For what’s believed to be the first time in Broadway history, a show has been recorded and leaked online to watch for free, according to John Biggs from TechCrunch. A pirated copy has been found online of The Book of Mormon, the juggernaut musical that won 9 Tonys last month. With a dream collaborative team of Trey Parker and Matt Stone (creators of South Park, and, most notably, BASEketball) and Robert Lopez (creator of the smash hit Avenue Q), the show has been playing to sold out audiences nightly and received fantastic reviews across the board. All of this led to the illegal video copy that’s been circulating on the internet. The unknown bootlegger shot the show in March of 2011, and it was given a BROADWAYCAM moniker online. In some ways, in this day and age, it’s amazing that this is the first time that a Broadway show has been pirated. But with tight security and pricey tickets, people haven’t taken the risk of trying to bootleg a show. And with small seats and cranky New York City audiences, I can’t imagine people taking too kindly to some guy holding up a video camera for the entire show. And if Patti Lupone’s performing? It could get ugly.
How Does This Impact Broadway?
There are a few different ways to look at how this could impact theater in New York, especially if it becomes a recurring trend. Let’s look at both sides of the issue.
This is Good for Broadway.
Broadway has always had trouble with publicity. While many news outlets cover it as a big part of pop culture, it is, in reality, a niche art form. Its biggest appeal is in New York and it is not as popular around the world. That being said, even in New York, Broadway shows are very expensive and the best ones can be sold out for nearly years at a time. With that kind of demand, interest is due to wane and it’s hard to maintain the enthusiasm. The Tony Awards are the only mainstream attention that Broadway gets each year, and with only enough time to show one number from each show, it has trouble advancing the medium. But a recent trend of broadcasting performances to be shown on either PBS or HBO has made Broadway a bit more relevant across the country. Broadway stars are hardly household names anywhere outside of New York, and even on the aforementioned Tony Awards, movie stars that briefly moonlight in a play get the majority of the attention. So wouldn’t the pirating of a show be a way for Broadway to once again come into the attention span of the country, even if it’s in a way that isn’t profitable? Plus, the quality of these copies surely can’t be any good. Any camera close to the stage would be confiscated in a heartbeat, and with tight seating, views from the back must be shaky at best. Anyone that watches this copy will likely want to see the show live more than they did before. Just about every time that I’ve watched a bootlegged movie, it’s been for the 2nd time, or the quality’s been so bad that I’ve wanted to see the real thing. And there aren’t many exceptions. (One: Zach and Miri Make a Porno, where the quality was so bad [of the actual movie] that I didn’t want to see the real thing whatsoever.) For an operation that lacks the ability to get its name out to a widespread audience, all publicity is good publicity. And for that, this definitely counts.
This is Bad for Broadway.
More than any other entertainment field, Broadway makes its money from an individual source. Ticket sales drive the Broadway economy, and if they decline, the entire ship could go down with them. If pirated copies take even a portion of the ticket-buying audience away, it could have huge repercussions. As has been publicized by the ongoing Spider-Man disaster, sets, lighting, special effects, orchestra, sound, and costumes are always increasing in costs. If revenue goes down by even a tick, people could lose jobs and shows could close. The fact that TV advertising for almost all Broadway shows is very rare only furthers the point of how little flexibility there is in some of these budgets. Shows that don’t play to near-capacity crowds nightly often go under, as can be seen by the now annual wave of closings after the holiday season. If even 5 to 10 percent of Broadway crowds choose to stay home and watch a pirated copy of a show, the effects will be fatal.
While it may not have the wide following that movies, pop music, and sports have, Broadway is a magical place. But what makes Broadway special, above all else, is its inherent privacy. Musical pieces, amazing performances, strong acting, great scripts and stirring dance numbers are all great. However, what truly creates "the Broadway experience" is that every night, the cast, crew, and one thousand or so audience members experience something unique to themselves. No two performances are ever exactly the same, and each one holds a special intangible quality that is totally different from the next one. When you see Transformers 3, you have the same exact experience that millions of others do across the world. But on Broadway, it’s just you and the people around you. No matter what somebody else is doing, they can’t say that they just had the same collaborative experience that you had. Nobody will ever be able to duplicate that, even if there’s another show the next night, or even later that day. Losing that to pirated copies of shows would hurt Broadway’s ability to market that for their gain. But above all else, it would just be a shame.