On Friday, the impossible happens. On the first day of 2021, we will all finally get to see a new (sort of) Broadway (certainly not) show! The shutdown is keeping stages dark, but your computer screen can still shine like a lit-up marquee. After a breakneck creative process, the scrappy, hour-long Ratatouille: The TikTok Musical will debut on the internet, as a benefit for the Actors Fund.
Never before has a musical been shaped by so many hands that didn’t originally sign a contract. For the last several months, a musicalization of Pixar’s 2007 movie has been bubbling up from the miasma of TikTok without any input—or permission—from the studio. First, Emily Jacobsen, inspired by the announcement of a Ratatouille-themed ride at Walt Disney World Resort, sang the hookiest hook on TikTok: “Remy, the Ratatouille, rat of all my dreams!” Her post went viral. Then composer/arranger Daniel Mertzlufft scored her micro-song with a virtual orchestra, turning Jacobsen’s little stanza into a thrilling “act two finale” for a show that didn’t exist. The internet took note, dozens of creators contributed performances and songs and choreography and a Playbill design and a miniature set, and the hashtag #RatatouilleMusical exploded to the tune of 200 million clicks. (Click here to read Vulture’s full TikTok tick-tock.)
The motto of Ratatouille is “Anyone can cook.” In Pixar’s animated fantasy, a rat can be a world-class chef, as long as he can get a boost from a much larger human helper. As the musical emerged—a crowd-sourced David chipped out by a thousand chisels—Ratatouille also became a tidy allegory for the way that TikTok creators have been able to dodge conventional gatekeepers and to ride piggyback on a giant like Disney. The House of Mouse, which is hardly known for liberal handling of its intellectual property, has agreed to unclench the paw for one night only. The official line is: “Although we do not have development plans for the title, we love when our fans engage with Disney stories. We applaud and thank all of the online theatre makers for helping to benefit The Actors Fund in this unprecedented time of need.”
According to Joe Benincasa of the Actors Fund, it was a matter of phone calls. The spark was first struck by producers Jeremy O. Harris, the extremely online writer-producer, and Greg Nobile of the theatrical production company Seaview. According to Benincasa, Nobile called Tom Schumacher, the president of Disney Theatricals, over Thanksgiving. “Tom said, ‘That’s a good idea. I think Disney can free up the rights … let’s try to do it. I’ll clear the path.’” The key seems to have been its brief engagement (it will be online only for 72 hours after its debut) and the focus on the Fund. It’s hard to overstate the community’s love for the Actors Fund, which has disbursed over $18 million to arts workers in need. Last year, they averaged about 10,000 donors. This year they are clearing 60,000.
On the following Monday, Disney’s representative on the Actors Fund board called Benincasa—the turn-around was that quick. “The marriage was made between Disney and Seaview productions,” says Benincasa, “and because TikTok has become a great supporter of the Actors Fund, we introduced both parties to TikTok.” The Fund also helped with talent recruitment, and the cast is a rogues’ gallery: Tituss Burgess plays the gastronome rodent Remy; TikTok contributor and Broadway fixture Kevin Chamberlin is ghostly mentor Gusteau; André de Shields plays the hard-bitten restaurant critic Anton Ego; Ashley Park sharpens her knives as tart-voiced chef Colette; and Andrew Barth Feldman—beloved Dear Evan Hansen star and choice of the hashtagosphere—appears as Remy’s hapless kitchen puppet Linguini.
Nobile and Harris had also produced the online show Circle Jerk, so they hired the co-writers Patrick Foley and Michael Breslin to bring their transgressive, nano-referential wit to the book. (Both are also listed as producers.) Nobile texted them the night before Thanksgiving, says Breslin. “I’d had some Champagne, of course. And the text thread is literally just me sending [Greg] a bunch of rat emojis and being like, ‘amazing!’, like ‘rat, rat, rat.’’’ One begins to see where Disney would not…have necessarily used the same methods. The pair had one week to write the treatment, then another to write the libretto.
The extreme compression of the process meant that they did a quite classic adaptation of the film, shaping the book around songs by thirteen TikTok creators. Still, as closely as they hew to the film’s circumstances and fandom’s unironic love of it, there’s still a biting born-online sensibility to the whole project. Director Lucy Moss, whose show Six was about to open before Broadway shut down, joked with the writing team that they were not always looking for the most famous actor for each part, but rather the figure who was most—cue internet parlance—iconic. “Tituss was the dream,” says Foley. “And we found out about him, I suppose fairly quickly in the process. And then it was just a conversation about: How tongue in cheek can we be? How many Inheritance jokes can there be? Turns out—none. But it was a delicate balance of trying to embrace this internet form and also do justice to the material.”
Ratatouille’s choreographer, Ellenore Scott, was already passionate about TikTok, so she came to the film by way of the algorithm. Most of the dances she’s created will be performed by the ensemble, saturated in her favorite aspects of TikTok choreography: accessibility (“dances you could teach your grandma”), virtuosity (“you want to also be impressed”), and the app’s specific filters, which create vivid Busby Berkeley like effects—the cloning tool in particular. She’s been impressed by the way that the TikTok creators were brought into the process, so that each person who contributed, say, a 59-second sequence was consulted as that work was turned into longer numbers. Through a representative, Nobile says that all the creators are being compensated, and that “it’s in the Off Broadway–like range.” So “I feel very taken care of on all fronts,” says Scott.
Could this new musical form, which started as a placeholder, become a placetaker? “When I think about the times that I have been in the room when a musical’s being developed,” Scott says, “it’s years and years, meetings upon meetings. You rethink your idea 400 times before actually getting in the room. Whereas it felt like we made this in the amount of time you would make a TikTok, which is—you know, you snap a finger.” And, of course, there’s the fact that it’s work, work at last. A platform where artists went to mourn a silent industry became first an escape, then a place to perform and be creative. Now it’s providing the first big theatrical event of the next decade. “Pardon my French,” says Scott, “But this is the cherry on top of a pile of shit that’s been 2020. Like, I’m happy that it’s ending off with something sweet. You know what I mean?”