In true Bridgerton style, composers Emily Bear and Abigail Barlow were having a beautiful high tea in London last month, channeling the posh vibes of the hit regent-era Netflix series, when they found out their viral creation,The Unofficial Bridgerton Musical, had been nominated for a Grammy for best musical theater album.
“We were in such shock, truly,” Barlow said of her reaction to the news that at 23 and 20, respectively, the duo officially known as Barlow & Bear, would be the youngest-ever composers to be recognized in the category.
The Unofficial Bridgerton Musical is unique in more ways than one. It’s the only piece nominated this year in the Musical Theater Album category by women and it’s the first project nominated in the category that grew from a TikTok collaboration.
The nomination gives an “unconventional” social media–driven musical project a sense of legitimacy, Bear said.
“For something that started literally out of frustration because we weren’t getting work, to be recognized … that’s very full circle,” she said.
Around the time the pandemic hit, the pair were developing music projects but struggled to find a concept that stuck.
“We come from the scoring world, so you constantly have to pitch for gigs,” Bear said. “Me and Abigail would pitch to be songwriters and there were 10 pitches and demos we spent so long on, and it was ‘no’ after ‘no.’ … I’m so grateful for all those ‘nos’ because I think it prepared us in so many ways for when this actually took off.”
At that time, the pandemic posed a major setback for many creatives like Barlow and Bear; Broadway took a massive hit when stage productions shuttered as mass gatherings of singing crowds turned into a disease-spreading taboo. And now cancellations caused by rampant positive cases of the Omicron variant continue to risk the loss of thousands of dollars for shows during the highly attended holiday season.
During lockdown, Barlow watched Bridgerton. She was already looking for material to make into a musical and said she knew the story of young Daphne Bridgerton finding her love match was the perfect Broadway recipe.
“There were so many quotable lines that sounded like song titles to me. … When the emotions are high enough to start singing, you gotta sing!” Barlow said.
The plot of the show produced by Shonda Rhimes involves Daphne’s raunchy and challenging romance with Simon Basset, the Duke of Hastings, in a society held captive by the secrets spread by the enigmatic Gossip girl–kin Lady Whistledown.
The series captures the essence of a perfect musical: high-stakes emotion, drama, and romance, Bear said.
"Ok, but what if Bridgerton was a musical?" Barlow asked in the duo’s first TikTok just a few weeks after the show debuted. The video features Barlow in a pink hoodie with her signature magenta hair singing the pair’s first Bridgerton-inspired song, “Ocean Away,” which would eventually spawn into the pair composing and recording a 15-track concept album within six weeks of starting the project.
That first song now has nearly 2 million streams on Spotify. The album hit number one on iTunes U.S. pop albums within two hours of its release in September and top 10 worldwide.
“Ocean Away” was the first TikTok hit: Bridgerton-obsessed TikTokers holed up at home during lockdown heard the track and immediately wanted more. So the pair got to work developing a “sonic world” to embody the series, Bear said, filled with distinct musical sounds imbued with the essence of the beloved characters.
Barlow had broadcast her pop-writing process on social media for years, so when it came to her Bridgerton creation with Bear, it just made sense for the pair to livestream their sessions for their enraptured TikTok audience.
Bear said it took her a moment to realize why people were tuning in for hours to watch them.
“This was a show that took over the world,” she said. “Everyone had seen it and felt like they had a hand in writing with us. … It was almost like we were workshopping instantly, hearing in real time very strong opinions if they liked something or if they didn't.”
Attention for the project grew, with thousands of viewers tuning in to watch Barlow sing while Bear’s fingers seemingly flew across the keyboard or programmed orchestral sounds, developing a musical before the internet’s very eyes.
“I am literally obsessed with Bridgerton the musical,” @kaishacreates said. “How often do we see women in the positions of being the composer, the lyricist?”
“If you haven’t heard of Barlow & Bear and the Bridgerton musical you are living under a rock!” said @mcguiggs in another reaction post featuring herself singing the track “Burn for You” — one of the first Barlow and Bear released — to her small dog.
“Is my obsession for Bridgerton the musical healthy? Or do I need to see a therapist?” asked @zozoroe in a TikTok video in which she lip-synched “Burn for You” from the driver’s seat of her car.
The social media platform broke down barriers that typically shield audience members to the creative process behind Broadway.
“When you’re a musician and a creative, we do this every day,” Bear said. “Not many people really know what it means to write a song, or start a project from scratch like this. A lot of artists are very hesitant to put that process out there because it can be very vulnerable. … We just pulled back the curtain on a very gate-kept art form.”
TikTok’s “duet” feature gives fans the opportunity to sing alongside Barlow and Bear. Users including Olympic gymnast Laurie Hernandez have posted videos of themselves performing the songs in split screens with the creators or other TikTokers, sometimes even donning costumes. Others shared original choreography to the songs or added their own acting interpretation to the music.
Netflix said in a Tweet it was “blown away” by fans’ creativity in response to the show, but the streaming service has yet to give its blessing to produce an official musical. Netflix did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The fans actively contributed to the project and made their feelings known, the creators said, acting as historical fact-checkers, vouching for any inconsistencies with the show’s plot, and calling out Barlow’s faux British accents without hesitation.
Even the pair’s favorite lyric, “colored in green / gilded in gold,” from the track “Alone Together” came from TikTokers.
“We were struggling to find what the line was right before the chorus,” Barlow said. “Someone said the word ‘gilded’ and we were both like, ‘That’s it!’”
Bridgerton is not the first-ever TikTok musical created. Ratatouille: The TikTok Musical started as a TikTok homage to Remy, the Parisian rat-turned-chef from the Disney Pixar film of the same name. The Remy TikTok became a sensation and captured the attention of Broadway producers and actors, who eventually staged a one-time benefit performance of the show in January 2021 that raised over $2 million for the Actors Fund. The original TikTok creators were also compensated and credited for their creation of the show.
“There’s a whole new generation of musical theater that’s stepping into the light right [now] and exploring so many incredible topics that have never been explored in this medium,” Bear said, adding she hopes for a “golden age” of musical theater to come.
Despite its antiquated costumes and marriage customs, the world of Bridgerton tackles a number of contemporary themes involving race, gender, sexuality, and class. These motifs are “parts of the puzzle” that make the album so salient to audiences, Bear said.
The song “If I Were a Man” tackles femininity and ego; “Balancing the Scales” is about the struggle to navigate motherhood. But Barlow said the pair chose to focus on the lighter, more fantastical elements of the story because they were “escaping the world” at the time they wrote the project during lockdown.
“Entertain Me,” about the extravagant regent of society, Queen Charlotte, who is believed to be Britain’s first biracial royal, was the toughest track for them to write.
“She’s a raging bitch in the first six episodes and then you dive deeper and realize there’s a lot of trauma that she’s dealing with, that she’s trying to hide from, and that results in overcompensating,” Bear said.
When they focused on “showing” rather than “telling” Charlotte’s experience, Bear said the song came alive.
If a Bridgerton stage show ever gets made, the duo would love to cast the singers and writers who first contributed via TikTok.
“We have always talked about how paying it forward is very important,” Barlow said. “If you have a desire to do something, you can go chase it and get it.”
The power duo met in 2019 through a mutual friend and had a very average first hangout watching reality television and talking about boys. Their connection developed into a working relationship on music projects, blending Bear’s technical composition knowledge with Barlow’s grasp of chart-topping lyrics.
“When we get in a room together, it’s like chaos,” Barlow said, adding that the pair’s unique collaboration is like finishing each other’s sentences through music. “There’s no ego.”
“We see music in completely different ways,” Bear said. “When I get excited about an idea, my brain goes into overdrive and I physically cannot get a single word out and [Barlow] always knows what I’m talking about.”
The album has a “cinematic instinct” in its storytelling and orchestration while including drums and “synth-y sound effects” that blend modern and traditional musical worlds, Bear said, adding that the technical chord structures are inspired by pop music.
“I don’t have much technical musical experience,” Barlow said. “Mine is from listening to top 40 hits and pitching and choosing things that I love about them. … Emily has a very structured, very educated background in music theory and composing for scores. … She knows how it sounds and what makes a sound and I’ve picked that up lyric-wise.”
Barlow and Bear insisted their popularity and the Grammy nod were not a result of paid-for advertising or an agency.
“That’s far from the truth,” said Barlow, who made her living from pop music she sold prior to making the Bridgerton album. “We paid for this out of pocket.”
“Music money comes in weird times,” said Bear, who scored a Google commercial while writing the Bridgerton album. She also completed a project for Disney and performed a concert for a small audience. But the album is a passion project that isn’t about getting paid, she said.
“We wanted to show all the young people that followed us that you can take an idea you start on TikTok and you can finish it,” Bear said. “Doors are opening everywhere just by the fact that you can reach millions of people on TikTok.”
Being recognized by the Recording Academy — which has struggled to evolve and respond to an exodus of artists of color — poses a “complicated, loaded” reality, Bear said.
The academy’s voting process, she added, has improved by being more peer-motivated, eliminating “secret committees” this year (BuzzFeed News has reached out to the academy for further comment).
“But in a case like [ours], I feel like this was not supposed to happen and it did and that should mean something,” Bear said.
Barlow added that fewer than 2% of composers are women: “This nomination gives us a chance to say to women, ‘If this is a passion of yours, do it … and don’t let anyone tell you can’t win an award for it.’”
The pair is currently busy developing two movie musicals — one with Margot Robbie and LuckyChap Entertainment and another with producer Marc Platt.
To the question of how they would feel about staging an actual production of their concept musical, Bear said: “We would die.”
“A girl can dream, you know?” Barlow added.