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Encore: Barlow & Bear bring musical theater into the TikTok era


Today we are celebrating first-time Grammy winners. This one involves a TikTok fairy tale of sorts, which begins with a posh afternoon in London's West End last November.

ABIGAIL BARLOW: We literally had just got finished making TikToks with Andrew Lloyd Webber.

EMILY BEAR: And I was like, that was surreal in its own right, of course.

CHANG: That's composer Emily Bear and singer Abigail Barlow of the musical duo Barlow & Bear. These 20-somethings had grabbed the attention of Webber and the whole musical theater world with their album "The Unofficial Bridgerton Musical." It was a musical inspired by the Netflix period drama "Bridgerton."


BARLOW AND BEAR: (Singing) This is what you call a honeymoon - pacing around our separate rooms, running from our elaborate ruse. We're doomed.

CHANG: On a lark, they had submitted the album for Grammy consideration. And the evening when nominations were coming out, they stuck around at Webber's theater for high tea.

BEAR: And, like, all the biscuits and little cakes and stuff around.

BARLOW: Which you weren't eating.

BEAR: I was so nervous, I could not eat.

BARLOW: Yeah. She was so nervous she couldn't eat, and I was stress-eating, so...

CHANG: So as the musical theater category was announced, Barlow & Bear went live on TikTok.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Stephen Schwartz, "Snapshots" - and finally, "The Unofficial Bridgerton Musical."

BEAR: And then we started bawling.


BARLOW: (Crying) Why was it the last one?

CHANG: Barlow & Bear were the only women nominated in the best musical theater album category this year, and they were up against some Broadway greats like Stephen Schwartz and, yes, Andrew Lloyd Webber. Their album - you know, it's also unique because they composed many of the songs live on social media, with fans offering a running commentary during the hours-long live sessions.


BARLOW AND BEAR: (Singing) Nothing but a whisper is a shout. It's a buzz about the town. Nothing like a scandal...

CHANG: We wanted to see how the magic happens IRL, so we met Abigail Barlow and Emily Bear at their shared studio in Bear's apartment in Central Los Angeles.

BEAR: What key is it in?

BARLOW: (Singing) Colored in green, gilded in gold.


CHANG: I feel like I'm living in a musical right now.


BARLOW: Our life is a musical these days (laughter).


BARLOW AND BEAR: (Singing) I guess I have to be a lady, smiling and waving, constantly obeying. I guess...

CHANG: OK. So "Bridgerton," this Netflix show - it comes out around Christmas of 2020. People - they just, like, get addicted to this show.

BARLOW: I got addicted.

BEAR: Immediately.

CHANG: I was going to ask, did you guys get drawn in immediately?


BEAR: I mean, we are quite literally the target audience (laughter).

BARLOW: Yeah. I think everybody just got so into it because it was a departure from the world we were living in at the moment, which was really not about getting together. It was very lonely, so...

BEAR: Also, like, the previous year and a half for Abigail and I, like, just career speaking was rough.

CHANG: What do you mean?

BARLOW: I got ghosted by, like, every single major record label that was interested in me, and it was just no after no. I think we were just barely getting by before we had this idea for "Bridgerton."


BARLOW AND BEAR: I didn't know any of your maids were married.

She's not married.

She's not married?

CHANG: So then at one point, Abigail - I'm going to fast-forward to January of last year, right? Just a few weeks after the show comes out, you post this video on TikTok asking the question...


BARLOW: OK, but what if "Bridgerton" was a musical?

(Singing) What a beautiful party.

CHANG: Were you actually serious at that point?

BARLOW: I really just wanted to write a song. I was actually experiencing writer's block for, like, three or four months before I wrote that song. And when I watched "Bridgerton," there was an overwhelming feeling. It was perfect for stage - a lot of drama, escapism, a character for everyone to relate to. And so I sort of - I was half-serious. I was like, if people like this idea, maybe it'll be a TikTok series. Maybe I'll do it for more than one character. But honestly, it was just a songwriting challenge to put myself in someone else's shoes, even if that was a make-believe character.

BEAR: When we were writing the opening number, we watched that opening scene so many times because it's theatrical. It's so theatrical.


BARLOW: (Singing) We're dancing in the same room.

We had, like, a moment we wanted to write about in the show. So we kind of watched that moment, and then we were sort of playing around with different ideas.

BEAR: I mean, when we were writing this, we were going live every day on TikTok and Instagram and - where they could literally just see everything that we're doing in real time.

CHANG: So, like, are you literally watching the live video feed and the comments coming through?

BEAR: Yeah.


BEAR: So it was, like, almost like we were workshopping...

CHANG: Yeah.

BEAR: ...Instantly.


BEAR: They did not...

CHANG: Yeah, with a sea of strangers.

BEAR: Yes, exactly. Like, they did not hold back when they didn't like something, either.


BARLOW: Yeah. And, I mean, I think a lot of the times, it's - we have sort of a melody that we like. And we're kind of going back and forth on the lyrics to just make something that sounds right, that feels good to sing. So, like, I knew we had the (vocalizing). And then we sort of started working on the lyrics with the audience and kind of workshopped a bunch of them.


BARLOW: (Singing) Let's just escape into the paintings, colored in silk (ph)...

BEAR: Can you do the green and the gold?

BARLOW: (Singing) Colored in green and...

Because I knew I had the... (Singing) He'd be the artist, and I'd be the brush.

BEAR: And then we were like, when someone said gilded and - or something - I don't remember exactly what they said, but something along the lines of that.


BEAR: Colored in green and gilded in gold.


BEAR: (Singing) Covered in green and gilded in gold.

BARLOW: Colored in green and gilded in gold. That's cool.

BEAR: Yeah, that is cool.

Because we were thinking, wow, these two people obviously have such tension right now. And they want to be with each other, but they can't. And so they could if they escaped into one of these beautiful paintings and, like, lived in this dream world that doesn't exist.



BARLOW AND BEAR: (Singing) Colored in green, gilded in gold, when we're alone together.

BEAR: You see all this art in the world, but no one really kind of pulls that curtain back. And a lot of people don't know what it means to write a song and what it means to develop a project or, you know, all of the above. And so I feel like just showing every bit of the process, including the ugly bits, was interesting to people.


BARLOW AND BEAR: (Singing) I wish you were mine.

CHANG: I mean, I'm thinking maybe there are some musical theater fans of a certain generation that would turn their noses up at some musical on TikTok.


CHANG: And, you know, they would say that a lot is actually lost because it's not on a real stage in a theater with actual human audience members watching you. What would you say to those critics?

BARLOW: I'd say that musical theater is a very classically gatekept art form. You know, it's very expensive to go to a Broadway show. It's, like, 200 bucks a ticket. And so it might not be the same as being on a stage for sure. But it is definitely exposing a younger audience to a different kind of music and a different kind of storytelling, and I think that's important.


BARLOW AND BEAR: (Singing) I walk past the doors and the corridors where they grew.

CHANG: Well, do you hope to see "The Unofficial Bridgerton Musical" on an actual stage one day?



BARLOW: That's the dream. We've got so many stories to tell together, so, you know, this is not the last you'll see of Barlow & Bear. And it won't be the only thing, if it is on a stage, that we'll have on a stage.


BARLOW AND BEAR: (Singing) Balancing the scales, balancing the scales - I did the best I could... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.