BEYOND THE LOCAL: Is the future of musical theater online?

‘The Unofficial Bridgerton Musical’ on TikTok has become a Grammy-winning sensation

This article from Sarah Bay Cheng, York University, Canada originally appeared on Conversation and is published here with permission.

Is musical theater an event, a sound — or something else?

This year, the 2022 Grammy Award for Best Musical Theater Album went to a show that originated as a resounding success on TikTok: Bridgerton’s Unofficial Musical in duet Abigail Barlow and Emily Bear.

Bear, a 20-year-old pianist, composer and former child prodigy produced the album. Both she and Barlow have composed music and written lyrics. Barlow, a singer who has already established herself with a huge TikTok fanbase, sings almost every part of every song.

What does all of this mean for the future of musical theatre?

Inspired by the Netflix series

Inspired by the hit Netflix series Bridgertondirected by Shonda Rhimes, Bridgerton: The Unofficial Musical won the Grammy on productions created by such established figures as composer and producer Andrew Lloyd Webber, among others.

Musical theater albums generally circulate as official recordings of the cast of staged musical theater performances, including full orchestrations. In this case, Barlow and Bear started their collaboration on Zoom and played all the roles together.

Their collaboration did not stop there. During creation Bridgerton’s Unofficial MusicalBarlow and Bear performed in front of other fans of the show via TikTok: they rehearsed their songs, interacted with other performers and contributed to the thriving creative fan culture the video platform has become known for.

In this direction, Bridgerton’s Unofficial Musical was an unusual musical theatrical adaptation without drama. They didn’t even need a live show.

Long before the Grammy win, the album debuted in Spotify’s top 10 and over 10 million streams in its first two weeks. Their songs continue to be remixed into collaborative videos with over 329 million views.

Not the first TikTok musical

Bridgerton’s Unofficial Musical wasn’t the first musical adaptation to emerge on TikTok. In 2020, during pandemic shutdowns, an online Disney movie fan base Ratatouille started creating, sharing and developing Ratatouille tribute songs – such as an ode to Remy the Rat by one user receiving orchestral (digital) treatment by another user – until it turned into a Ratatouille TikTok music community.

Eventually, executives from theater and digital media production company Fake Friends, Michael Breslin and Patrick Foley, adapted the collective project for online performance.

The performance featured actors André De Shields and Tituss Burgess in its online cast with music from multiple TikTok creators.

Courtesy of Disney, Ratatouille the TikTok musical aired for two performances in January 2021, raising over US$2 million for the Actors Fund.

Not bad for a show that started as a 15-second song and only appeared online.

As Zachary Pincus-Roth, Features Editor for the Washington Post enthusiastic, “The most exciting theater is now a figment of our imagination.”

Cross-platform appeal

This imaginative approach to creating digital musical theatre, as seen in the Bridgerton adaptation, seems likely to continue. Reaction to the Grammy win was mixed among theater artists and critics, but most agreed that an award-winning musical circulating exclusively online was a significant shift in the way theater is made.

Although the Grammy win was historic, the musical theater has still circulated through the networks of media, popular culture and fandom.

Long before social media allowed users to create and share music online, audiences played songs from theater productions at home. American composer George M. Cohan’s 1906 song, “You’re a Grand Old Flag”, became the first musical song to sell over a million copies of sheet music.

Marlis Schweitzer, a professor of theater and performance studies, has written extensively about how performances have been used as promotional sites for other media, including fashion. In his book, When Broadway was the trackshe notes that the original cast album of South Pacific (1949) by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II topped the popular music charts for 69 weeks. As she and other theater historians demonstrate, elements of musical theater often circulated in commercial culture.

For example, as musical theater scholar Stacy Wolf points out, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s song “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Out of My Hair” was used for an advertisement for a hair product.

Musical theater communities

If the musical theater of yesteryear was an event, today it is more like a community. Musical comedy Lease introduced the pre-show ticket lottery in the 1990s, allowing wider audiences to enter the theatre.

Musical comedy hamilton amplified access to tickets and online media buzz by creating a hashtag contest, #Ham4Ham. Fans using the hashtag had a chance to win front row seats.

But today it is not enough to have a seat. New audiences want to be part of the process and academics are paying attention.

Farewell Guardians?

Throughout the creation of Unofficial Bridgerton, confined Broadway performers joined in the collective development. They shared ideas and performed songs with Barlow and Bear.

In an interview with NPR, Barlow noted that theater is a guarded art form, and at $200 a ticket, not many people can go. In comparison, online adaptations create more access and more interest.

As audiences slowly return to in-person performances, producers need to nurture their audiences as creative communities. In the music industry, new tools enable new types of independent creation and collaboration that improve access and equity between artists and audiences.

Musical theater is a popular art form that has often connected people through media networks, be it radio, fashion, record albums, film or television. Today, in the age of social media platforms, new audiences also want to participate.

Dynamic and continuous collaborations

I first heard about the Barlow and Bear album from a former student of mine who works in the writers room for Bridgerton. It’s no coincidence that Rhimes’ performance was a source of inspiration for the new creation of musical theatre.

Rhimes’ television projects consistently challenge dominant cultural narratives, ensuring that what people see on screen reflects the realities of contemporary life in terms of racial, sexual and gender diversity. She calls it “making television look like the world”. In response to his work, creative fan cultures are emerging with media platforms facilitating dynamic, diverse and ongoing collaborations.

This attention to diversity of representation and the recognition of Grammy Awards for new modes of production is changing musical theater for the better. Rather than a singular place or sound, theater of all kinds today is a dynamic experience created through multiple networks, communities and identities. We should recognize and celebrate these talents, whether online, on stage, or everywhere simultaneously. The Grammys have already done it.

Sarah Bay ChengDean of the School of Arts, Media, Performance and Design and Professor of Theater and Performance Studies, York University, Canada

This article is republished from The conversation under Creative Commons license. Read it original article.