The TikTok musical: From 2020 living rooms to the 2022 Grammy’s

Following Barlow & Bear’s Grammy win for Best Musical Theater Album, we look back at the rise of the humble TikTok musical.

The TikTok musical: From 2020 living rooms to the 2022 Grammy’s

TikTok has over a billion active users, and it is the social media platform for users to let their imaginations run wild – from recreating iconic TV moments to educational activist content. Since lockdown in 2020 we’ve all been itching to make use of our time indoors, but it turns out that in the process we have all witnessed the birth of the TikTok musical (yes, a musical made solely on TikTok). Crafted from our boredom and fuelled by virtual collaboration, these musicals are now getting Grammys. 

Emily Bear and Abigail Barlow, a duo who go under the name Barlow & Bear, have won the Grammy for Best Musical Theater Album at the Grammy’s 2022 for their creation ‘The Unofficial Bridgerton Musical’ – the official peak of TikTok musicals. TikTok burned for their work, as did the judging bodies at the Grammys.

The album started on TikTok in 2020 and marks the first Grammy win for an album that has its origins in TikTok. The duo shockingly beat out Andrew Lloyd Webber’s ‘Cinderella’ and the cast recording of Les Miserables. In the past, winners have included Lin Manuel Miranda’s ‘Hamilton’, the legendary Stephen Sondheim, and iconic musical duos like Rodgers & Hammerstein. Now, they move aside to let the next generation of musical theatre producers, composers and lyricists through – and naturally, the next generation of creators are being discovered on TikTok. 

Fans have started using the social media app to give their favourite films and TV shows a musical makeover, with Ratatouille: The TikTok Musical and The Unofficial Bridgerton Musical being the first fan-made productions to grace our phone screens. 

TikTok is now a collaborative space, where users can duet and stitch content together from other users – creating an endless loop of content, like a patchwork blanket, and everyone’s sewing their initials onto it to say they were there too. Speaking to Variety, Emily Bear adds that: “the fact that we can reach so many people and talk back and forth with them and discuss ideas and thoughts, it’s like we’re workshopping it instantly. And we’re reaching people that we’d never be able to reach on any other platform”. 

The best example of this is Ratatouille: The Musical, which started in August 2020 when Emily Jacobsen recorded an ode to the rat chef character Remy. Following that, the song went viral after Brittany Broski, a user with millions of followers, reused the music. Utilising TikTok’s collaborative interface, TikTok user Daniel Mertzlufft (who previously was popular for his TikTok grocery store musical) arranged the song. Then TikTok users from everywhere were adding their pieces in, repurposing contributions and developing ideas further from full-blown orchestras, choreography and even a playbill that was designed by artist Jess Siswick.

Ratatouille: The Musical was then professionally developed by SeaView productions as a virtual musical, produced by Greg Nobile and directed by Lucy Moss (the co-writer and co-director of internationally acclaimed Six the Musical). It was subsequently streamed online as a ticketed charity performance and demonstrated that TikTok musicals could be profitable, making $2,000,000 for The Actors Fund on New Year’s Day 2021. It also won a Webby. The TikTok musical phenomenon was led by a star-studded cast with The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’s Tituss Burgess as Remy, Ashley Park (former original cast of Broadway’s Mean Girls musical, and Emily in Paris actor) as Colette Tatou, Hadestown’s André De Shields as Anton Ego, Adam Lambert as Emile, and Kevin Chamberlin as Auguste Gusteau. 

Other TikTok musicals have been inspired by folktales and myths, for example, Harvard student Julia Riew went viral after pitching a Korean Disney musical using a filter that pulls from Disney’s signature 3D animation for their recent films. Riew’s musical draws on the Korean folktale “The Blind Man’s Daughter,” a story about a young woman who tries to restore her blind father’s sight. Like most TikTok musicals, Riew’s journey has humble origins and it all began when Riew posted an enchanting song called ‘Dive’ – a song with all the appeal of a Disney soundtrack, upbeat and packed with hopeful subtext. 

For Barlow & Bear, their experience of making a TikTok musical was a little bit different. Their source material was the Regency-era-inspired Bridgerton which was released on 25 December 2020, and the entire world was wrapped up in a flurry of flowery romance and treacherous scandal. The hit Netflix series follows eight close-knit siblings of the all-powerful Bridgerton family and their respective attempts to find their love matches. In January 2021, Abigail Barlow released a clip of a song called ‘Burn For You’, a duet straight from the show's script featuring a tense moment between characters Daphne Bridgerton and the Duke of Hastings where they confess their love for each other. The piano prodigy, Emily Bear, sent back the song fully composed – and thus, the dream pair began working on the next song, and the next.

Over 18 months, the two put the album together and broadcasted their progress on TikTok through further short clips and live sessions – songs including Eloise Bridgerton’s feminist anthem ‘If I Were A Man’ and extravagant finale song ‘Ocean Away’. The pair have even duetted Darren Criss, and performed at the Kennedy Center’s 50th anniversary. Their work has been praised by the author of the Bridgerton Series, Julia Quinn, and cast members from the show have given their seal of approval. So, could Broadway be the next step?’. 

This question was echoed by the creators in a 2021 Variety interview. “The dream, of course, would be Broadway. Wouldn’t that be nice, if the world opened back up and we could put on ‘Bridgerton: The Musical?”, Emily Bear said. As the youngest winners of the Grammys Best Musical Theatre album, they’ve redefined how musicals can be made and shared. In the background of lockdown shutting down all theatres, the TikTok musical demonstrates that creation and celebration of the craft can be done online from the comfort of one’s own home – and frankly, the TikTok musical is an incredibly accessible new vehicle for theatre. 

As of writing, there are no official plans for their musical to make the move from concept album to a stage production. However, with their momentous Grammy win, surely that Broadway dream is just within their reach and not oceans away. 

Header Image Credit: Shayna Douglas/Unsplash

Author

Flo Cornall

Flo Cornall Kickstart

Flo Cornall is an English Language & Linguistics graduate who is a self-acclaimed film enthusiast, critic, and writer. She attributes her film taste with her star sign (Gemini) which means she'll watch anything from Cheetah Girls 2 to Twelve Angry Men. From her background in performance poetry, she is a big believer that great artists aren't born but made and is passionate about making the arts sector more inclusive. Flo is a recipient of PA Media's Future of Journalism Fellowship award, a former BBC New Creative and is part of The Guardian's BAME All-Editorial scheme.

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