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BWW Blog: Memes and Musicals

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When I found out Hamilton would be premiering on Disney+ this summer, my first thoughts were not of the significant impact that Hamilton has made on the theatre community in terms of diversity and unadulterated imagination, nor the countless children who will inevitably become inspired to pursue the craft professionally due to the financial accessibility of Disney's platform. Diversity and accessibility are both vitally important hallmarks of Disney's historic acquisition and have been thoroughly covered by people smarter and more educated than me. Instead, what I found most exciting about Hamilton coming to Disney+ were the boundless opportunities for the internet to make a characteristic mark on the interpretation and presentation of the musical. In other words, I was pumped for the memes.

There has long been a debate on whether or not current U.S. copyright laws properly benefit artists. Are they designed to protect artists from potential infringement or bar new art from developing? Any anti-copyright law disciple would tell you that art has the ability to inspire new art, and limiting that inspiration is neither productive nor fair. The collective consciousness of human experience makes up the pond from which artists fish for their stories. Sometimes, two artists are bound to catch the same fish by accident and the smaller artist should not be punished. Conversely, the internet has made the robbery of intellectual property easier than ever, and without strict laws, many smaller artists would not have the resources to successfully monetize their creations.

I tend to fall in the middle of this debate, leaning towards the pro-copyright side. My perspective has long been that the occasional bonkers court cases and bad faith YouTube strikes are small prices to pay for social structure that values inventions of artists. A world without copyright protections would be one where those with the means of production have all the power, and the artist has none. Words are easy to replicate, and songs can be transposed with ease from a recording. The only leverage artists have over those with the means of production are a set of laws that say that they own the art they create. No one can distribute, sell, or advertise intellectual property without written consent from the artist. This is the reality I want to live in, and I do not believe that the rights of the thief should ever outweigh the rights of the creator. That being said, I do not think an occasional bend or break of the rules ever hurt anyone, especially when it is for the meme.

My first run in with the musical theatre YouTube poop (YTP) genre was in high school, when I was in a summer stock production of Into the Woods. One of the cast members found what has become one of my all-time favorite videos on YouTube. "{YTP} ~ Woods" by prolific meme lord DaThings, is a 2011 edit of the 1991 "American Playhouse" production, starring a majority of the original cast. The 10-minute spoof re-contextualizes and alters many of the lines and performances to create a series of amusing jokes that play both on the absurdity of the edit and the premise of live musical theatre.

A YouTube poop is essentially a fan-edit of existing material to create new and imaginative comedy. They are particularly resonant when they are edits of art that is extremely popular, or easy to quote. When the audience watches a YTP of a piece of art they are familiar with, there is a dissonance between what they are watching and what their brains are expecting. This makes the genre of YouTube poop highly referential and as a result, extremely prone to copyright strikes. The genre has heavily diminished in the last few years, mainly due to this reason. It is not fiscally viable to sink dozens of hours into a video that will be immediately demonetized. Regardless, there are still some spoof videos that manage to push through the barriers, and music theatre spoofs always have a place in the remaining slots.

More than any other type of YouTube spoof, video edits of musicals tend to hit home in a uniquely personal way for theatre people. This is due to the role musicals play in people's lives. Theatre people don't just consume theatre. They replicate it. My cast of Into the Woods in high school did not just laugh at the jokes in "{YTP} ~ Woods" because we were familiar with the show, but also because we felt personal ownership over it. Once you have helped produce an existing production, you will naturally feel like you made a mark in the life of that work and will treasure any of its references or successes. DaThings went on to create YTP's for Legally Blonde and Les Misérables as well as inspire a whole slew of other creative theatre kids that cannot wait to get their hands on whatever content they can from their favorite musicals.

Musical memes build community. For those memes to be created and shared, the community needs access to that material and a production team willing to let a few wholesome copyright infringements slide. This morning alone, I stumbled upon a YouTuber named Ricky Downes III who recently uploaded the entire first act of Hamilton, as sung by Muppets. The video was delightful, and I could barely keep myself together while listening to the entire thing. I do not want these imaginative and hilarious videos to end. I hope Disney is willing to turn a blind eye to any illegal spoofs made of Hamilton. Maybe one day when Hamilton goes up for licensing, those videos will give future theatre kids a laugh they will never forget.

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From This Author Student Blogger: Troy Freeman