The chef’s hats were never going to arrive at the actors’ houses on time. In early December, Seaview Productions announced that they would transform a viral TikTok phenomenon into Ratatouille: The TikTok Musical, a professional production featuring veteran performers like Wayne Brady and Tituss Burgess, in just under a month. Musicals, even virtual ones, typically take months, if not years, to produce. And with the holidays looming, Seaview couldn’t ship microphones, green screens or tiny rat ears to the cast in time to record their scenes.
“Our costume consultant, Tilly Grimes, looked through the actors’ closets over video chat,” says producer Greg Nobile, who produced Jeremy O. Harris’ Tony-nominated Slave Play and the Jake Gyllenhaal starrer Sea Wall/A Life. “We just asked, ‘Do you have gray?’ ‘Do you have makeup so you can put whiskers on your face?’ ‘Can you make those mittens look like rat’s feet?’ The point was to really lean into the aesthetic of TikTok which is totally frenetic and DIY.”
Ratatouille: The TikTok Musical, which audiences will be able to stream through TodayTix on Jan. 1 for anywhere from $5 to $50 to benefit the Actors Fund, represents a merger between two stratified creative spheres: The New York establishment and digital upstarts. As theaters closed around the world this spring due to COVID-19, professionals and theater kids alike turned to TikTok as a creative outlet. The Gen Z-centric social media platform, which lets users create one-minute videos, proved a more accessible arena than the Great White Way.
It started when Emily Jacobsen, a 26-year-old schoolteacher from Hartsdale, N.Y., posted a squeaky-voiced a capella ode to Pixar character Remy the Rat to TikTok in October. The ballad, which Jacobsen composed while cleaning her apartment, went viral. Other users employed the platform’s “duet” feature to add new background music or melodies, choreograph dances, and build panoramas of a moving stage. One even designed a fake Playbill. “TikTok is uniquely suited for collaborations,” says RJ Christian, a 21-year-old New York University student and composer. “A video can be re-contextualized and repurposed and passed around, die and come back to life in a different way.” TikTok had laid out all the pieces for a Ratatouille musical. Someone just had to put them together.
One of the West End’s most promising young directors, Lucy Moss, 26—who will become the youngest woman ever to direct a Broadway show when Six, her smash hit pop musical about the Tudor queens, migrates from London to New York next year—stepped up. She will stitch together 10 songs adapted from TikTok creations and one new number written by the show’s music director Daniel Mertzlufft, who has previously written music for The Late Late Show with James Cordon. The formidable cast and crew includes Adam Lambert, Tony-winner André De Shields, Ashley Park from Emily in Paris and Dear Evan Hanson’s Andrew Barth Feldman, as well as a choir and a 20-piece all-female, primarily-POC orchestra called the Broadway Sinfonietta. Moss describes the first-ever TikTok musical as “a Zoom reading that drank 20 Red Bulls.” Here’s how it all came together.
Anyone Can Cook
Ratatouille wasn’t obvious source material for a 2020 viral hit. The movie came out 13 years ago. And even then, the story of a plucky young rat who dreams of becoming a Michelin-star chef wasn’t a guaranteed success. Rats in a kitchen are a tough sell, even if they’re animated to be fluffy and adorable. The movie earned the adoration of film critics for its heartwarming story and foodies for its fidelity to the restaurant kitchen experience. (Thomas Keller served as a consultant on the film, and Anthony Bourdain declared it the best movie ever made about the food world.) Still, in the history of Pixar content, franchises like Toy Story and existential dramas like Inside Out tend to overshadow Ratatouille.
But the film debuted in 2007, just when Gen Z was at peak Disney content consumption. Ratatouille holds a nostalgic sway over the same generation that’s now addicted to TikTok. The story has also found a foothold this year among a new crop of home cooks whose ranks have been growing over the course of the pandemic. At the beginning of quarantine, people stuck at home began producing cooking videos on TikTok—sometimes beautiful montages, sometimes ironically staged videos of kitchen mishaps—to the tune of “Le Festin” from the movie’s soundtrack.
And its themes have resonated specifically with the theater kid subsection of TikTok. “To be honest, when I saw it as a kid, I wasn’t a big fan,” says Jacobsen. “It was only as an adult when the story’s themes about creativity and collaboration really began to click for me.”
Remy the Rat is gifted with a perfect palette, but his family is content to nibble on garbage. Worse still, whenever he enters a restaurant kitchen in his hometown of Paris, cooks leap onto their stations screaming “rat!” The culinary world seems utterly inaccessible to him simply because of his station in life. He eventually teams up with Linguini, a hopeless line cook in desperate need of Remy’s direction. Remy crawls under Linguini’s chef’s hat and puppeteers him to great fame.
Michael Breslin and Patrick Foley, who run a Brooklyn-based theater company called Fake Friends and made a splash with their critically-acclaimed virtual production of their play Circle Jerk this fall, co-wrote the book for Ratatouille: The TikTok Musical. They connect Remy’s struggle to that of young creatives trying to earn fame on TikTok. “It’s a great marriage of form and content,” Breslin says. “Ratatouille is about a young chef or artist who wants to make a name for himself in the world and only has a few tools to do that. But he has a great amount of ambition and talent and succeeds in the face of the establishment. He forges a new path, which makes a lot of sense with what’s going on with TikTok right now.”
“You Only Need One Good Idea”
Jacobsen, a die-hard Disney fan, read obsessively about the new attractions planned for the company’s theme parks, including a Ratatouille ride. She dreamed of wandering through a crowd once again and sitting next to strangers on a rollercoaster. Caught up in that flight of fancy, she began to write: “Remy, the Ratatouille, the rat of all my dreams / I praise you, oh Ratatouille, may the world remember your name.”
Composer Mertzlufft had come to TikTok for distraction too. He first created his account back in February but rarely opened the app until the pandemic hit. “Those first few days of quarantine, all the news was just so bad everywhere,” he says. “I would open Facebook, and it would be upsetting. I would open Twitter, and it would be upsetting. I found TikTok was the only place where I could actually find some escapism and not think about how terrible the world is for a little bit.” After finding Internet fame composing Avatar the Last Airbender: The TikTok Musical and Grocery Store: The Musical for TikTok, Mertzlufft ran across Jacobsen’s song. He gave it “the full Broadway treatment,” adding an orchestration and what sounded like a choir to accompany Jacobsen’s song: In fact, it was just Mertzlufft and his friend recorded 15 times over.
Other songs written for various scenes and characters in the movie flooded the platform, including several from Christian, the NYU student, who initially started creating content for TikTok in hopes of pulling himself out of a pandemic-induced rut. He felt that because there was a one-minute limit on the videos, creations for TikTok were low stakes. “For full length songs, for them to be good, you need about three good ideas,” he says. “But with a TikTok song, you really only need one.”
As his following grew into the tens of thousands, he began to invest more time and effort into his songs, particularly a series of ballads he wrote for the imagined Ratatouille musical. Christian would sing in character, wielding pots and pans if he was playing one of the chefs or donning a scarf to mimic the pretentious food critic from the film Anton Ego: “Creators I really admire started following me back, and I was like, oh hello! And the songs started succeeding outside of TikTok. At that point, I started calling myself a TikTok creator.”
In the two-and-a-half months since Jacobsen, Mertzlufft, and Christian posted their Ratatouille videos, more than 250 million people have engaged with Ratatouille Musical content on TikTok. That caught the attention of Broadway. With theaters closed and the Tony Awards postponed, Jeremy O. Harris was biding his time by falling down the rabbit hole of theater TikTok when he saw the viral “Ratatousical” and alerted Nobile. Nobile jumped on it, recruiting all three creators and dozens more professionals and young TikTok content creators to all collaborate on the production.
Now New York and London theater veterans have largely taken over the work of creating a cohesive performance from the disparate contributions on TikTok, but Jacobsen says Seaview has been in constant consultation with her and the original creators to make sure the play stays true to their original vision. In the meantime, the TikTok creators have started up a group chat to keep one another updated on the musical’s progress and toss around various rat-related puns. “Honestly I was surprised Disney gave the greenlight,” says Jacobsen. “Everything has gone way better than I could have ever imagined. I’ve left most of the work to the true professionals but you may see me pop up in a few surprise special ways.”
Recording Scenes With a Stuffed Rat
Disney has a storied history on Broadway. Adaptations of movies like The Lion King, Frozen and Aladdin make billions of dollars in ticket sales, even more than the original films earn in cinemas. The company drove the “Disney-fication” of Times Square, spurring the transformation of the once seedy neighborhood into a technicolor tourist trap, for better or worse. Nobile , who works outside the Disney machine, believed that transforming an already-popular TikTok musical into a real production, would be an obvious win: The show would have a built-in audience of hundreds of millions of people.
Nobile has long worried that Broadway will become hamstrung by its own financial and geographical restrictions: The audience is limited, and so is the talent pool. “How do we make radical inclusion more sustainable? Our office has been working on how to develop new audiences and how to find new creative voices beyond just the students at Juilliard,” he says. “A viral musical on TikTok was doing both without even trying.”
He called up Thomas Schumacher, the longtime head of Disney Theatrical, for permission to put on a performance if Disney didn’t have anything in the works. “From my vantage point, we’re in this horrible moment when Broadway has been shut down longer than it ever has in the course of history,” Nobile says, “and we need to be innovative about the ways we create on the other side of this.” Disney has historically been precious about its IP, but Schumacher gave his blessing.
Nobile immediately called Breslin and Foley who, coming off Circle Jerk, were better equipped than most playwrights to navigate the virtual stage. One week later, they sent him a treatment of the material which turned into the musical’s book. Mertzlufft, who is acting as music supervisor, was writing background music for dialogue he hadn’t seen yet. Within two weeks of Seaview’s announcement, an orchestra was recording in various studios. “I would argue that’s the fastest a Broadway-quality show has ever been put together,” says Mertzlufft. He was up until 3 a.m. on Christmas morning with the orchestrator, music director and mixer for the production, mixing the sound over a Zoom call. They sent the final edition of the finale song—a mashup that brings all the undercurrents from songs throughout the show—to Jacobsen soon after. “I don’t know if it’s exhaustion or joy or both, but the tears started rolling when I heard all these different disparate pieces coming together,” she says.
Casting went quickly given how few productions there are to occupy actors’ time. The play will be live-action, and the actors recorded their performances in isolation in their homes. Andrew Barth Feldman, who has been told all his life he “looks like that guy from Ratatouille,” will play the role of Linguini to Titus Burgess’ Remy. It can be unsettling to film scenes alone.
“I actually have this Remy stuffed animal that I must have bought when I was a kid on a trip to Disney World in 2007 or 2008,” says Barth Feldman. “I was having trouble connecting with the dialogue, so I put him on the ground and delivered the whole scene to him.”
Moss, who lives in England, works until odd hours of the night to communicate with her largely American-based team and pull all these disparate parts together into a cohesive piece of art. The process has been one of trial and error. “We spent loads of time coming up with zany ways to solve the perspective problem,” says Moss, referring the a conundrum that has puzzled TikTok and old Broadway hats alike. Ratatouille the movie stars a rat-sized rat and human-sized human. On the stage, it’s difficult to imagine how to convey that scale, especially considering Remy spends much of the movie under Linguini’s chef’s hat. Moss and her team considered some of the suggestions offered up by TikTok’s creatives: puppets, multi-level stages with rats above and humans below, gigantic props that could be carried on the stage whenever the story shifted to Remy’s perspective. “And after all that we realized that we didn’t have time to film on a stage and besides a bit of camera angle stuff, we don’t really have to deal with that problem,” Moss says.
Fans shouldn’t get their hopes up for Ratatouille to find its way to an actual stage once the pandemic is over. Disney and Seaview have made it abundantly clear that this is a one-time project designed to raise enough money to keep Broadway afloat during the COVID-19 crisis. Disney has no plans to officially adapt it. Perhaps it would be too challenging to create a musical from a narrative film rather than one with songs already built-in, like Frozen. Maybe the irony of showcasing singing rats in the middle of Times Square doesn’t fit with the Disney brand.
But TikTok musicals may still have a place on Broadway. Nobile, a powerful Broadway producer, considers this musical a new pipeline of talent. “We’re now in conversations with a 17-year-old artist in Colorado who is writing songs for this and a young girl in New Zealand who is working on the production—people we probably never would have been able to find otherwise,” he says. “Now we have the opportunity to ask them, ‘What else do you want to make? How can we do stuff together beyond this?’”
And while Moss herself will have her hands full when Broadway reopens and her musical Six bids for a Tony. But she and the others working on Ratatouille: The TikTok Musical don’t think that the end of the pandemic means the end of Broadway’s collaboration with TikTok. “Just from conversations I have been having in the last month, some producers are getting excited by the idea of a TikTok musical because it creates its own audience in a sense,” says Moss. “People have a stake in it and want to see it happen.”
Correction, Dec. 31
The original version of this story misstated the number of new songs Daniel Mertzlufft will write for the musical. He will write one new song, not two.