Before there was the professionally-shot production of “Hamilton” uploaded onto Disney+ to worldwide acclaim, there was “founding fathers slime tutorial.”
The bootleg economy in the Broadway community has long been a staple of musical theater fandom. With the emergence of blockbuster musicals like “Hamilton” and “Dear Evan Hansen” in the mid 2010s came a concurrent influx of bootlegs — amateur recordings of live shows — that made said shows accessible to an exponentially wider audience. Although these videos are technically illegal and have drawn the ire of many Broadway performers who claim the presence of cameras diminishes the theater experience, they have nevertheless become a prized currency in online arenas where even a minute-long clip of an adored show can be shared thousands of times and generate millions in sales of soundtracks.
“Hamilton” was notorious for its bootlegs, most of which popped up on YouTube under bizarre names such as “founding fathers slime tutorial” to avoid detection by the platform’s copyright algorithm. The show quickly became a cultural phenomenon when it hit Broadway in 2015 despite its confinement to a single theater in New York City, attracting thousands of fans worldwide through its cast album. However, with “Hamilton”’s unprecedented success came the dawning realization that many people would never be able to secure a coveted ticket, be it due to their rarity or exorbitant prices. This artificial scarcity saw a massive rise in bootleg filming and distribution: people who could never attend a showing due to location or expenses could suddenly experience the entire musical, subsequently expanding its already massive fanbase.
Learning about the explosive popularity of bootlegs and of professionally-shot releases of new musicals such as the 2016 “Falsettos” revival might prompt the obvious question of why production companies haven’t steamrolled the bootleg black market to provide their own recordings for a handsome fee. The answer has always been that such releases would dull the magic of live performance, that shows would lose out on money, that casts and crews would be out of work due to reduced sales and shorter runs.
However logical a conclusion this might seem, the truth is that bootlegs have not hurt Broadway’s profits; if anything, musical theater has only benefited from this widespread distribution. The accessibility of theater perfromances online to teenages and young adults has created a massive internet fandom culture devoted to these shows. They have lifted off-off-Broadway productions like “Be More Chill” to such acclaim that the show went from obscurity to Broadway in less than a year. There is constant talk of how many shows users would attend were they living in New York City or London, and how much they would shell out could they see these shows that they adore in person. In the absence of live productions, they buy soundtracks and support the cast members’ other projects, effectively pouring more money into the industry than they would have spent on tickets.
Disney+’s decision to acquire a “Hamilton” pro-shoot and make it available to its thousands of subscribers represents a step — however small — in the right direction. The show was as much of a hit at home as it had been onstage, spurring a massive spike in Disney+ subscriptions and catapulting the “Hamilton” original cast album back onto iTunes’s top ten best-selling album list, where it had been a staple during its initial release in 2016.
While its release was very obviously a calculated business move meant to capitalize on families stuck in quarantine and came five years after the show first made waves, it is a welcome development in the world of musical theater. With the pandemic now making it virtually impossible to attend a live show, distributors everywhere should be following in Disney’s footsteps and streaming every show in their archive. Clearly, audiences are more than willing to pay for it.
Musical theater has long been a medium for telling the stories of the disadvantaged, but it is also one of the most inaccessible art forms on Earth due to its expense and localization to major Western cities. Bootlegging does not have to be the only exposure people have to these influential, life-changing shows. “Hamilton” proved that audiences can still fantasize about one day seeing the rotating stage at the Richard Rodgers Theatre or Elphaba taking flight at the Gershwin Theatre while streaming those same shows in their living room — no slime tutorial required.