Discover more from COUNTERPOINT by Adam Lenson
#18 - Unofficial
Why jumping the queue isn't the way to deal with unlicensed adaptation.
Having worked in new musical theatre for quite a while I know a lot of talented songwriters and storytellers. One of the constant things they are trying to negotiate is how to be noticed and how to find audiences.
The simple answer is always to write a musical that people might themselves already want; to find a brand, story, book, film, video game that is already popular, so that writers can show off their adaptive craft and ability to transform and elevate source material. To create great songs and emotional and well considered story beats that will allow people who already know the source material to know it in a new way. To see it zoomed in and heightened, amplified and recontextualised.
But the issue is that source material is very hard to obtain. I know many many writers who have dreamt of adapting that film, that book, that TV show, but had no way of getting the necessary permissions.
As you might have guessed I have been thinking a lot these past days about the Unofficial Bridgerton Musical. The piece went from TikTok fan fiction project, to an album release, to a Grammy win and then to huge high profile live concert and the project is now being sued by Netflix and Bridgerton’s creators including Shonda Rhimes and Julia Quinn.
This all happened because the Unofficial Bridgerton Musical’s writers Abigail Barlow & Emily Bear decided that instead of attempting to gain permission, they would simply adapt the property of their dreams as if they had carte blanche permissions from every single rights holder, including the novelist and every creative making the tv show.
As Barlow & Bear became more well known to fans and the world via TikTok, the realisation that they had done a great job of adapting the source material began to feel like they had hacked the system. That by believing something to do that they had made it true.
They used a globally recognised brand and characters to amplify their fame and to get their craft seen and heard. The album they made got millions of streams and won them a Grammy. And the popularity allowed them to create a virtuous circle where more press and views and success allowed them to make their hold over the source material look ever more undeniable.
But here’s the thing. Barlow & Bear didn’t have any claims over the source material. They simply took it. And the thing that disappoints me is how unfair that is to the hundreds and thousands of talented writers whose careers lurk in relative obscurity because they didn’t do the same.
I have no problem believing that Barlow & Bear began this journey with nothing but fan-like enthusiasm for the source material along with an immediate desire to show the world not only how cool a musical theatre adaptation would be but also to prove that they themselves were the best custodians of such an adaptation.
But let me ask this. Were they successful because they were singularly good or were they successful because they are highly level talents with a singularly unique and seemingly earned hold over one of the world’s most recognisable and zeitgeist brands?
I know many artists who could who are not publicly well known who could write a spectacular Bridgerton musical, or a Wandavision musical, or a Toy Story musical, or etc etc etc. But they haven’t because it’s not legal to build a career on source material you don’t own. So many writers and songwriters have trodden the hard fought path that is laid out for musical theatre creatives because they are told there is no other way. But Barlow & Bear didn’t. They acted like they were already successful, and success followed.
Now I know that there is something startling and innovative about what they did. They looked at how unlikely it is for creators to be given rights to source material and said, well why not do it anyway? Why not just act like we are allowed? Perhaps they thought that what they were doing and the reach and attention it was getting would radically change the way lesser known but talented writers are considered as artists in association with well known brands. In fact I would agree that the stranglehold that pop stars and well known recording artists have over big title musical theatre adaptations is a huge problem.
But what Barlow & Bear did hasn’t ended up being an altruistic act, one that will forever change the way adaptation and musical theatre relates to source material. What they have done is to create a situation that has and will only really benefitted them.
They are clearly phenomenally talented. But they are not the only phenomenally talented musical theatre writers. They have created a singular situation for themselves and in so doing made themselves look singular. Again I ask, is their talent singular or is the situation?
I have spent a long time listening to the work of hundreds of the most talented musical theatre writers around, all of whom would have their lives transformed by being given the opportunity to adapt well known source material faithfully and respectfully. But they have not had that privilege because they have asked permission and been rejected.
Is the solution here to applaud those who climbed over the 12 foot fence or wonder why the fence isn’t slightly less tall? Or perhaps wonder why the fence doesn’t contain more doors or windows? I believe that what Barlow & Bear have done will only make the fence taller. But will they even care now that they are on the other side?
Above all there should be more communication between those who write musicals and those who have the power to license them. I am all for a world where those who care about musicals and write them well might plausibly aspire to obtain rights for the properties they care about.
In television it is common for jobbing writers to write spec scripts to demonstrate their craft. Sometimes these scripts are for shows that exist but on which they are not writers. So their portfolio might contain a speculative episode of Brooklyn Nine Nine or Fargo. I see no problem with musical theatre writers doing spec adaptations of songs or even narrative treatments of source material to showcase their skills and interests. But why should they claim ownership over something they do not own?
When the film Ratatouille was adapted collaboratively on TikTok as a fan musical, many of the writers and creatives involved gained a great deal of press and audience adoration. However, the creators were wise enough to ensure that the piece retained a widely collaborative structure and uplifted a whole group of songwriters. They also knew to stop after their charity concert rather than try and act with the belief that they deserved Disney's sign off for commercial futures for a full scale adaptation. They didn't jump the queue. They showed off their talents and their appreciation for the source material. They didn't try and claim ownership. They did their thing and then they moved on.
But it is clear to me that Barlow & Bear and their representatives were looking for a way to force the rights holders of Bridgerton to just accept their rightful destiny as the true adaptors of the piece. And that worries me. It is no fairer a pop star getting to name their title and get the rights than it is for a TikTok star to do the same. Giving permissions only to the most privileged doesn’t democratise the process, it contributes to the asymmetry built into capitalist frameworks.
It says, there shouldn’t be fair call outs, and pitch windows, and democratised opportunities for writers to do what they are good at. It says it should happen for some while everyone else waits for approvals they will likely never get.
I should say that I would usually not find myself coming to the defence of a huge company like Netflix. But Shonda Rhimes and Julia Quinn as well as the writers and creatives involved are all individual artists whose work has been illegally appropriated by Barlow & Bear. If I were Julia Quinn, I would surely be hopeful that a piece as non naturalistic and music-led as the Netflix adaptation of Bridgerton would inevitably lead to an official musical being made. Barlow & Bear’s unofficial musical in many ways makes that feel less likely to occur, and now if it were to, it might be wrongly interpreted as mean-spirited. To put it plainly: Barlow & Bear have marked someone else’s territory in the court of public opinion.
I also keep coming back to the fact that Barlow & Bear leveraged a well known brand for their own solitary success arc. They didn’t engage with other writers. They didn’t create a constellation of fan musical theatre or uplift a community of writers. They created a brand for themselves and in so doing may well have made life harder for emerging musical theatre artists looking to make an impact via TikTok and other social media platforms.
As ever I think it comes down to the way we care about musical theatre as an art form and those who write it. It is clear that good musicals of well loved source material have the ability to be hugely successful. But why can’t theatre and entertainment find ways of sharing that success around? Why are the options seemingly only to have no options or to break the law? To languish in obscurity or put yourself first?
However you look at it, this is unfair. It is unfair of rights holders to make it so difficult for those who want to begin conversations to begin those conversations. It is unfair that it is so difficult for musical theatre creatives to build careers, and make space, and build audiences. It is unfair that it is seemingly so difficult for anyone to care about those who care about musicals. But then it is also unfair to just ignore the work of other creatives and grab world renowned brands for yourself; to leverage yourself and make it harder for others.
I think the best solution is to continue demonstrating just how great musical theatre can be when it is written by people who are skilled and intelligent and passionate. I think it is important for those with power over audiences and brands and properties and rights to give a lot more respect to the form and those devoted to it. But I don’t think the solution is for some musical theatre writers to just take what they want at the expense of all those other creatives who didn’t or couldn’t jump the fence.
As a best case scenario, maybe this high profile situation will show the world that independent creatives have a lot of talent, skill and enthusiasm to offer and that audiences love a grassroots success story maybe more than an obvious commercial cash in. But I think it might well backfire for Barlow & Bear and more upsettingly it might backfire for every other creative who dreamed that one day they might get the chance to adapt something that they loved too.