtedly, Broadway's image of exclusivity and uniqueness plays well into this audience's demands.
And yet Broadway theatre has now found itself caught in a struggle between this traditional audience, and a new one, born of the information age – millennials, younger viewers, far removed from the elitist image of the stereotypical Broadway audience, exposed to Broadway by the free flow of information on the Internet.
But the vast majority of these fans, no matter how engrossed, could only dream of seeing their favourite productions on Broadway. As Corden remarks in song, ‘The price of a ticket is awfully steep; you buy it last minute, it still isn't cheap’ – not to mention the logistical costs of getting to Broadway in the first place (assuming one doesn't live in this one of America's most expensive cities). Some will perhaps be fortunate enough to live in or near a city where an Off-Broadway run is produced, but for the remainder? They are simply out of luck.
The Internet, again, provides a ‘solution’. Enterprising theatre fans set out to capture unauthorised, illegal bootleg recordings of Broadway and Off-Broadway productions. And so theatre, like so many other media in the 21st century, has come head to head with the growth of piracy.
Predictably, the big players in the Broadway game have generally been critical of bootlegs and piracy. Lin-Manuel Miranda, writer of the wildly-successful Hamilton, ‘actively root[s]’ against bootlegs, and remarked on Tumblr:
I’m thrilled you haven’t heard a shitty, half-iphone recorded version yet, because I spent 6 years writing this and when you hear it, I want you to hear what I intended. I’m sorry theater only exists in one place at a time but that is also its magic. A bootleg cannot capture it. I’m grateful and glad you want to hear it, and I want you to hear it RIGHT.
Andrew Barth Feldman, one actor who portrays Evan Hansen in Dear Evan Hansen, criticised bootlegs as ‘distracting to actors’ and ‘damaging to the industry’.
For reasons that have been tireless explained by others more eloquent than I, these arguments simply do not stack up.1 Even more so when there is transparently an obvious profit motive to cracking down on bootlegs and refusing to film official recordings: that maintaining the exclusivity of Broadway caters to its traditional rich, middle-class audience, driving demand up and keeping ticket prices high.2
So what have other media done, faced with the issue of piracy? Publishers in other media have recognised that piracy represents an unfilled niche in the market, every pirate a potential customer if only a suitable product were to exist. In film and television, the recognition of an unfilled niche (convenient, centralised, affordable access to on-demand streaming) has led to the unrivalled success of services like Netflix – and services like Kindle Unlimited have seen similar success in other industries.
But, despite a few exceptions, Broadway and musical theatre continue in general to steadfastly oppose any recording of productions, to stick their heads in the sand and ignore the structural problems that piracy is merely a symptom of. Corden's opening number, in some sense, is a crystallisation of this devotion to the exclusivity, the unrepeatability of live theatre:
Live, we do it live, and every single moment's unrepeatable!
Live, we do it live; it can't be hashtagged and it isn't tweetable!
The consequence of this attitude is that theatre bootlegs continue to be made and distributed. But unlike piracy of other media, like film, television and literature, capturing Broadway bootlegs is immensely risky. Tickets are expensive and exclusive, and there is a real risk of being caught and banned forever. Perhaps to protect their livelihoods, perhaps to take advantage of this limited supply, creators and collectors of bootlegs now largely distribute bootlegs through private trading, whether for other bootlegs, or for cold, hard cash. A black market of bootleg trading. The dark side of the theatre community.
The existence of the bootleg black market is unfortunate and far from ideal, but one can clearly see that it is simply the logical end result of the musical theatre industry's reluctance to adapt to changing circumstances and meet its customers' unmet needs. When the industry complains about bootlegging and piracy, it should not lash out at its fans, but instead look inward at its own attitudes and actions. It should learn from the example of other entertainment industries that have successfully navigated the issues posed by piracy, and ask itself how it can better serve its customers.
For example, bootlegs introduce theatre productions to those who would otherwise not have the means to experience it, and if an Off-Broadway run later comes along, these new fans can only increase the potential audience of the show. As for ‘ruining the intended experience’, when most viewers have no means to see it ‘as intended’, it is surely preferable to see some version rather than not at all. And as for ‘distracting actors’, the solution which actually addresses the issue at hand – professionally filming and releasing theatre productions – would alleviate this issue entirely. ↩
It would be remiss not to acknowledge that there are some efforts to bridge the gap between Broadway and less financially-fortunate viewers. For example, programmes exist to subsidise Hamilton tickets for students from low-income families. But when the underlying structural issues remain unaddressed and, indeed, ignored, it must be said that this seems tokenistic at best. ↩