On February 4, 2020, Disney broke the news that they were releasing a filmed version of the Hamilton musical in theatres on October 15, 2021. No more than 20 minutes later, the hashtag “#Hamiltonmovie” trended on Twitter worldwide. Imagine the delight theatre fans around the world felt when only 3 months later, Disney scrapped the original release plan and announced that they would instead be releasing the movie on Disney+, Disney’s online streaming platform on July 3, 2020, more than a year before the original release date.
Hamilton is one of the few Broadway musicals that have made it into mainstream media even before the movie was released. Whether you’re a theatre nerd or you have only heard of the strip of auditoriums in New York City, you’ve probably heard of Hamilton. How a “sung-and-rapped through” musical about America’s forgotten founding father got this popular is beyond me, but for some reason it just… works. The music itself is amazing, but that’s expected from any Broadway musical. Yet still, Hamilton takes it to a whole other level. The mix of hip-hop, R&B, rap, and insane power ballads (which are, literally every song sung by Philippa Soo) may sound bizarre at first, but after one listen to the cast recording, you’ll quickly understand how the musical received a record 16 nominations at the 2016 Tony Awards and won the Grammy for Best Musical Theatre Album. On top of that, the lyrics, depth of the plot, and racial diversity of the cast makes this musical truly unlike anything done before.
Theatre is an industry that relies on hundreds of people all gathering in one enclosed auditorium to watch a performance, and in a year where everyone basically has to be at least 6 feet away from each other, this is obviously an impossible task. In March 2020, the Broadway League announced that Broadway would be closing all of its productions until April 12 of that same year. This shutdown has since been extended until May of 2021. For context, before 2020 the longest period of time Broadway had empty theatres was 30 days, and this was due to the 1919 Actors’ Equity Association strike. It wasn’t even shut down during the 1918-1919 Spanish Flu pandemic, which frankly, should say a lot on how COVID-19 has completely turned the world upside down in just a few short months.
Then came May 12th of this year. At the height of the first wave of the Coronavirus in the United States, Disney became the light at the end of the seemingly unending tunnel when they announced that they would be releasing a filmed-version of Hamilton on Disney+ a year before the expected release date. As stated earlier, this already tragic year for everyone is especially marked a bigger tragedy for the theatre world. For this reason, when the news broke out that one of the most popular (not to mention expensive) Broadway musicals in history was going to be released on video-on-demand, it inevitably sparked lots of arguments within the theatre community, especially about the future of musicals getting filmed for widespread release.
Let me give a small rundown on the history of Broadway musicals getting filmed in general. Since the dawn of time there has been a long-standing argument about the ethics of bootlegs, or illegally filmed musicals. When we hear the word “illegal”, the natural human response is to get turned off and ignore whatever arguments people have in support of it. However, when you ask a theatre fan about their opinion on bootlegs, despite numerous laws against it, it’s hard to actually find someone who is completely for it or completely against it. Most of us are in this grey area and don't exactly know which side of the debate we stand for.
On the one hand, we’re all for it. Tickets for Broadway shows are expensive, to say the least. Tickets can cost as low as 100 dollars (5,000 pesos) but it can go as high as 1,000 (50,000 pesos) and even higher during peak season. For example, Hamilton tickets during the days between Christmas Day and New Year's Day in 2017 went as high as 1150 dollars (57,500 pesos). On top of the extremely high price point, not all fans of Broadway productions live in New York City and regional runs of Broadway shows are extremely rare to come by. It’s completely natural for most fans to be curious on how their favorite musical soundtracks get translated on stage every night. Combining the two factors of price and location, it’s understandable why fans simply choose to ignore the ethical and legal implications of what they’re doing when they search “bootleg of *insert favorite musical*”.
On the other hand, a huge part of the so-called “Broadway-experience” is the appeal of seeing it live. Broadway musicals have the certain flair of having something unique in every performance. In that way, it’s different from films and other pieces of media since no two shows are exactly the same. Musicals were intentionally designed to be watched in person, and this is where people’s problems with bootlegs stem from. Bootlegs are filmed at an extremely subpar quality. Since it’s illegal, the person filming the bootleg obviously has to be extremely low-key about it, at the risk of getting fined or kicked out of the theatre. This means that certain technical aspects of the video like audio, angles, and the like will get affected . People argue that it is extremely disrespectful to the actors and directors who have poured in blood, sweat, and tears to produce and put on a good show for people to just end up watching a below average video of their proudly presented masterpiece. Additionally, the person filming the bootleg is a huge distraction for the actors performing on stage and is a nuisance to his or her fellow theatre goers.
Surprisingly, even actual Broadway actors are conflicted on where they stand on this debate. Some have openly talked about having watched bootlegs and say they’re completely fine with it. A couple months ago, Karen Olivo, who plays the role of Satine in the Broadway adaptation of “Moulin Rouge!”, sparked debate online when she posted a photo on her Instagram story asking fans to send her a bootleg copy of Moulin Rouge. She then added that she “wouldn’t rat them out”. Even Ben Platt who originated the role of Evan Hansen in the hit Broadway musical “Dear Evan Hansen” has admitted to watching a bootleg of the original Wicked production.
Among the few musicals that have been released on either DVD, movie theatres, or video-on-demand, Hamilton is undoubtedly the most popular one. It’s rare for a media company to get hold of a filmed musical with the entire original Broadway cast but Disney got exactly that. It begs the question, what comes next? What about other musicals? When will the filmed version of Dear Evan Hansen come out? Will it be Ben Platt or Jordan Fisher? (only the first two questions are valid for my next points; the last two are just for good measure). If media streaming companies such as Netflix, Hulu, or Disney+ initiate the filming of current Broadway hits such as Mean Girls, Moulin Rouge, Beetlejuice, Hadestown and more, who knows how much bigger Broadway can get? The quality would obviously be 1,000x better than the bootlegs we’re used to (as long as the camera isn’t shaky, I will accept it with open arms) and if quarantine has taught us anything, it’s that people are going to watch anything as long as it’s on Netflix (I’m talking to all of you who decided to watch Gossip Girl for the nth time). All of the points people have against bootlegs are virtually eliminated if media companies just film musicals. With an actual professional filming crew and editing, the artistic direction of the production team can be highlighted in the way bootlegs aren’t able to.
One complaint people have against bootlegs is that viewers pay absolutely nothing when they watch bootlegs and since actors and the crew depend on the money they make on tickets each night, they’re basically giving a free performance to those who watch the bootleg. However, if we’re going to use Hamilton as a basis, money is definitely not going to be an issue. Not at all. Disney paid 75 million dollars for the rights to the Hamilton film and this was divided amongst those who were part of the production team during the night of filming, from the actors themselves, to the assistants of the assistants of the assistants of the production team. On the flipside, in the month in between the Hamilton announcement and the actual release date itself, Disney+ sales increased by 74% percent. The weekend before the movie dropped, Disney+ got over 458,000 subscriptions in the United States alone.
I for one would probably sell my soul to get a filmed version of Heathers, In the Heights, Carrie, or even Les Miserables without Russel Crowe in it (I know that this was the movie but my notion still stands). Coming from someone who has never, and probably will never step foot into New York City, I have always depended on bootlegs to get my weekly dose of Broadway. Recalling the idea that if a filmed recording of the show gets released to the general public, ticket sales of the actual live Broadway performance are going to drop being the exact reason why performance recording deals are so hard to come by for media companies. I personally disagree. The reason why bootlegs are so popular in the first place is because the average person probably doesn’t have 300 dollars to shell out for a performance, and they probably don’t live in New York City. I don’t think there would ever be a theatre fan who, if given the chance to go to New York, would skip out watching a musical on Broadway regardless of whether or not they’ve seen a bootleg of it. Pre-COVID, I was supposed to visit New York over the summer after I practically begged my dad to shell out some cash so that I could watch a show on Broadway. When he said yes, I immediately narrowed down my options to Moulin Rouge and Mean Girls, which for record I’ve already seen a bootleg of. There was no part of my brain that said that I shouldn’t watch those shows because I’ve already had a glimpse of how it looked on stage. If anything, seeing the bootleg made me want to watch the show more. If a handheld video of a musical I already genuinely enjoyed beforehand could get me even more hyped about a show, then imagine what an actual professionally filmed movie could do.
Films and television shows have the luxury that prior to the 20th century, no other art forms had been given, which is the privilege of widespread immortalization. One quick google search about a movie made almost 100 years ago, say Gone With The Wind for example, will immediately give you millions of results. These films are watched numerous times over and over again until they become classics until no one cares about the fact that these were made in the 40’s or if it’s now tacky by today's standards because it’s a classic. Why can’t we have this with Broadway? Broadway has been around before the camera was even invented, so why don’t we have video tapings of the original 1987 Broadway debut of Les Miserables (and I’m already being pretty generous here, 1987 was literally 33 years ago)? Why is the most readily available way for us to watch a musical that’s basically synonymous with musical theatre itself the 2012 film with Russell Crowe? The point that I’m trying to make here is that the world is changing. Times are different. We’re no longer incapable of finding ways to make Broadway more accessible to the general public and making it something that even 60 years from now, people can still enjoy without breaking their bank account.
The Hamilton movie will forever be remembered as the film release that saved 2020. I still remember the euphoria I felt watching the film for the first time. Beforehand, I honestly didn’t expect to cry at all given that I’ve listened to the soundtrack more times than I can possibly count but for some reason, seeing the musical that I’ve loved since I was in seventh grade on my laptop screen, right in front of my eyes just triggered the waterworks. Coming from someone who’s been part of a record- breaking 2 plays (a huge number, I know), I know firsthand the amount of work (and drama *wink*) it takes to make a somewhat decent play. Knowing that these actors and the production team flawlessly pull off these shows for months on end as if it were nothing is such a big deal for someone who literally feels like vomiting out of nervousness the night before each play. Broadway, or theatre as a more general term, is an art form that is so hard to perfect and that’s exactly what these actors and production teams do. It’s such a shame that only a select number of people can serve as witnesses to this presentation of perfection. We live in a time where making things accessible to the general public is as easy as clicking the “upload” button. “Look around look around at how lucky we are to be alive right now” is a Hamilton lyric any self-respecting theatre fan should know, but I would say that the world would be even more luckier if watching musicals was as easy as watching a movie on Netflix.