Accessibility in the musical theater world has been a hotly debated topic. Tickets for Broadway shows cost exorbitant amounts of money (for the good seats, that is), and those who can’t afford them miss out, to say nothing of fans who don’t live anywhere near New York City.
Meanwhile, social media has been revolutionizing the way theater is consumed in more ways than one. During the height of the pandemic in 2020, theater fanatics banded together to create Ratatouille: The TikTok Musical. Daniel Mertzlufft shared a video of how he saw a stage production of the musical taking place, using TikToker Emily Jacobsen’s “Ode to Remy” as the soundtrack.
The idea went viral, with TikTokers sharing different ideas for the show. Later, it became an actual show that had big-name Broadway actors do a single benefit performance for out-of-work actors during the pandemic. Soon after the craze of this musical died down, The Unofficial Bridgerton Musical grazed the app’s For You page. It has since won a Grammy Award for best musical theater album—making it the first album that originated on TikTok to win music’s top prize.
Now, TikTok has just announced another musical venture: It has commissioned Merzlufft’s newest creation, For You, Paige, which will see a staging in New York City and will also be available to live stream. The show is reportedly about two friends, Landon and Paige, the former being a nerd who makes a song with his best friend based on her favorite book series. As of right now, only one performance is set for April 14 and will be captured on the official @TikTok account to live stream. Not many details have been released about future performances.
With multiple reckonings happening in theater—from COVID-related pauses to broader discussions about equity, diversity, and inclusion—it’s easy to see why these works are gaining praise. They are easily accessible online to anyone who has a smartphone, and they’re generally well-liked among users on the internet. Established Broadway producers have long resisted streaming for a multitude of reasons, but mainly because they felt it would hurt ticket sales and cannibalize live stage productions. It’s more typical to see a professionally captured stream of a play or musical become available after the show closes.
One show that recently took the Broadway stage, Lynn Nottage’s Clyde’s, experimented with live streaming in part to increase accessibility, but also to address concerns about COVID-19.
However, the success of Broadway shows is based on their potential for longevity, and social media’s ability to power long-term hits in theater is still unclear. The last time a show made its way to Broadway after finding a cult following online, its fervor fizzled fast. Be More Chill, a musical about a teen who becomes popular after ingesting a super-computer chip, originally ran at a regional New Jersey theater in 2015 and closed after four weeks. After the original cast recording was released online, streams for the album skyrocketed, and the show caught a new wind. It found new life off-Broadway in 2018 and ultimately transferred to Broadway.
But the show didn’t even last a year there. According to the Hollywood Reporter, “reviews were mixed, and despite the teenage superfans who make their appreciation heard throughout each performance, the $9 million production burned through much of its core audience in the first two months.”
That may serve as a cautionary tale for today’s social media creators with Broadway ambitions. TikTok is a new frontier for investors and producers to find new works—and for creators to create and promote them—but it remains to be seen whether it can translate into a viable new model for live theater.