The Future of Musical Theatre is on TikTok

Three Keys to Success for Artists and Producers

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TikToks from #RatatouilleTheMusical

The story of from simple TikTok video to viral sensation to actual Broadway caliber concert has been well documented at this point. Just ask the New York Times, The Ringer, Teen Vogue, and more. On January 1, 2021, the concert took Twitter by storm, trending #3 nationally and capturing an audience of over 200,000 in a 72-hour period. Since then, it has had an encore presentation on TikTok, seen an additional 150,000 times, and has raised a total of $2 million for The Actors Fund.

Yes, it’s true, is the most 2020 thing that could possibly happen. A pandemic forced everyone inside which caused them to want to create just as a social media app which allows for such creation, TikTok, was gaining true momentum in the US. All the while theaters were dark across America causing an all-star cast and Broadway producers to be free to participate.

But if you think this was just a fun pop culture moment manifested by the pandemic, you’re massively undervaluing the collaborative power of TikTok and the Internet. What happened on TikTok over the last few months for is indicative of the energy bubbling over for the entire TikTok community over the last year.

“The Ratatouille Musical” is much more than the concert that happened on Jan 1st. The Ratatouille Musical is a disruptive cultural collaborative phenomenon powered by TikTok, and to ignore that and just focus on what this specific group of artists and producers did with that phenomenon is to miss 80% of the point. The real innovation, and what should be learned from, is how the TikTok community created so much energy that Disney noticed and even gave their permission for the concert to take place.

Theatre makers that understand and wield that power will be the icons of the next generation of theatre. was the first TikTok powered musical to go mainstream, but it will not be the last. In fact, in the last few weeks alone we’ve seen a burst of new musical concepts being forged through TikTok including led by Tori Romo and led by Abigail Barlow. These examples show that this is just the beginning of a boom of musical theatre content on the platform.

Below, I offer lessons that go beyond the standard “how to make good content on TikTok.” They instead focus on preparing for how Gen Z, the next generation of ticket buyers, will expect to interact with your project. In the next two years, the show that embraces the TikTok audience and opportunity best will dominate the social landscape and be the next or .

So what do you need to do?

1 — Embrace the Theatre Kid

To start — we need to get to the root of why and these other musical trends find success on TikTok: Theatre People and content are primed for TikTok success. While Instagram has become home to picture perfect beauty queens, on TikTok, Theatre Kids reign supreme. It’s a platform where being weird, creative, and performative is . Instead of being relegated to poorly lit choir rooms and late nights at Denny’s, this perfect storm allows Theatre Kids to share their unabashed love for song and dance with the world. Additionally, more than any other artform, theatre loves collaboration, which is exactly what TikTok fosters through its community and features. Core to TikTok is the Duet feature, which allows a creator to record their own video alongside any other creator’s video. For those familiar with Twitter, it’s like a quote tweet but provides more opportunity for creativity and more of feeling like you’re actually collaborating with that person, not just resharing their work.

There are countless ways creators build duets from singing along to adding their own part in between gaps left by the original creator, or make a dance. TikTok loves collaboration between it’s creators, so when you Duet, both the original video and the new one get pushed out in the algorithm so content that utilizes the feature tends to go viral (Sea Shanties anyone?). This encourages and empowers Theatre Kids of all stripes, from educators, to professionals, to high schoolers to share their voices. Artists or producers looking to build an audience around their idea need not be concerned about being relegated to the fringe of culture. Again, on TikTok, being creative is , and the more you embrace it, the more your audience will want to support you and your passion.

2 — Treat your Audience as a Collaborator not a Consumer

The phenomenon happened because like a good production team, the whole app understood the goal: make a musical together. And now that process is clear for the community for future projects to build off of.

As creators posted their videos, it was about more than the opportunity to go viral, it was the more human instinct to be a part of something, to build together, to uplift each other. The beauty in was not the creation of a streamlined book musical, but a constellation of ideas erupting from raw unfiltered creativity. While at first the tone and style of the show were all over the place, over time, like any good musical, the central ideas began to form. The community to see the distillation of the idea and be a part of that process. They rallied around certain creators’ posts implicitly deciding whether there would be puppets to represent the Rats or how realistic the costumes should be. This distillation even led to the community realizing the original “Ode to Remy” by Emily Jacobson and Daniel Mertzlufft (the song that started the whole trend) should be “cut” from any eventual production, as it no longer matched the maturity of the other newer songs.

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One of the costumes designed by @ardellyfoshelly

The magical thing about all this conversation between creators and others was the tone these interactions and comments would take. It was never conditional, “if it were a show…,” but rather resolute “it should be this…” That subtle nuance in linguistics showed how the community felt true ownership of the work. That sense of ownership is part of the special sauce other theatre makers should look to emulate in the future. This feeling comes from encouraging your audience to mash up your songs, make dances, and sing along.

Now, this can certainly lead to challenges when the project turns from “TikTok Musical” to produced event as the community may be disappointed with choices that were made for the final product.

In the case of , the producing team at Seaview, who led the concert, adopted the community, they were not a part of it, and needed to walk a careful line as they curated and designed the event. The concert was successful because of Seaview’s ability to create a streamlined version of the story and capture the spirit of the community regardless of their relationship to the community. However, in order to do this, they left out a lot of creators’ contributions. Finding this balance between “polished product” and raw energy of TikTok is very challenging and where you ultimately sit should depend on the project. For , the community’s dream was “to be on Broadway,” which allowed Seaview some leeway to bring in stars and move away from some of the TikTok creators without hearing too much flack.

This event wasn’t a memory of a show they saw, but a show they made.

Ultimately though, this particular team managed to keep their audience feeling like a collaborator. “Gen Z did this” was an often heard refrain in the comments on the official @ratatousicalmusical account. This event wasn’t a memory of a show they saw, but a show they made. The next team to cultivate this feeling of ownership in their audience, no matter how they do it, will have a hit on their hands.

3- Create access to your process and performance

The final step to embracing TikTok as the future of musical theatre is to create access to your process and performance.

For this takeaway, we steer away from and focus on inspired by the new hit Netflix series This trend first sprouted from singer-songwriter Abigail Barlow, who shared her first video introducing the idea of a musical just last week. Naturally, the video was a hit and in mere days she has already composed and produced multiple songs with her writing partner Emily Bear, been contacted by Netflix, and is receiving mainstream attention.

While many writers are getting involved with their own takes on what the show could be, unlike , this “musical” doesn’t feel like it’s being written by the community. Abigail’s songs are so viral and catchy that the community has fully embraced her as the singular leader, and the community is more interested in riffing on her specific songs and ideas while they continues to write.

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Abigail and Emily writing on TikTok Live

Her process is one that feels very reproducible by musical theatre artists that want to keep a sense of “authorship” over their work and find the model to be too open. Shee is facilitating her own vision, but instead of hiding away until it’s done, she’s allowing her audience in from the start. This makes us feel a part of the process and deeply invested in the product. One of her most dynamic strategies has been the use of TikTok Live. Throughout the week, she has gone live while writing, working out lyrics, tunes, and rhythms alongside her followers as they offer support and suggestions. Over 2,000 people routinely attend these pop-up creative sessions, exposing the process, educating the audience, and forging deeper connections with the material. We’ve gone from making theatrical memories out of “I remember seeing this show” to “I remember watching this show be written.”

To adapt this style of open process requires a release from the “preciousness” theatre makers have had with their work for decades. As a theatre maker, I know this is not a simple ask. And I know that relationship to the work comes from the very real desire for your work to be exposed to an audience at just the right time in its life cycle. TikTok demands for a reimagining of the pre-production period that is nearly completely hidden from the audience. Anyone who makes theatre knows it’s a long slog filled with massive rewrites — now we must share that with the audience and invite them to participate.

Now that you have these lessons, it’s time to move. There has been a clarion call to democratize Broadway, to stop the gatekeeping and uplift new voices. Those looking to actually take action should look to TikTok, who are showing not telling us how to change. This is not just a “moment” of attention on TikTok. This is the beginning of how our culture relates to the creative process and the theatrical world has the opportunity to be right in the center of this new culture. By heeding these lessons, theatre makers, with our spirit of collaboration, will lead the way.

Creative Director + Choreographer creating experiences across physical and virtual space. www.brandon-powers.com; @bpowtweets; TikTok: @Brandon_powers

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