The beginning of 2021 was, among many things, marked by a cultural phenomenon: “Ratatouille the Musical.” What began as a joke on TikTok quickly evolved into the closest thing to a stage production that we could get while deep into the pandemic. Creators came together to write songs, choreograph dance numbers and design a playbill, all culminating in a benefit performance the Los Angeles Times called “theater, at its core.” The livestream raised $2 million for the Actors Fund of America, a charity that supports actors of all mediums — a fitting choice, given that millions of artists were without work after Broadway shut down. This level of collaboration took TikTok’s possibilities to new heights.
Musical theatre is one of the more popular niches on TikTok, with the hashtags “musicaltheatre” and “theatrekid” both amassing billions of views. The variety of content found under these tags is expansive: Creators like Tyler Joseph Ellis make fun of the “theater kid” stereotype; students like Emily Evans create elaborate series about a high school drama club (while also showing off her own chops); Broadway fans rank their favorite shows; or more recently, people attempt real Broadway choreography. Being a former theatre kid myself, many of these videos remind me of my own time on stage, both the good and the bad.
Some Broadway performers have also blown up on TikTok, and they take time out of their busy schedules to share the experience with their followers. Amber Ardolino has been cast in shows like “Moulin Rouge” and “Hamilton.” It’s clear from her videos how much she loves her job — she would let people in her comments section choose the dances she did in a freestyle section of “Hamilton” and would even come find fans if she learned they were in the audience. She has since gotten a job in the “Funny Girl” revival but has not shied away from taking fans along. JJ Niemann was a swing performer in “The Book of Mormon,” but after he lost his job because of quarantine, he went viral for his skits on what actors are really doing onstage. Now he’s back at “Book of Mormon” living his best life for everyone to see.
But for every glamorous video showing off a bona fide New York show, there are countless other aspiring actors and singers hoping for their big break. It’s no secret that the theatre industry is insanely competitive. The audition process is never ending, usually with little to no reward. You can improve your odds by earning a degree from a theater program at a well-respected school, but not everyone can afford to shell out hundreds of thousands of dollars in tuition. Carnegie Mellon, for example, costs around $60,000 and in 2017, their musical theater program acceptance rate was only 0.5%. And the hard work doesn’t stop after school — in order to truly “make it on Broadway,” you have to be among the top 10% of the thousands of people with the same dream as yours.
But the greatest issue facing the industry today is its astounding lack of racial diversity. According to the Asian American Performers Action Coalition, all of the 41 theaters on Broadway are owned by white people. Around 80% of both writers and directors are white, and in the 2018-2019 Broadway season, over half of the available roles were played by white actors. Sure, there are shows like “Hamilton” which feature a cast primarily of people of color, but these shows can’t singlehandedly close such a huge gap in the industry. The AAPAC found that the number of Black actors is rising, but Latinx and Asian American numbers are dropping, and the percent of indigenous representation is currently zero. Perhaps the worst part is that several shows featuring roles of these nationalities hire white actors, particularly those that can “pass” as whichever race, instead of giving them to people that those roles were written for.
Diversity isn’t limited to just race, either. Shows in the past have had perfect opportunities for queer representation that weren’t explored, like the “Company” revival, or are full of problematic jokes and casting choices, as seen in “Tootsie” or “Jagged Little Pill.” Tracy Turnblad doesn’t magically make Broadway size-inclusive, either. Musical theatre, like film and television, is supposed to represent the general public — and in the general public, people are of all different skin colors, genders, sizes and orientations. Making the adjustments to better represent all the members in the audience are long overdue.
If anything could bring about a greater awareness to these issues, it’s TikTok. Creators don’t shy away from calling out Broadway’s lack of diversity, whether it be “educating” high schools on which shows are appropriate for their available casts or addressing how harmful it is to only cast a plus-sized actor in a role because of the way they look. Even the actors themselves are quick to call out discrepancies in casting. There may be a large variety of content showing the flashiness and fun of musical theatre, there’s just as much content critiquing its problems. And the best part is, all of this criticism is free and widely available — you don’t need to shell out hundreds of dollars for a ticket to learn about Broadway and its problems on the app.
What’s most refreshing about this niche is its opportunities for underrepresented creators to reclaim the art form. With 1 billion users worldwide, TikTok is the perfect place to expose people of all identities to the concepts of theater. Some users have created series dedicated to talking about diverse shows that aren’t commonly taught. Others are finding opportunities to be represented authentically on stage, while others still are forging their own paths and reimagining songs from musicals to honor their heritage (and it sounds stunning). Regardless of what’s happening on camera, all of these people are clearly having fun — that’s what theatre is supposed to be.
All of this isn’t to say that changes aren’t happening. After two years in a pandemic and widespread fights for social change, shows are revisiting and reworking their stories to reflect the concerns of their audience. This past year, we’ve seen more plays by Black writers than ever before. The future is coming from this kind of exposure that TikTok offers. The more inclusive theatre becomes, the more likely those who are being exposed to this inclusivity can one day see themselves onstage.
Daily Arts Writer Hannah Carapellotti can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.