When the lyricist-composer duo behind “The Unofficial Bridgerton Musical” stepped onstage Sunday to accept their Grammy for best musical theater album, the list of people they wanted to thank did not start with a record label or producer, but with their social media followers.
“We want to thank everyone on the internet who has watched us create this album from the ground up,” said Abigail Barlow, who sings for over a dozen different characters on the album. “We share this with you.”
Last year, Barlow had watched the first season of Netflix’s saucy period drama about the elite marriage market of Regency England, along with millions of others searching for escapist entertainment during the pandemic. A 22-year-old aspiring pop singer with a sizable TikTok following, she posted a song that she wrote with a simple but, she thought, promising premise: “What if ‘Bridgerton’ was a musical?”
As the spark of an idea started to build, she sought help from a collaborator, Emily Bear, a 19-year-old composer and musician who had been introduced to the world as a 6-year-old piano prodigy but was hoping to prove herself as more than just a former spectacle for daytime talk shows.
The pair started building what would ultimately amount to a 15-song album that includes an amorous duet between the show’s leading couple, a comedic solo for the show’s nonconformist tomboy and an opening number that they wrote with a lavishly dressed Broadway ensemble flitting around the stage in their heads.
Bear produced and orchestrated the album herself, using her computer and an electronic keyboard to create the sound of a full symphony orchestra.
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On Sunday, with about six years of musical-theater writing experience between the two of them, the Gen Z songwriting duo beat out a list of powerhouse Grammy nominees that included Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Cinderella”; Conor McPherson’s “Girl From the North Country,” built around Bob Dylan songs; and a Stephen Schwartz musical.
“It’s hard to comprehend fully — like, we did this from our bedrooms,” Barlow said in an interview on Monday.
“In my head, there was no way this was going to happen,” Bear added. “We just wanted to put out the album for the people that followed the whole process of it.”
And there were a lot of those people, weighing in from every corner of the theater-loving internet. Barlow and Bear would livestream their songwriting sessions from Los Angeles, inviting fans to weigh in. Followers shared ideas for staging and choreography, Playbill designs, viral videos of them singing half of a duet and even a pitch to be the show’s intimacy coordinator.
The TikTok videos gained approval from Julia Quinn, the author of the “Bridgerton” books that inspired the TV series; the cast members of the show; and Netflix, which gave Barlow and Bear’s lawyers the green light for them to make their songs into an album, the duo said.
The original videos remain on TikTok, and the independently produced album is on Spotify, Apple Music and other streaming services, but the musical has yet to actually be staged. (This is far from the norm for the musical theater album category, which has typically gone to big-name Broadway musicals such as “Hamilton,” “Jersey Boys” and “The Lion King.”)
Speaking on a video call from their hotel rooms in Las Vegas, where the Grammys were held, Barlow, now 23, and Bear, 20, discussed their album’s unanticipated success, their practice of collaborating creatively with fans and where their careers are headed (starting with a Broadway-bound musical that they can’t yet discuss). Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Abigail, what was it about “Bridgerton” that made you want to turn it into a musical?
BARLOW The opening scene is so theatrical. I could just see each part of the stage lighting up in my brain. And then I kept writing down lines of dialogue that sounded like song titles. The phrase “ocean away” was the first one that made me run to my piano.
Where were you each at before this came into your lives?
BARLOW We were both really depressed. It is hard to break into the music industry, and I was ready to give up. I was applying for record-label receptionist jobs and crying to my parents because they had been helping to support me in Los Angeles and they were like, “You need to get a real job. We can’t help you anymore.” It was a really hard decision to try to chase after it just one more time.
BEAR We were like, “Did we pick the wrong career?” I feel like we were putting out great music but no one was listening to us, no one was taking us seriously.
Then, all of a sudden, you’re creating a musical that’s getting a ton of public engagement and videos that are getting millions of likes on TikTok. That’s one form of approval, but how does it feel getting this form of institutional approval from the Grammys?
BEAR The powerful executives follow what the people want. Of course it feels good when someone who brushed you off for the same exact music you were writing two years ago now wants to buy it. But it’s more than that. We want to make way for all of the other incredible female — and not even just female — composers who love their craft.
Some artists might bristle at your strategy of inviting in fan feedback as you create the work, leaving it open to significant influence from the audience in the middle of the creative process.
BARLOW I’ve been livestreaming while singing and songwriting for an audience since I was a teenager. It’s like a muscle; the more you do it, the better you get at it. Emily has classic training and is incredibly educated in her craft. I am not, so it was just sort of my process to gain an audience’s perspective on what they thought and how I could improve.
BEAR If you think about it, it was like we were workshopping instantly. We were getting live feedback in real time for people that would be coming to the show or buying the album.
Do you think you’ll continue that way of doing things now that you have this institutional approval?
BARLOW We’d love to, but we have some exciting projects after “Bridgerton” gave us a foot in the door and we still have to keep it hush-hush.
BEAR Which is totally against our M.O., and it’s a little frustrating because, as we’re writing this music, we want to share it with everyone. What’s better P.R. for a project than getting people on board early? By the time it comes out, they know the music, they feel invested, they were there when it happened.
And you did “Bridgerton” without a record label?
BARLOW In the beginning when it first started to blow up we had a few conversations with labels, but none of it felt right. We knew that we wanted to capitalize on the moment, and we knew that the faster we released it the better.
BEAR We would have gotten an orchestra and a cast, and that would have taken a lot of time and a lot of money. And why sign a label deal and not own all of our masters and publishing? We were like, eh, let’s just put it out ourselves. And I remember the night the album came out and we just saw it climbing the charts. We had fans who were constantly bugging us to release the album, so we knew we would have listeners, but I didn’t quite expect that much.
How likely is it that the musical gets staged?
BEAR It’s a bit out of our court because we don’t own the I.P. We feel like it would fit perfectly onstage. We see it so clearly. Netflix, you know where to find us.