Can Tiktok Save ‘Beetlejuice,’ the Broadway Musical?
Earlier this month, the New York Times reported that the immensely popular Broadway musical Beetlejuice, an adaptation of the Tim Burton classic movie, would be forced out of the Winter Garden Theater by an incoming revival of The Music Man, starring the immensely popular Hugh Jackman.
Many theatergoers were incensed, causing the hashtag #SaveBeetlejuice to rise the top of trending on Twitter and celebrities like Lin-Manuel Miranda to rally support for the show. But no one was arguably madder than teens on TikTok, which has fostered a large following for the musical comprised of theater kids and non-theater kids alike.
“Beetlejuice now getting evicted for a cash grab show,” says the caption on one TikTok set to a remix of the MarioKart theme. Another features a panic-stricken kid with braces shoving Triscuits in his mouth (a reference to a lyric in the Beetlejuice song “The Whole Being Dead Thing”) with the caption, “When you find out Beetlejuice is being evicted from the Winter Garden.”
At first glance, it’s a little surprising to see such a fervent teenage fan base for a Broadway musical adaptation of a more-than-30-year-old movie, particularly since the musical was roasted by many establishment theater critics when it was in previews. “Things had not exactly been all beer and skittles on the critical front, let’s just say that,” composer Eddie Perfect tells Rolling Stone.
Yet in some ways, Beetlejuice is tailor-made to appeal to a Gen-Z audience. Beetlejuice (Alex Brightman) is sexually fluid and aggressively horny, with an antiestablishment streak a mile long. Lydia, the heroine played by rising star Sophia Anne Caruso, is a cynical teenage girl with a steampunk-inspired wardrobe whose approach toward the living world and its relentlessly clueless, middle-aged inhabitants could easily be summarized as “OK, boomer.” Throughout the show, she rolls her eyes at ersatz expressions of girl power and positive-thinking slogans, both of which could easily be interpreted as the vestiges of Boomer or even Millennial culture: “positivity is a luxury few can afford,” she at one point tells Delia (Leslie Kritzer), a vapid, Marianne Williamson-esque life coach.
“A lot of people in my generation say they can relate to the character because they feel out of place and not normal,” says Foxberri, 19, a cosplayer whose Beetlejuice TikToks have garnered millions and millions of total views. “And I’ve always felt like that too.” With its pop-punk, riot grrl undertones, Lydia’s signature song, “Dead Mom,” is also a quintessential Gen Z jam, with Perfect describing his inspiration as imagining a teenage girl playing on a low-quality electrical amp in her bedroom. It’s a ‘”fuck you’ song, and I’ve rocked out to a lot of ‘fuck you’ songs,” he says.
Since it premiered last spring, Beetlejuice has managed to vastly exceed the production team’s expectations — not in terms of gross (the standard by which most Broadway productions are measured), but in terms of its popularity on social media. It is currently the top-streaming original Broadway cast album of the 2018/2019 season across all streaming platforms, and a YouTube clip of its Tonys performance has more than 2.5 million views.
This growth is largely being driven by younger audience members and first-time Broadway attendees: 54.95% of audience members had never bought tickets on Telecharge before, and 70.79% are between the ages of 19 and 54, well above the 49% benchmark of most Broadway shows, according to Sept.-Nov. 2019 data provided by representatives for the production. Anecdotally, the actual audience skews much younger: When I saw a Wednesday evening performance before Thanksgiving, most audience members were well-below the minimum rental car age, and during intermission, I spotted a curly-haired high schooler fangirling over an out-of-costume Beetlejuice understudy, who had come to visit a friend in the audience. (The understudy was polite, if a bit bemused by the attention.)
Beetlejuice has also found success on apps like TikTok, where audios for songs like “The Whole Being Dead Thing,” “Say My Name,” “Dead Mom,” and “What I Know Now” have racked up millions and millions of views. “[When] TikTok started to vibe with it, that’s when things got insane,” says Perfect.
In total, the hashtag #BeetlejuiceMusical has been used more than 43.6 million times in TikTok videos, presumably by many creators who have never seen the musical or the original film on which it was based. In this respect, its success is not dissimilar to that of Heathers: The Musical, a snippet from which became a hugely popular audio last fall. “It almost became a thing outside its original context; kids were inside these characters and these ideas but they weren’t necessarily aware that these sounds were from our musical,” he says. Foxberri, whose Beetlejuice cosplay TikToks have garnered hundreds of thousands — and some more than a million — views, also says she has gotten many comments from TikTok users saying: “‘I wasn’t even into Beetlejuice, and then I saw this and got into it.'”
Perfect attributes the show’s popularity on TikTok in part to the overall zaniness and kooky aesthetic of the original source material, but he also believes it deals with themes that are eminently applicable to a generation defined by economic instability and resentment towards their elders. “It’s about the very real stress of trying to discover for yourself how and why you should live, and how to hold onto the people who matter in your life,” he explains. “We just happen to address it in a very macabre and irreverent way.”
After the news broke that Beetlejuice would leave its theater next June to make room for The Music Man, fans are rallying to keep it on Broadway, launching more than a half dozen petitions on Change.org. If nothing else, its social media-driven success is certainly a middle finger to the critics who initially savaged the show, as well as a precedent for future Broadway creative teams. “I imagine that Broadway shows will now have incredibly annoying mandatory social media experts advising them on how to inject their shows into TikTok,” says Perfect.
None of this is to say that the fan support will be enough to keep Beetlejuice on Broadway, and a spokesperson for the show tells Rolling Stone there’s no update regarding whether it’s found a new space. But considering the show is about rebelling against vaunted institutions, as well the transience and impermanence of life on Earth, being edged out by The Music Man — perhaps the ultimate boomer musical — seems rather an apropos send-off.
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