Something remarkable is happening on TikTok. While Broadway is shut down and schools have gone virtual, theater kids and professionals alike are collaborating on the app to create a fully socially distanced musical about one particular muse: Remy the rat from Pixar’s 13-year-old Francophilia flick Ratatouille. Composers, singers, actors, musicians, dancers, and set designers have come together to write and perform original songs for a Ratatouille musical that does not exist on any stage, but is alive and ever-growing on TikTok. The theater TikTok trend of making musicals out of strange subject matter began earlier in the pandemic, with viral works like Grocery Store the Musical, but the specific appeal of the Ratatouille musical is the alternate reality of it all: It is not inconceivable that there is a timeline where Ratatouille: The Musical was announced as a big-budget, family-friendly production alongside the likes of Aladdin, The Lion King, and The Little Mermaid. But the TikTok Ratatouille Musical — or Ratatousical — manages to subvert the accepted narrative about Disney on Broadway. The Michael Eisner–era “Disneyfication” of Times Square saw the company collaborating with the city to make the Theater District appeal to tourists and corporate interests above all, with Disney’s high-sheen, mega-production-value musicals dominating the theater landscape. There’s a playful irony to the way that a decentralized, collaborative, unsanctioned DIY musical could use the Disney adaptation musical format for something so uncommercial and grassroots, because it’s the exact opposite of what we’ve been led to believe a “Disney musical” is. You could almost call it punk, if it wasn’t a web of show tunes about a cartoon rat. So Vulture sought to sniff out (rat joke!) the history of how a bunch of TikTokers with a lot of time on their hands made arguably the Best Musical of 2020.
The origins of the Ratatousical go back to early 2020, when the song “Le Festin” from the Ratatouille soundtrack became a commonly used accompaniment for cooking videos on TikTok. Clearly, to a generation of zoomers, nothing says “sophistication” and “haute cuisine” quite like this Disney movie about creativity and ambition, set in the world of Parisian restaurant criticism. A parody version of the song soon became viral as well; called “CEO of Speaking French,” it featured a female vocalist singing fake French-sounding nonsense to the tune of “Le Festin.” Usually, this track was used to accompany self-consciously gross or bad cooking, or really any sort of weird lifestyle-hack fails. So Ratatouille has long been ingrained in the musical landscapes, both comedic and sincere, of TikTok.
On August 10, TikTok user Em Jaccs made a video ode to Remy the rat from Ratatouille, singing the a cappella lyrics through a high, mousy voice modulator, with the lyrics, “Remy, the Ratatouille, the rat of all my dreams/ I praise you, oh Ratatouille, may the world remember your name.” This is in line with Jaccs’s other odes to cartoon characters, which range from a ballad about Jar Jar Binks, to a song called “Rodent Boy, You’re an Angel to Me” about Gus Gus the mouse from Cinderella, to a haunting elegy called “Hymn for the Ascension Pooh” (if you’re a theme-park fan, you know). This deeply silly, catchy track would have been a stellar TikTok on its own, if only for how it reminds people that the rat from Ratatouille is named Remy and not “Ratatouille,” (even though it does call him a ratatouille).
But “Ode to Remy” sparked a whole new corner of TikTok — Ratatouille Musical TikTok — when user Daniel Mertzlufft then adapted the song and gave it the full Broadway treatment, writing an arrangement and orchestration, envisioning it as a grand Disney finale number.
“I love all of [Em Jaccs’s] videos,” Mertzlufft told Vulture. “What works about them is that they’re short, they’re concise, and they’re specific. She makes these very specific choices that just make it so funny. Now that it’s really exploded, people are commenting at least like four or five times every day, ‘That lyric doesn’t make any sense! He’s not ‘the ratatouille.’ It’s just a dish.’ It’s funny, because it’s clearly meant to be a joke, and people then take it seriously.” Mertzlufft, who also composed Grocery Store the Musical and Avatar the Last Airbender the TikTok Musical, explained the process of adapting a viral TikTok song into an even-more-viral TikTok musical number:
“When I first heard the video, I immediately knew, this is an act-two finale. This is in the style of classic Disney. The end of Hunchback really inspired Ratatouille [the musical]. So I knew the soundscape I was going for. I’m a writer, composer, arranger, orchestrator. And I remember in middle school, high school, those were the things that got me into orchestration and arrangement: listening to the world that Disney builds. I think the orchestrations are just as integral to building the world of Disney as the actual music itself is, because it brings you into that world and makes it bigger. I was very familiar with that, because I used to study it a lot. So, when I got to this, I knew what we needed: big tremolo strings. We need a French horn. We need lots of trumpet and brass. We need timpani. We need tubular bells. It’s all of those very specific, Disney-esque type sounds. All of the orchestrations are done in a program called Logic Pro X, which is all fake. So all of those instruments are 100 percent fake. It’s all electronic. Everything else is just me playing a keyboard and mixing it well.”
Daniel’s composition, which was posted on October 19, has since garnered over a million views on his original TikTok, and has soundtracked thousands more TikToks. The track became the backing audio for other contributions to the Ratatouille the Musical project. It was used in depictions of prospective set design by user Shoebox Musicals:
Choreography by user Tristan Michael McIntyre:
A playbill by user Jess Siswick:
Puppets by user Brandon Hardy:
And a theoretical high-school cast party at a Denny’s courtesy of user @still_nic:
Other musical theater singers began to build upon it, “One Day More” style, using TikTok’s “Duet” feature. TikTokers such as @megg_mcmuffin22, @andybecker1, @johnviggiano, @rwhitford, and @ashleycarpp dueted to give voice to characters like Remy, Anton Ego, a flustered waiter, and the ghost of Gusteau. Mertzlufft says this duet feature is also what helped make the Grocery Musical go viral earlier this year:
Not long after this, new songs were workshopped for the musical, like two different versions of an act-one number that Remy’s dad can sing to him. The beauty of Ratatousical is that both songs — “Trash Is Our Treasure” by @fettucinefettuqueen and “A Rat Is a Rat Is a Rat” by @barbershopraga — can exist simultaneously and both be a part of the production.
This “Tango Maureen”–style duet between Linguini (@blakeyrouse) and Colette (@aaacacia_) is one of many fabulous songs written for Colette.
This sad “Ode to Remy” variation from user Jeremy Crawford (@jeromejarambe) is more moving than it has any right to be:
One key player in Ratatouille the Musical TikTok is R.J. Christian, who has composed and performed songs for Anton Ego, Gusteau, Linguini, and Remy. Christian walked Vulture through his approach to capturing the sound of different characters through his Alan Menken–inspired compositions.
Christian says “the medium of TikTok makes it very interesting, because you really have a minute. And so a lot of the stuff that you couldn’t get away with in a real three-minute musical theater song, you could get away with. Because people just want the good stuff. If you’re writing a Gusteau song, you just have to say ‘anyone can cook,’ and be inspiring, and you’re halfway there.” It’s kind of a treat for a composer, because we basically get to be cute and show off the best parts of the character without having to worry about the whole, overarching narrative.”
Christian describes himself as a “big Disney nerd,” and says the key to writing good character songs is “really just about inhabiting what those characters are feeling right then and there.” For his song “Recipe for Success,” a duet between Remy and Linguini, “it’s excitement. It’s inspiration. And it’s friendship. So you have to have a little groove, a tight harmony, and a triumphant chord at the end. And luckily enough I got to record it with one of my best friends, a guy who I collaborate with. So when we were performing it, I didn’t have to act very hard. It was just us goofing around in the kitchen.”
One of Christian’s most popular Ratatousical TikToks musicalizes the moment when restaurant critic Anton Ego takes a bite of the ratatouille. Christian took inspiration from musical Disney villains Claude Frollo and Scar, for “the intelligence, the cutting, and the sort of non-singing kind of singing that he does. That’s all part of his aesthetic.”
Ratatouille the Musical has only continued to grow as it reaches more creatives on the platform. A @ratatouillemusical account has nearly 200 thousand followers and has become a hub for people looking to get involved. There is a pitch perfect Lin-Manuel Miranda parody number for Remy made by @rockysroad.
Patton Oswalt — the voice of Remy himself — is a fan.
It’s a burst of goofy creativity that only could have happened on TikTok (with its collaboration-friendly features like Duet), and only with theater kids, (with their inexhaustible willingness to go all in, committing to a bit). Cori Jaskier, who does the female vocals on Mertzlufft’s “Remy the Ratatouille” track, told us about what makes TikTok such a unique space: “It’s just a wonderful artistic outlet. You’re able to reach people that you couldn’t prior. You can make connections through that. You can duet, you can collab, you can make friends. And then I hope that once the pandemic is over, we can keep these connections and make things happen in the future. It’s just wonderful to have this kind of outlet because Broadway is shut down and artists are kind of wiggling in their seats for something to do. It’s been nice to have this outlet and to bring joy. It’s just fun, no pressure. Everyone’s having a great time creating.”
Em Jaccs, who created the original “Ode to Remy” that started it all, reflects on what a sensation she had inadvertently started, telling Vulture, “When this idea of creating a Ratatouille musical started to go viral, it offered an opportunity to contribute to something. We are all living in such a technologically advanced time in history. Yet, for me at least, the pandemic has highlighted the fact that the internet alone cannot entertain us forever.” Walt Disney is famously quoted as saying, in regards to his sprawling media empire, “I hope we never lose sight of one thing — that it was all started by a mouse.” Decades later, Em Jaccs looks upon what she hath wrought and tells Vulture, “Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would be embracing people referring to me as the ‘rat queen.’”
Whatever becomes of the Ratatouille musical, when we’re allowed to gather again — I’m envisioning some very good middle-school productions — it could not have happened without TikTok, or without the pandemic. As Mertzlufft says, “I think we all are so deprived of the thing that we love more than anything. One of the best parts of musical theater is collaboration, and this is allowing people to collaborate in a way that we have not been able to in so long.” In so many ways, the story of Ratatouille the TikTok Musical mirrors the story of Ratatouille: It teaches us that inspiration can come from the least likely of places, and that anyone can create. So we praise you, Ratatousical. May the world remember your name.