How Mary Neely Became a Viral Quarantine Star With Musical Theater Videos

The actress, writer and director takes The Hollywood Reporter behind the scenes of her self-shot tributes, which have generated millions of views amid the pandemic.
Jeff Leeds Cohn

Before commercial actress Mary Neely's elaborate musical theater videos went viral, she had about 800 followers on Twitter. Now, she's got 23,000 fans and counting, including some of Hollywood's most powerful players (broadcast showrunner powerhouses like Krista Vernoff, Warren Leight and Mike Schur; plus Broadway luminaries like Lin-Manuel Miranda and Kelli O'Hara) waiting for her next installment. How did it all begin?

"So, I live alone, obviously," the writer-director cracked on a Zoom call with The Hollywood Reporter last week. In the early days of L.A.'s Safer at Home order, Neely, who's been working as a commercial actress for the past seven years, would dress up for her virtual hangouts in wigs and fun costumes. But as the days went on, she longed for a new creative outlet. As a self-respecting theater kid, she had decades worth of musicals memorized, plus a glut of leftover wigs, costumes and props from past projects.

And since she's single, she began thinking about ways in which she would've enjoyed the quarantine life a little better with a significant other. Those ideas coalesced in a series of musical theater reenactments that she designed, filmed (literally holding her iPhone in her hand) and starred in all by herself.

"I've done a lot of work in like the past year to be, like, 'I love myself,' all these things," she said. "And so I thought, who needs a romantic partner? What if I just pretend like I'm in love with myself and I'm playing both roles?"

Although she was more active on Instagram, stricter copyright requirements mean videos with other people's intellectual property get removed almost instantaneously. So Twitter was the logical home for the lip syncs, even though it has a 2 minute and 20 second cap on videos.

The first installment was a relatively simple — compared to later videos, at least — reenactment of "A Heart Full of Love" from Les Misérables, with Neely playing both Cosette and Marius. During the first 10 days of her project, she would shoot and edit one number a day, send it to her parents overnight and post online in the morning after they sent their feedback and encouragement.

"I'm a huge fan of routine in general, even before this all started happening. And now I feel like routine is more important than ever," she said. "And so it just became something that I could look forward to every day and keep my mind really occupied."

That early run from March 31 to April 9 included South Pacific, Spring Awakening, Oklahoma, Rent, The Music Man, The Phantom of the Opera, The Light in the Piazza, Wicked and West Side Story.

But as the videos became more elaborate and her following grew, the scope of the project became much larger. While initially she only wanted to use songs and musicals that she had a major personal connection to, she widened her net a tad to include other musicals she knew by heart that people had requested. She took a break to plan her next moves. She celebrated her birthday and adopted a cat.

When she returned, the videos became more and more elaborate. Her penultimate video was "The Schuyler Sisters" from Hamilton, which was met with Miranda's approval. "I feel like he's the king of musical theater right now, at this moment in time. I couldn't believe that. That was the biggest compliment," she said. "And really though, it was so meaningful that Broadway stars who I saw when I was a teenager have been retweeting it — Kelli O'Hara, Matthew Morrison, Bebe Neuwirth, Betty Buckley — all these huge people whose voices kept me company when I was a lonely teenager."

Growing up as a musical theater lover, the Los Angeles native planned to move to New York for school. She attended high school summer theater programs at UCLA and Carnegie Mellon, but as she applied for college in the wake of the 2008 economic crash, she decided to stay closer to home and out of debt and attend the UCLA acting program on a scholarship. She began working as a commercial actor while in school, landing a long-term Pepcid gig and later a major Tide campaign. The more than 20 national campaigns she's booked as a commercial actor over the past seven years have helped fund her other creative pursuits.

"Commercials gave me the freedom and the liberty to be able to fund my first short film and take the time to write scripts and make other projects," she said. Those other projects include several short films, including one, Pink Trailer, that played at South By Southwest in 2018. "I had imposter syndrome for years, not thinking that I was a director or a writer just because I never studied it. It wasn't anything I thought I would ever do in my life, and a lot of people gave me encouragement when they saw my work."

Now, though, she's getting plenty of interest. Her agents, who have been supportive of her goofy project from the beginning, have fielded plenty of calls about Neely throughout the past few weeks.

"People have been sending my agents projects that they want me to be a part of, and I've gotten some Zoom meetings out of it. I've gotten showrunners of Netflix shows asking for my specs," she said. "I have a half-hour pilot and then I have two features. One of them I want to direct, the other one I'm like, you just can sell that. A head of casting at a network just reached out today. This is — wow. It's so cool."

The musical theater videos concluded with an epic three-part reenactment of "Belle" from Beauty and the Beast, in which Neely plays the titular character, every townsperson she encounters, and even a few animals. She posted a behind the scenes series answering questions about the logistics of each video. And now, Neely is looking forward to other creative pursuits.

"I would love to make my own projects. I also would love to act. I'm not super hell-bent on acting in my own projects, though I will do it! I just never want to have a big role because it's kind of a nightmare. But I would love to act in other people's projects, and then I would love to create my own work," she said of her future plans. "I actually have written a musical that I want to be my first feature that I direct that I've been working on for a bit. I finished the script a year and a half ago, and it's been a thing that I've been pushing. A lot of companies have been like, 'Oh my gosh, this script is so good, maybe we'll make it if you just do some other stuff first.' And so now I'm like, 'Come on, guys!'"