The Exclusivity of Musical Theater

An ironic motif throughout the lifetime of musical theater is the prevalence of musicals about demanding justice and challenging the status quo.  Going from most to least recent, one can count Hadestown, Hamilton, Newsies, Rent, Les Miserables, and many, many more among these “revolutionary” shows. Reading a list like that, it’s easy to see that musicals that share this theme tend to be some of the stories that resonate most deeply with audiences and endure throughout the years.

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The irony of this is that musical theater is historically one of the most restrictive storytelling mediums. The same shows that preach about the poor standing up to the rich are being told exclusively to the people who can afford expensive tickets and who can pay for travel costs to New York City.  This irony was especially clear when Hamilton boomed in popularity in 2016.  A musical about a “young, scrappy, and hungry” immigrant standing up to existing power structures was viewable only by those who could afford tickets priced in the hundreds or even thousands of dollars.  The only chance someone without money might have had to see the show in its heyday was the “Ham4Ham” lottery, which offered $10 tickets for a single row of seats. The chance of winning this was low and did not account for travel costs.

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There is an ongoing debate in the theater community over how to make shows more accessible, and whether or not they should be made more accessible at all. Though many musical theater fans never get the opportunity to see their favorite show live, people sometimes argue that viewing a show without seeing it firsthand in a live theater cheapens the experience. One cannot fully enjoy a show while watching a recording of it, so the argument goes.

I don’t think anyone who has seen a live show would argue that there is something very special about such an experience.  I still remember the time I saw the musical Heathers live and it gave me a deep and emotional understanding of the story that I don’t know that I would have gotten otherwise.  However, it is far from the only way to view a musical. When I fell in love with my favorite musicals, it was before ever stepping foot in a theater. I subsisted off of soundtracks and what little video footage of a show existed on YouTube. This did not stop me from sobbing when I first listened to the finale of Hadestown. I watched an independent version of In The Heights on YouTube and the song “Breathe” still got me through the stress of high school. I am grateful I had these experiences, and I would much rather have those than protect the sanctity of live musical theater.

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The main suggestion for increasing accessibility to musical theater is to professionally film shows and make the recordings available to the public.  It may be free to watch on YouTube, available to buy or rent, or accessible through a streaming service. Any of these options would be an improvement to the current state of affairs, in which one must be able to purchase an expensive ticket for a live show within a limited period of time.

It is possible that making these shows more accessible to non-live audiences would decrease live ticket sales. However, many musical theater fans disagree. These fans argue that they would absolutely take the opportunity to watch their favorite show live even if a video of the show were available.  A recording of a show is not a direct substitute, and many fans are plenty willing to pay for the experience to see a show live even if they have seen it on video.

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Even if this were not the case, however, there is nothing stopping theaters from uploading recordings after a show has run its course.  At that point, restricting access to such profound stories does nothing except maintain the exclusivity of musical theater. Musicals have, for the most part, become a luxury few can fully experience, a fact which could drag the genre back into the past rather than update it for modern times.  As many shows take small steps toward updating traditional models for modern times and younger audiences, I can only hope that this leads to a more open and accessible business model.

Musical theater is a unique and powerful storytelling medium. Blending music, dance, and acting together to tell a story can leave a deep emotional impact that cannot be found through any of these elements alone. It is so important that such beautiful art not be restricted from the people who love and need it most. There is a cruel irony in the reality where only the wealthy can watch the revolutionaries of Les Miserables fight for the rights of the poor working class.

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I love musical theater.  I want to see a world where anyone can watch and be inspired by these shows as I have been.