Moo-goo-gai-pan

A few weeks ago, Broadway actress Samantha Massell had the chutzpah to tweet something that needs to be said. Thought about. Discussed. It’s about those omnipresent bootleg videos taken of Broadway shows. I loved the way she dealt with those who tweeted back their views. And, over on Facebook, I got involved in a parallel discussion.

Since I write these musings in advance, I’m writing this during a holiday. So, I’m going to attempt to adapt my comments into an essay about bootlegging. That’s not as easy as it sounds, but hey, you gotta let me slack off a bit on a holiday, right?

To the gentleman in the third row BLATANTLY filming our whole show on his iPhone. Shame on you!

A fellow cast member (the show is Fiddler on the Roof) chimed in:

So apparently there was a dude filming our show tonight. It would be appropriate if I choked him instead of Tevye with my pearls yes? #Fruma

Someone tweeted back:

the thing is, I’m too poor to see the play IRL. I live for those people who record the shows.

Massell answered:

I DEEPLY appreciate that, but live theatre is LIVE for a reason. I’m NOT paid extra when my work appears on youtube


And when someone else offered that video-takers could be subtler about it, Massell retorted:

The distraction, while annoying, is NOT the issue. The issue is that filming a live show is THEFT

Bootleggers, and people who watch bootlegs, don’t see it as “theft” but make a variety of specious arguments justifying the practice of surreptitiously recording videos of Broadway shows. Let’s look at a few of these:

     I can’t afford it.

Broadway performers train for years, paying large sums to voice teachers, acting coaches, dance lessons, etc. It costs many millions to mount a Broadway show. Anyone who steals a peak at a bootleg is robbing the hard-working performers and the angels who back the show. “I steal only what I can’t afford,” is something Aladdin sings, the scamp.

But theatre should be affordable because stage artists want their work seen by the highest number of people possible.

Do they? You know, there already is entertainment professionally recorded and available on Netflix for a small fee, something called “motion pictures.” Less-than-rich folk enjoy them all the time. Broadway is a luxury item, like a Rolls Royce; it’s not supposed to be affordable to most. Broadway artists, deservedly or not, are considered the best in the business. “Theft” was the term used by the Fiddler actress. I assume because she signed a contract to perform for a maximum of 1900 people 8 times a week for a couple thou. So, if you’re not among those 1900, and also aren’t compensating her, you’re “stealing” her work.

But, sometimes, theatres outside of New York decide to produce shows they wouldn’t have otherwise been familiar with without the bootleg.

Interesting point. I know I’d like it if a bootleg of one of my shows led to new productions. What show were we talking about, again? Fiddler on the Roof? Ever hear of it?

A bootleg’s my only option.

I realize some people are shut-ins with medical reasons they can’t travel to Broadway. I’m sympathetic to that plight, and am reminded of an old friend who had a moderate income, is confined to a wheelchair, lived in Pennsylvania and attended Broadway shows frequently. Me, I worked until 4 a.m. at jobs that threatened to kill my soul just so I could earn enough to attend NY theatre. So: Really? A bootleg’s your only option?

Theatre people want their work seen by as wide an audience as possible.

No: you’re thinking of TV & film people. The actress tweeting is an artist performing for a full house at the Broadway. She does what she does for them, and not for the surreptitious camera. Performing for the camera is another beast entirely.
Now, I agree it might be nice if all parties agreed to a wide distribution like the Met Opera and National Theatre experiments. But the chorus of fans insisting they somehow deserve Broadway entertainment for free isn’t helping to bring that about.

But what about performers and writers who are glad that they are made?

I’ve no doubt there are plenty of Broadway artists who are glad that bootlegs have been made. But one can’t therefore assume everybody’s pleased. There were, years ago, hard-fought negotiations with various stage unions that created the Lincoln Center Library archive: In that case, every party agreed to a rather limited showing. Why can you only see each video once? So you can’t steal the staging. I empathize with directors who’ve worked hard to create stage pictures that are then copied by hundreds of creativity-deprived directors for no compensation. Would you feel flattered, or robbed?

If someone gets a bootleg of a performance by the OBC of The Golden Apple, how is that preventing anyone from getting the pay that they should be getting?

The mention of The Golden Apple gets me thinking about its composer, Jerome Moross, who only wrote one Broadway musical. I don’t know much about him, but let’s speculate that one of the reasons he didn’t write more is that he didn’t feel he was fairly remunerated for the tremendous amount of work it took to create that incredible score. He didn’t live to see the world we have today, in which income for Broadway composers hasn’t risen significantly, but the number of consumers has grown exponentially. And it’s not that theatres have gotten bigger. It’s that cultural thieves have discovered a way to enjoy Broadway shows without giving one penny to the people who’ve worked so hard to put the show on. Several of the best musical theatre writers of my generation stopped writing musicals because they could earn much more money in Hollywood. Bootleggers provide a disincentive for many musical theatre creators to stay in the business.

I don’t point all this out in order to say “shame on you for watching bootlegs!” But something is rotten when an entitled class sups on our art when we didn’t authorize it. I’m led to fantasize the following revenge scenario: Some guy whose bootleg has been viewed a million times on the internet gets sued for a million dollars times the price of the show’s ticket. If he claims “I can’t afford it,” he’ll be drawn, quartered, and forced to sit through Mamma Mia again and again.

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