Navigating a career in the performing arts can feel like an exhausting game of Chutes and Ladders. Every step forward presents a threat to fall back, or a chance for growth. That’s been especially true during the pandemic, which has left entertainment workers across the country without jobs, from the behind-the-scenes production staff to actors, musicians, and dancers. “There is a huge lack of federal support for our community during this time, which has sent so many people back to their hometowns,” said Greg Nobile, CEO of the Broadway theater company Seaview Productions. “Extraordinary designers and creators are bagging groceries at their local grocery stores.”
At the same time, there was a ladder: TikTok’s download numbers spiked from under 40 million users in October 2019 to more than 90 million by June 2020. Many of the people whose talents were normally put to use onstage were instead singing, dancing, orchestrating, acting, crafting, and puppeteering on TikTok. Though it rarely paid dividends, the platform was a bright spot of self-expression. And eventually, the stray creative energy being pumped into the app zeroed in on an inexplicable project: Turning the 2007 Pixar film Ratatouille into a musical production.
What began with a single user’s video became a hypnotizing chorus of ideas for songs, costumes, music, and set design. Out-of-work creatives saw themselves in Ratatouille’s protagonist, an aspiring rat chef named Remy who is an underdog with a dream and the determination to realize it. Within the span of a few months, hundreds of users submitted their ideas for the show under the hashtag #ratatouillemusical. And, against all odds and Disney’s historically territorial attitude toward intellectual property, hype for the idea willed the play into existence.
What was once a joke on musical theater TikTok will now be a 90-plus-person benefit helmed by Tony-nominated playwright Jeremy O. Harris. The show, which stars musical heavyweights like Tituss Burgess, Adam Lambert, and André De Shields, will stream online January 1 at 7 p.m. ET, and all ticket sales will go toward the Actors Fund. Three days from the premiere, the streaming event had sold over 70,000 tickets, inching toward a $1 million fundraising goal, according to Nobile. The story of how it came to be proves the power of a meme, and stands as a virtual monument to the theater industry’s resilience.
Part I: The First Course
Emily Jacobsen (@e_jaccs), 26-year-old elementary teacher based in New York: Early in the quarantine, I just needed entertainment, so I downloaded TikTok. I started posting a little bit here and there. Then, in August, I had been reading this article about the Ratatouille ride coming to Disney World, and while I was cleaning up my apartment, I started singing this little song to myself about Remy, the main character of the movie. I pulled from the lyrics and verbiage of different Catholic hymns, which is me and my brother’s brand of humor. We think it’s hysterical to blend the idea of a fictional Disney character with words like “praise,” “salvation,” “remember his name,” things like that.
I decided to make a TikTok—I grabbed photos from Google, made them into extreme close-ups of the characters. I made my voice sound more cartoon-like and I just posted this little “Ode to Remy” song. I sent it to friends and family for a quick laugh and forgot about it.
On October 10, Brittany Broski, of TikTok “kombucha girl” fame, used Jacobsen’s song for a video that received almost half a million views. From there, users stumbled upon the source material—including composer and arranger Daniel Mertzlufft.
Daniel J. Mertzlufft (@danieljmertzlufft), musical supervisor, arranger, and original lyrics: A friend of mine tagged me in the comments [of Emily’s video] and said, “Hey is this the next Grocery Store Musical?” which was a video of mine that went viral over the summer. I thought what she put up was charming and silly and funny, and perfect to be a fun little parody for an Act 2 finale. What better way to end Act 2 in a show than the line, “May the world remember your name”? So I decided to give it the full Disney treatment. I went back and listened to some of the Alan Menken classics—The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, The Hunchback of Notre Dame—to try to re-create that world. And then my good friend Cori Jaskier and I recorded all the vocals. There’s like 15 of each of us singing the choir on there. And then I posted it.
Jacobsen: It was in that moment that suddenly everyone had the idea: Ratatouille should be a musical.
Hundreds of videos began streaming in under the hashtag #ratatouillethemusical. They included songs from American Idol contestant Sophia James, a ditty performed by Dear Evan Hansen lead Andrew Barth Feldman, and a miniature set, costume ideas, and choreography from enthusiastic fans.
Mertzlufft: It started with the songwriters, I think. There was “The Rat’s Way of Life” by Gabbi Bolt. And “The Kitchen Tango” by Blake Rouse. I remember being like, “Oh wow, these are really amazing.”
Gabbi Bolt (@fettuccinefettuqueen), 24-year-old music tutor from Australia: The first video I saw was [Mertzlufft’s] arrangement of Emily’s lyrics—which was him doing the full Hunchback of Notre Dame ending—and I loved it. I could tell that we were all just getting really restless creatively. I thought, “I haven’t seen one for Remy’s dad yet. It needs that Disney parental big-bad-world-whimsy song that the supporting character gets.” I wrote the verse and the chorus in about 10 minutes. The backing probably took me about 20 minutes. It was very Chim-Chimney, waltz, ooky-spooky vibes. I whipped up this little video, and uploaded it right before work. Then I woke up the next morning to 80,000 likes.
RJ Christian (@rjthecomposer), 21-year-old music student at NYU: I saw a couple of original songs being taken pretty seriously, and I thought, “I’m a composer and I have a Logic, I have a MIDI keyboard, and I have a microphone. I have the equipment. Why not throw my hat in the ring?” The first song I wrote was the “Anyone Can Cook” song. It’s a lush Sondheim-esque ballad sung by [world-renowned fictional French chef, and Remy’s imaginary friend, Auguste] Gusteau. If Ratatouille was going to be a musical, there had to be an “Anyone Can Cook” song. There simply must be.
Josh Abram Lloyd (@ratatoulliethemusical), 24-year-old actor from Michigan: I remember seeing @rjthecomposer’s “Anyone Can Cook.” That was the video that really put it into perspective for me, like, this has potential to be translated to the stage.
Christian: It was sort of 50 percent a joke, 50 percent me taking it 100 percent seriously. A lot of people were commenting, like, “This made me cry. Why am I crying at Ratatouille: The Musical?”
Blake Rouse (@blakeyrouse), 17-year-old high school student from Colorado: I’m embarrassed to say that I had never seen the movie before then. It’s a fire movie. Pixar—they can’t do anything wrong.
Kevin Chamberlin (@chamberlin_kevin), actor playing Gusteau: A friend of mine said, “You’ve gotta watch Ratatouille” because of this TikTok trend. I hadn’t seen that movie since 2007.
Lloyd: I looked around to see if anybody had tried to formally organize this thing, and I didn’t see that. So I made the [@RatatouilleTheTikTokMusical] page. The first video that I posted was a call to action, asking for help from any and everybody: lighting designers, technicians, actors—literally whatever you can do. We just wanted people to make this a reality.
Rouse: I saw Josh Abram [Lloyd]’s video, and I was like, “I need to make something.” I had seen a video of a girl listing off some of her ideas that she thought of for songs for the show, and one of them was a tango between Colette and Linguini when Colette is training him. I was like, “Yep, I’m doing that one.” I wrote the song in a night.
Jess Siswick (@siswij), 33-year-old graphic designer from Northern Virginia: It was just a joy to see everybody creating, focusing on different parts of the story. Seeing the costume designs and everything, I was really affected. And we just kept on going further and further down the rabbit hole of this Ratatouille musical. We’ve all been starved of new musicals since March when Broadway shut down.
Lloyd: The response was absolutely crazy. I attached an email to that video for people to email ideas and I swear, after we put that out, we got an email every three minutes.
Chamberlin: I watched the movie, and within 20 minutes, Gusteau is there with the cookbook that he wrote, Anyone Can Cook. I was like, it’s a song. I wrote down a bunch of terms and lines from the movie on a big yellow pad. I was like, “What rhymes with cook? Well, book. I can use that.” Boil and broil. Deglaze and braise. Casserole can be droll. Then I plugged them in and it came out really easily. My husband was out shopping and I said, go to Sur La Table and buy me a chef’s hat. He came home with a chef hat, I sat down at the piano, and I recorded it. And then the next day it had 1.4 million hits.
Siswick: I make graphics for a living. I thought, “I have no musical ability whatsoever. I can’t add a song to this. I’m going to make the playbill, I’m going to brand this.” I had this idea in my head for days of like, what if I did the [ratatouille] on the fork, and it was the shape of Remy? So one Friday evening, I just decided to put that poster together.
A few days after I posted my playbill on TikTok, I saw it being shared elsewhere. I saw it on Twitter. People saying, “This playbill looks legit.” I had friends who are in the Broadway industry in New York say, “People are talking about your playbill design.” Then Playbill contacted me and said, “We really love your design. We’d love to make it a real-fake playbill.” They asked for a high-res image of my Ratatouille poster and they took it and made a virtual playbill that people could download, including crediting everybody’s songs and the production team. My artwork is officially on their website—that is just something that’s so bizarre to me. That very same day, Disney Pixar tweeted about it. And so did Disney on Broadway.
Greg Nobile, CEO of Seaview productions, and producer: I was sort of following it along with everybody else. There was a certain point around Kevin Chamberlin’s “Anyone Can Cook” video, where I was like, the music is good, the performances are good, there’s something palpably exciting here.
Ellenore Scott (@ellenoreshoto), choreographer: Even people in my life who were not on TikTok knew that this musical was being developed on TikTok.
Nobile: I remember pretty vividly Gayle King singing the “Remy the Ratatouille” song on the news because they were reporting on the trend. And I was like, this has pierced not only pop culture—it is now culture culture.
Part II: Something Cooking
Nobile: Seaview is really focused on accessibility in the theater. Like, how do we find ways to dismantle barriers to entry into our business? It was at that moment where we were like, what’s happening organically is everything that we as a company stand for. So how can we get involved and help realize this?
Scott: [Playwright] Jeremy O. Harris is a good friend. We both follow each other on TikTok, and I saw him replying to a comment basically saying: Y’all, this will never happen, if this was an actual show the only people that would produce this would be Disney. Trying to get their attention is going to be really difficult.
Nobile: My friend works at Disney. I called him and said, “This is crazy, I’m sure you’re talking about this with a million people, but we have to do something with this.” And he was like, “We know about it, we love it, we’re excited about it. [President of Disney Theatrical Productions] Tom [Schumacher] is in Australia right now opening Frozen, you should have a conversation with him.” He set a meeting.
Joseph Benincasa, CEO of the Actors Fund: [The day before] Thanksgiving, Greg contacted Tom and pitched the idea. He’s a fantastic supporter of the Actors Fund. He served on the board for six years.
Nobile: We were on the same page that the worst version of this is something that pops up in a year, and everyone’s like, “That’s not what we made. Why did you uncool people take something that was cool and organic and ruin it?” So we agreed that the only way to do it was to do something quick and fast that could benefit the community. Tom, fortunately, and to our great benefit, trusted our small company to lead the effort.
Benincasa: I have so much respect for how Tom and the other executives protect what they own, but they do have a soft spot when it comes to the Actors Fund.
Patrick Foley (of Circle Jerk), co-book-writer of Ratatouille: The Musical: Greg Nobile reached out to [me and my writing partner, Michael Breslin]. It was the night before Thanksgiving, and he was like, “Have you guys heard about this Ratatouille trend on TikTok?”
Nobile: They were like, “Yeah, we’ve been following it.” I was like, “Wouldn’t it be great if it was a thing?” And they were like, “Ha, ha, ha.” Then a couple hours later, I was like, “So I just spoke to Tom Schumacher, he’s down for us to do this.”
Foley: I basically fell asleep at midnight that night, and I woke up the next day and Michael and Greg had been texting till like 3 in the morning.
Michael Breslin (of Circle Jerk), co-book-writer of Ratatouille: The Musical: I think I was drinking so there were just a lot of rat emoji.
Foley: I was like, “I can’t deal with this, I have to go to bed.” And then I woke up and Greg had been like, “OK, so send me the treatment.”
Nobile: It took them a bit of time to believe that it was happening, because I’m pretty crazy and I’ll send people ideas all the time and do things like make a musical in three weeks. They were like, “Oh wait, this is real.” We had a long phone call where I told them all the reasons I wanted them to do it. Then 20 minutes later they sent me a meme of Remy dancing around a pot of soup and I knew we were on.
Foley: By the end of the week, we wrote down a treatment based on a lot of the work that Daniel and Emily and a lot of the other TikTok creators had done and got cookin’ on the book.
Nobile: It was such a backward process because we had no time. Usually you bring on the writer or director, then you bring on their counterpart, then you start design or choreography. I was in the unenviable position of having to make a creative team that I thought would be cohesive. It was [Six director] Lucy Moss, and it was the Broadway Sinfonietta.
Macy Schmidt, orchestrator, and co-music-coordinator: Broadway Sinfonietta is an all-female-identifying and majority women-of-color orchestra. Greg was like, “We specifically want this orchestra.”
Mertzlufft: On that first call, Seaview was like: “Hey, we heard from Tom Schumacher, they’ve given us the rights for a one-night-only benefit concert for the Actors Fund.” The Actors Fund is such an important organization that really provides a safety net for performing arts and entertainment workers. So one, just giving money to them was really important to me, but also bringing to life this thing was really exciting.
Nobile: There are a lot of reasons that I believe people have jumped on board. One is for the Actors Fund. Another is that people just actually love this story and love Remy. And the other is that people just want to make something.
Mertzlufft: Then they said January 1 was the stream date. I took a deep breath and said, “Yeah, we can do that.” Which is absurd.
Jacobsen: I spoke to Daniel early on to parse what our favorite songs were and what pieces or contributions the community had really loved.
Rouse: I got a call from Daniel Mertzlufft and he was like, “Hey, Blake. So great news, Ratatouille the Musical is going to Broadway.” And I was like, “What?” He was like, “Yep. Ratatouille the Musical is going to Broadway. We want to use your two songs. You can’t tell anybody.” And I was like, “OK, that’s going to be very hard, but I won’t.”
Bolt: Being all the way over here in Bathurst, Australia, you read an email that’s like, “We’re a Broadway production company ...” and there’s still a part of you that just goes, “This isn’t real, is it? This is probably just a scam.” But then after reading all the terms and reading through the email, I was like, “Oh, no. This is real. Yes, I will definitely be involved.”
Siswick: I got a phone call in early December. They said, “Hey, we’re doing this thing. We’d love you to meet our design team, and they’d love to use your artwork.” I met with them and we had a great talk. And then I had to keep quiet for about a week, until they released the initial trailer saying that this is happening. They sent me footage on that Monday, and the video announcement was released that Wednesday. One of the most surreal moments of this crazy year that we’ve all lived through was being sent a video of my artwork on a Broadway marquee.
Nobile: There were people like Andrew and Kevin who I wanted to be in it, and who felt spiritually right to the project.
Andrew Barth Feldman (Dear Evan Hansen), Linguini: I got an email from my contact at the Actors Fund, Douglas Ramirez. The subject line said “Ratatousical.” And the body of the email said, “I assume this subject caught your eye, will you hop on this Zoom?” He told me about this benefit concert. Even then they didn’t know how big this was going to be. So it was like, “It’ll just be easy and fun and take two seconds and we want you to play Linguini.”
Chamberlin: I’m the only one actually performing the song that they wrote. Once the musical started going, Daniel asked me to write another verse because he was integrating my song into the opening number. And he needed it within a day. So once again, I just went back to my original sheet. I started writing down words like “coq au vin, in the pan” and “put some stock in your future.”
Feldman: I think it’s notable that Kevin Chamberlin and I were the first people that they asked because we had been part of the TikTok thing. That’s just so indicative of how TikTok-centric this thing is and how they want to pay dues to the creators who are the foundation of this entire crazy thing.
On December 9, Jeremy O. Harris posted a TikTok announcing that he’s the executive producer of Ratatouille: The TikTok Musical, a one-night event streaming on January 1 to benefit the Actors Fund.
Scott: I saw Jeremy’s video saying like, “I was wrong, I take it back, it’s actually happening.”
Foley: We approached it as a classical memory play. Remy, our protagonist, played by Tituss Burgess, takes us through this incredible story, and—in almost a Fleabaggy but also Shakespearian way—is able to step in and out of the dramatic action.
Breslin: The story is the same story as the movie. You follow Remy from being with his family, getting separated from his family, winding up at Gusteau’s, linking up with Linguini. All of the antics of the film. Some of them have had to be heavily truncated, but the central plot has been the same.
David Bengali, Ratatouille production designer: We were going to be able to have participation from all of these great performers, but they wouldn’t be performing at the same time. They were mostly going to be in their own homes. We didn’t have any time to send them equipment, considering how hard shipping might be and how little time remained. The concept needed to be this super-fast version of putting this idea of the musical on its feet.
Emily Marshall, music director: There literally aren’t enough seconds in the days to get everything we need to do done.
Bengali: [We wanted to] embrace that fact, in line with the idea of short-form performance and the TikTok origins of things. And then underneath that is this really beautiful, fully realized musical score.
Mertzlufft: It’s almost a full cast album. It’s 12 tunes. Full tunes. Which is a lot to put out in that amount of time. Ten of them were pulled from TikTok and then I was able to expand upon them, giving them the full Broadway treatment. You know, write a bunch of underscoring, but also make the sound world cohesive.
And then there were two tunes we were missing: an opening number, and then Remy’s “I Want” song. “I Want” songs are classic musical theater, and specifically classic Disney songs. It’s when the character says at the beginning what they want, and by the end of the show they’re probably going to get it. “Part of Your World” is the most perfect “I Want” song, in my opinion. We really needed one that ties together all of the themes of what was happening. So within the new “I Want” song, my lyricist Kate Leonard and I created a place where we could hear musical scenes from the rest of the songs, so it feels like a payoff of the classic Disney piece. Then it was off. It literally just became a conveyor belt, basically, where one chart a day would be completed.
Marshall: We’re just riding every single second. We had a 3 a.m. deadline on Christmas Day because that’s when the people in Germany would start working. Part of our second line of music mixing and mastering, they have a team that is in New York, L.A., and in Germany. Pretty much not to lose any hours of the day, so you always have people working.
Lucy Moss, director: I had this music department that had been making these incredible orchestrations of work for several weeks. So it was just about trying to get my bearings and figure out what was possible. The thing [producers] liked about my other show, Six, is that it was joyful, and celebratory and fun and silly. And I think that’s the heartwarming thing about this whole phenomenon, it’s just people who are excited about the idea of the Ratatouille musical being a thing.
Bengali: Lucy mapped out the entire show, thinking about concepts for each scene. Talking about shot framing. How are we going to put these folks together if we were filming it at the same time? Each performer received detailed instructions of, like, this is a thing that we need you to capture. We’re going to send you a file to have in your earbuds of the music, we’re going to send you audio to have in your earbuds of someone else in the scene, but they’re not going to be in the room with you at the same time. And then we need you to send all of these things back to us by the 24th. And then starting on the 24th, we can start editing the audio as something that can be coherent all together.
Moss: A lot of the joyfulness came during the casting process. The question I kept writing in emails and asking at any stages was: “Who’s the most iconic person to do this job?” [Seeing] that Tituss Burgess is singing my song, like, I would scream and die. A lot of it was about trying to make choices that would make people scream and die.
Bengali: We knew that Tituss was going to have the most to do. He’s in every scene and would just have received the scripts. So, unlike the other folks, we brought him into the studio where we could film him with support from all of us. Do those scenes in an environment where we can have a camera set up, have some audio support, have some support for the scripts, music support. Everyone else continued with the plan of filming themselves at home.
Feldman: Because we were doing this primarily virtually, as far I was concerned, Tituss Burgess was in my hat. And as far as Tituss is concerned, he was in my hat. And when you watch it, it’s going to at least suggest that he was in my hat.
Talia Suskauer, actress and singer: On Monday we had a music rehearsal on Zoom. Then on Tuesday, there were like four songs I had to learn, several different parts. We did three songs the first night and the big finale song the second night. And then the videos were due Thursday.
Scott: Our ensemble is two people, and then we also have six amazing dancers. I wanted to make sure that the movement that they did would be something that I choreographed for a Broadway stage. It’s a show about rats. So I looked at a lot of video footage of rats, and they’re hilarious, their little hands are so adorable. So you’re going to see a lot of rat hands, or rat claws. And there will be a distinctive difference between a human dancing and a rat dancing.
Suskauer: I am playing, I guess, a rat? I had rat ears and whiskers in one video, and then I wore a chef’s hat in another video. I’m very excited to see the finished product.
Scott: During the pandemic there was this kind of hopelessness of “When is Broadway coming back?” This brought so much joy, and literally threw me into what life used to be. Calls with producers, talking with the director. And once I saw how many amazing people were on the creative team, and people that I got to collaborate with, I was like, “Oh, this is it. We’re back, baby.”
On December 28, Seaview announced that the cast of Ratatouille: The TikTok Musical would include Tituss Burgess as Remy, Wayne Brady as Django, Kevin Chamberlin as Gusteau, Tony Award–winner André De Shields as Ego, Andrew Barth Feldman as Linguini, Grammy Award–nominee Adam Lambert as Emile, Tony winner Priscilla Lopez as Mabel, Tony nominee Ashley Park as Colette, Owen Tabaka as Young Ego, and three-time Tony nominee Mary Testa as Skinner.
Part III: The Main Course
Scott: I don’t think any of us know what the final performance is going to look like. Typically when you’re developing a musical you have hours of rehearsal and hours of tech, days and days in a theater where you’re there from noon to midnight, and everyone’s tired of the show by the end. You’re like, “Gosh, I’ve seen the show 700 times today and I’m going to see it 700 times tomorrow.” There’s something actually very exciting and thrilling that we all worked on different sections of the show, and we’re all giving it up to the amazing editors on the project. We’re going to be sitting down on January 1 being like, “I can’t wait for the show.”
Moss: The way this has been written is absolutely a milestone. I do hope that it’s something that continues. I hope it opens the doors and/or eyes of producers and the gatekeepers to democratize theater even further, and to show them that something of real merit can be created not in the “traditional” ways. It’s a really big deal.
Nobile: What was so exciting to me was seeing there were people of all different ages, literally all over the country—and all over the world, actually—making this thing. And there was no barrier to access. Anybody who wanted to make a video to participate in this could.
Feldman: It’s given an opportunity to show that creation and theater are a state of mind. It’s something that we can do and follow our passion even when there are no producers behind us. So much of this was being developed, created, and then workshopped on TikTok. It was just these people writing songs. This is proof that we can be doing theater forever.
Foley: There have been all these articles asking, “Where is theater in 2020?” Theater in 2020 is on TikTok. The theater of 2020 is online and it’s not a Zoom reading—it’s the scrappiness and ingenuity and enthusiasm that these creators are bringing to the work they’re doing for a project that is not paying them anything.
Jacobsen: For a lot of these big companies, the success of their products really relies on the fans. In the case of Ratatouille, fans have really come out all as one with this end goal in mind. I think that it speaks to the power of the internet, especially now.
Feldman: Greg put it very well: This is the proof that anyone can cook. This is showing us that anyone can do anything at any time, regardless of if the world’s burning down. We can still be creating theater in some way, because we have to.
These interviews have been condensed and edited for clarity.
An earlier version of this piece misstated Harris’s role; he’s the executive producer.