Red-carpet events for Broadway shows are typically full of reporters trying to get in one or two questions, but when Theatrely senior features contributor Amanda Marie Miller went to the gala for “POTUS,” she was on a mission to make a TikTok.
“Hey, over here! I have one dance move if you have time for it,” she said, flagging down cast members.
In preparation, she broke down every move in Lizzo’s “About Damn Time” into a brief combination that she could teach quickly. The final video compilation of dance clips from various cast members — including Julie White, Rachel Dratch, and Vanessa Williams — has attracted over 91,000 views.
This is the work of Theatrely, a media start-up founded in Boston and launched during the pandemic. It is the only Gen Z-led media company that creates theater-related content specifically targeted toward younger audiences, according to Theatrely publicist Taylor Lhamon.
Theatrely’s team of five full-time staff and 35 or so contributors write and produce videos, articles, and reviews across all social platforms and on their own news site, theatrely.com. In their short time on the scene, Theatrely’s writers and producers have become regulars at red-carpet events, their TikTok has amassed over 471,000 likes, and excerpts of Theatrely’s reviews have been featured on three Broadway marquees.
Growing up in Florida, editor in chief and president Kobi Kassal and CEO Jordanna Brody, both 25, were family friends and theater kids. For college, they both chose schools in Boston.
In 2017, Kassal started a radio show called “Theatre Talk Boston” at Boston University as a way to listen to show tunes and talk about theater news with his friends. In between acting in theater productions at Emerson College and working at a doughnut shop, Brody was a frequent guest.
After both graduated in 2019, Kassal kept “Theatre Talk Boston” going through written and social media content while he worked full time running social media at the Huntington Theatre Company. During the pandemic when live theater was put on pause, his work on the side evolved into Theatrely. In 2021, he quit his job at the Huntington to do Theatrely full time, and Brody officially joined the team.
Kassal attributes some of the company’s success to the timing of its launch and the unique environment created by the pandemic.
“I never envisioned myself running a media company. I was studying hotel marketing in college,” he said. “[In the early days of the pandemic] there were many, many weeks where I just sat at home, watched ‘Ozark’ and played piano. But then there were other days where I was like, ‘You know what, let’s try and build a new media organization.’
“I sent e-mails to all the New York publicists as well as publicists at all of the regional theaters across the country to say ‘Hey! We’re a new theater outlet. . . . We’re here when you need us.’”
According to Kassal, the reception was surprisingly positive. The digital productions most theaters were doing at the time were particularly well-suited to the company’s social media-driven approach. While shows were still shut down, Theatrely was able to build relationships that carried over when live theater returned.
According to Danielle Morales, an independent theater publicist who previously worked with Kassal at the Huntington, it’s also more than that.
In response to renewed calls for racial justice in 2020 and movements such as We see you White American Theater, the theater industry has been working to attract younger audiences and reduce major representation gaps both on and off the stage. But change can be slow, Morales explained, and in Boston theater has to compete with many interests, including a thriving sports culture, which can make attracting young people particularly difficult.
Morales contrasts Theatrely’s efforts to those of traditional media outlets.
“People are trying to diversify their writers and what they’re reviewing. And I don’t think it comes necessarily organically to some of these publications,” she explained. “They’re [Theatrely] doing it from the jump.” The staff, their writing, and the programming they cover “are all speaking to youth,” Morales said.
Theatrely is now based in New York City but maintains a connection to Boston’s theater scene.
“We care about our coverage of a show on 42nd Street just as much as something on Tremont in Boston,” said Kassal, also noting that more Broadway shows are now getting tryouts in Boston. He tries to catch shows when he’s in town, and Theatrely has a writer based in the city.
Both Kassal and Brody spoke about their experiences of being the youngest person in the room at shows and other events. Sometimes they get pushback for their unconventional approach.
“A very smart person told me ‘Everybody in the theater space wants to be first to be second,’” said Kassal. “No one wants to do a TikTok interview the first time — it’s like ‘What is that?’ Then as soon as one person does it and it goes viral, it’s exciting and everyone’s like, ‘Oh, can we do that?’”
But according to Brody, it’s this approach that helps them connect to their core audience.
“Being Gen Z, we have a different relationship to technology and to social media than people that didn’t grow up learning how to utilize them,” she said. “I really enjoy reading a lot of our writers’ stuff because they’re using these intersections of culture and media and social media with the theater world.”
Brody and the rest of the Theatrely team aren’t trying to imagine what young people might hypothetically engage with; they’re their own target demographic.
So in honor of the Tony Awards in June, Theatrely shot a five-minute music video in Times Square, an original song that celebrated every Broadway show of the season. They’ve done creative projects like inviting chef/food writer Claire Saffitz to review baking in “Birthday Candles,” a production in which actress Debra Messing makes a cake on stage. And they frequently film “Stage Door Speed Rounds,” quick TikTok interviews with actors outside of Broadway shows.
We are so excited to share part of our musical celebration, ft. @Luke Ferrari, @Cara Rose DiPietro, and @Alyssa Wray, written by @Nathan Fosbinder ! Link in bio! #musicvideo #broadway #theatre #theatrekid #originalsong #tonyawards #nyc #timessquare #foryou #fyp♬ original sound - Theatrely
“Gen Z is definitely weary and tired of institutions,” said Juan A. Ramirez, Theatrely’s chief critic. In his reviews, he often references memes and tries to keep his writing conversational. While he doesn’t write to pander to Gen Z, he finds that his “youth reflects that on its own.”
For example, when he was interviewed on New York 1′s “On Stage” segment, he found that his perspective on “MJ: The Musical,” the Broadway show about Michael Jackson, differed sharply from the two older critics on the panel. They both enjoyed the show, but Ramirez called it a “monument to misconduct,” referring to the multiple accusations of sexual abuse against Jackson.
“My formative years were not spent growing up alongside Michael Jackson. So I don’t have the particular art versus artists conflict,” he explained. “I was a sophomore in college . . . when [Donald] Trump was elected, when MeToo happened, when the BLM movement started really happening in earnest.”
“I’m not gonna be the one to be like ‘Let’s both-sides this issue,’” he said. “We’ve seen what that kind of stuff does. The language of social justice has been disseminated widely enough that we can all analyze this sort of thing and smell BS from far away.”
Theater is changing, and Theatrely is changing with it. When Amanda Marie Miller, the writer who makes TikToks on the red carpet, saw Julie White again at press day for the Tonys, it was White who asked Miller, “Do you have another dance move for me?”
Serena Puang was a Globe intern in 2022. Follow her on Twitter @SerenaPuang.