Barlow & Bear bring musical theater into the TikTok era
This is part of a series of features from All Things Considered on first-time Grammy nominees, ahead of the April 3 awards. You can read and listen to the other profiles on Saweetie, Arooj Aftab and Jimmie Allen.
Our protagonists, two young women of eligible age, are in the city for the season. They spend the afternoon in the company of a wealthy benefactor and his family, marveling at the high-ceilinged ballrooms of his estate.
Instead of returning to their quarters to rest before their evening engagement — a sought-after performance at the theater — our ladies instead take high tea, where they receive unexpected news that has them weeping with joy.
And later at the performance, the pair spot an esteemed gentleman with whom they had corresponded previously, who was delighted to see them and conveyed the well wishes of his social circle at their good news.
However, our ladies' season wasn't for marriage, but awards.
In between making TikToks with Andrew Lloyd Webber while touring London's Drury Lane Theatre and running into actor Jonathan Bailey (who plays overbearing big brother Anthony Bridgerton in the Netflix adaptation of the regency drama) Abigail Barlow and Emily Bear received a Grammy nomination for Best Musical Theater Album for their project, The Unofficial Bridgerton Musical.
With a mix of character songs like the delightfully jaunty "If I Were a Man" for spunky, society-abhorring Eloise, and plot-driving pieces like the sweeping, Schwartz-ian "Every Inch" that shows Daphne and Simon catching feelings, the duo Barlow & Bear brings the interpersonal drama of the hit Netflix show to life, achieving the remarkable feat of both preserving lines from the show wholesale and adding new emotional depth to overlooked characters like widow Lady Bridgerton.
Netflix released the show in December 2020, and with eight well-paced episodes that combined a knowing, gossipy tone with well-loved genre tropes, it was the season's binge-watch for people looking to, as Barlow states, "escape into a make-believe world."
As a songwriter, she also immediately recognized the show's kindred musical theater energy.
"When I watched Bridgerton, there was an overwhelming feeling that it should be on stage in some way," she says. "It was perfect: A lot of drama, escapism, a character for everyone to relate to."
Stymied creatively at the time, Barlow capitalized on her enthusiasm for the show to put that concept to the test. What emerged were the beginning threads of "Ocean Away," a character song for leading lady Daphne Bridgerton, which Barlow posted on her TikTok account, which she uses as a creative sounding board for almost all her original work.
"I was actually experiencing writer's block for like three or four months before I wrote that song," she says. "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."
The night she wrote it, Barlow also texted the song to Emily Bear, who also clicked with the idea.
"She orchestrated it like 45 minutes after I sent it to her and I got like a full verse and chorus of orchestration for that song," Barlow says. After seeing a few more songs she posted start to pick up traction, "We saw how it snowballed and we just decided to continue."
Abigail Barlow, a 23-year-old songwriter from Alabama, and Emily Bear, a 20-year-old classically trained pianist and composer from Illinois — the youngest ever nominees for their Grammy category — met through mutual friends. Barlow wanted to work on a stage musical and had been looking for a collaborator, but the basis of their ultimately successful musical partnership is a foundation of friendship and mutual interests.
"We knew we were going to write together but I was like, 'Let's just get together as girlfriends first.' And so I had her over and we watched The Bachelor and made macarons and just sort of chatted and got to know each other," Barlow says.
"I graduated high school early — we both did," Bear says. "Which is honestly why I feel like we connected because when we first met each other, we didn't have any friends in L.A. and we were like, 'Oh my God, you get it.'"
Barlow graduated at 17 and moved to L.A. at 18 to pursue songwriting: Gigging, trying to meet the right people and continuing to grow her audience on social media, where she started doing livestreams and posting covers at 16. Bear started her professional career even earlier, with her first of several appearances on The Ellen Show at age 6, and as she got older, splitting her time between studying at Juilliard (classical piano, jazz, piano composition) and NYU (film scoring, production, orchestration.)
After completing a tour and graduating at 15, Bear decided to take a gap year before starting at Berklee; by the end of the year, she was living in L.A., had been signed by an agent and was working as a composer. She took another gap year; this time, she met Barlow.
"When you work with someone in a creative field, there are so many little tiny things that go towards whether or not you work well with that person. And you could be in the room with the most amazing, incredible, talented musician of all time and just not work well together," Bear says. "We were friends and it was great, but we didn't know how we were going to write together, like it could have been a total train wreck, or it could have been like, fine or whatever."
Instead, she says, the two shared an instant chemistry. "I remember walking out the session being like, 'Ohhhh.'"
"'This is what it feels like to have a fun session,'" Barlow provides.
Even though the two of them "have very complementary skill sets" in the traditional sense — a singer and lyricist, a pianist and producer — Barlow says there's no clear division of labor, with the two bouncing ideas off each other and sharing responsibility for the composition as a whole. "I think where we have weaknesses, we kind of fill in each other's gaps. And just putting a puzzle together with her is so fun because she always knows exactly where to take something."
"And vice versa," Bear says. "We have very similar tastes in writing styles and speeds, which I feel like speed is very important because when you're a fast writer and you work with someone who is not as fast, it doesn't mean that they're not good, it's just hard. And so we just..."
"Clicked," Barlow finishes, illustrating their point.
The Grammys, sadly, do not have a category for the best music native to social media, so Barlow & Bear's nominated work isn't the TikTok series, but the 15-song album they recorded and released in September — the official Unofficial musical, if you will. But the app's role was indispensable to its creation, both in the six-week process of writing the musical at the beginning of 2021, and the fervent reception that led to its current recognition.
Barlow says sharing their work on social media during the creative process was never in question.
"I have been putting my original pop music on TikTok like five minutes after I finished writing for years and years now," she says. The immediacy of feedback from followers and commenters is instructive, and Barlow sees a direct correlation between her work attracting attention on the app and building a subsequent audience on streaming platforms.
"If you have a song that people love that blows up on TikTok, you can bet that there's going to be more streams on your song on Spotify just because it went viral on TikTok," she says.
For the Bridgerton musical, people also seemed to love how interactive it was.
"Everyone in the world was talking about this one thing," Bear says — the show was the top show on Netflix going into 2021 — and so "they felt like they could give their two cents while we were writing and they were part of the process." One of the duo's favorite lyrical couplets, "Colored in green / Gilded in gold" from the Daphne-Simon duet "Alone Together," even came from a commenter.
"Musical theater is a very classically gatekept art form," Barlow says. "It's very expensive to go to a Broadway show, it's like 200 bucks a ticket, and so not many people can go to those and there's a big group of people who have never even been exposed to that kind of entertainment."
"I just loved that so much of our audience that is now very into musical theater had never listened to any of that in their life beforehand," Bear says. "And I just love that we're able to show people how diverse of an art form it is."
The audio for this story was produced by Jonaki Mehta and edited by Christopher Intagliata. The article was written by Cyrena Touros.
Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.