Is musical theatre an event, a sound — or something else?
Bear, a 20-year old pianist, composer and former child prodigy produced the album. She and Barlow both composed music and wrote lyrics. Barlow, a singer who previously established herself with a massive TikTok fan base, sings almost all the parts of all the songs.
What does all this mean for the future of musical theatre?
Inspired by Netflix series
Inspired by hit Netflix series Bridgerton, produced by Shonda Rhimes, Bridgerton: The Unofficial Musical won the Grammy over productions created by established figures such as composer and producer Andrew Lloyd Webber, among others.
Musical theatre albums typically circulate as the official cast recordings of staged musical theatre performances including full orchestrations. In this case, Barlow and Bear began their collaboration over Zoom and together performed all of the roles.
Their collaboration didn’t end there. Over the course of creating The Unofficial Bridgerton Musical, Barlow and Bear played to other fans of the show via TikTok: They rehearsed their songs, interacted with fellow performers and contributed to the thriving creative fan culture for which the video platform has become known.
In this sense, The Unofficial Bridgerton Musical was an unusual musical theatre adaptation without theatre. They didn’t even need a live performance.
Well before the Grammy win, the album earned a top 10 Spotify debut and over 10 million streams in its first two weeks. Their songs continue to be remixed into collaborative videos with more than 329 million views.
Not the first TikTok musical
The Unofficial Bridgerton Musical was not the first musical adaptation to emerge on TikTok. In 2020, during pandemic shutdowns, an online fan base of the Disney film Ratatouille began creating, sharing and developing Ratatouille tribute songs — like an ode to Remy the rat by one user given a (digital) orchestral treatment by another user — until this swelled into a Ratatouille musical TikTok community.
Eventually, leaders of the theatre and digital media production company Fake Friends, Michael Breslin and Patrick Foley, adapted the collective project for an online performance.
Not bad for a show that began as a 15-second song and only ever appeared online.
As Zachary Pincus-Roth, features editor for the Washington Post enthused, “The most exciting theater is now a figment of our imagination.”
This imaginative approach to digital musical theatre creation as seen in the Bridgerton adaptation, seems likely to continue. The reaction to the Grammy win was mixed among theatrical performers and critics, but most agreed that an award-winning musical circulating exclusively online was a significant change in how theatre is created.
Although the Grammy win was historic, musical theatre has always circulated through networks of media, popular culture and fandom.
Long before social media allowed users to create and share music online, audiences performed songs from theatrical 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 theatre and performance studies, has written extensively on the ways performances have been used as promotional sites for other media, including fashion. In her book, When Broadway Was the Runway, she 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 theatre historians demonstrate, elements of musical theatre often circulated through commercial culture.
Musical theatre communities
If musical theatre of the past was an event, today it is more akin to a community. The musical Rent introduced the pre-show ticket lottery in the 1990s, allowing a wider audience entry into the theatre.
The musical Hamilton amplified access to tickets and online media buzz by creating a hashtag contest, #Ham4Ham. Fans using the hashtag had the chance to win front-row seats.
But today but just getting a seat is not enough. New audiences want to be part of the process, and scholars are paying attention.
Throughout the creation of Unofficial Bridgerton, locked-down 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 theatre is a gate-kept artform 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 should attend to their audiences as creative communities. Across the music industry, new tools are enabling new kinds of independent creation and collaboration that enhance access and equity among both artists and audiences.
Musical theatre is a popular art form that has often connected people through media networks, whether radio, fashion, record albums, films or television. Today, in an era of social media platforms, new audiences also want to participate.
Dynamic, ongoing collaborations
I first heard about Barlow and Bear’s album from a former student of mine who works in the writers’ room for Bridgerton. It’s not a coincidence that Rhimes’s show was source material to inspire new musical theatre creation.
Rhimes’s television projects consistently challenge dominant cultural narratives, ensuring that what people see on the screen reflects the realities of contemporary life in terms of racialized, sexual and gendered diversity. She calls it “making TV look like the world looks.” In response to her work, creative fan cultures emerge with media platforms facilitating dynamic, diverse and ongoing collaborations.
This attention to the diversity of representation and Grammy recognition for new modes of production are changing musical theatre for the better. Rather than a singular location or sound, theatre of all kinds today is a dynamic experience created across multiple networks, communities and identities. We should recognize and celebrate these talents, whether online, on stage or everywhere simultaneously. The Grammy Awards already have.
Sarah Bay-Cheng is Dean of the School of the Arts, Media, Performance & Design and a Professor of Theatre and Performance Studies at York University.