Toward the end of the Disney/Pixar 2007 movie Ratatouille, the notorious food critic Anton Ego (Peter O'Toole) publishes a review of Remy the rat’s (Patton Oswalt) cooking that sums up the film’s main message: “Not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere.”
In August 2020, great art — or at least the seed from which great art would spring — came from the Hartsdale, New York, apartment of 26-year-old elementary school teacher Emily Jacobsen. “While cleaning up around the apartment, I started singing this little song to myself about the main character Remy...and as the day went on, I could not get it out of my head,” Jacobsen told BuzzFeed News.
If you have even the slightest notion of what this article is about, you probably know the song well: “Reeeeeeemy the Ratatouille, the rat of all my dreams.”
The story of how Ratatouille: The TikTok Musical (or “Ratatousical,” affectionately) went from TikTok in-joke to a streaming Broadway production almost sounds like a musical itself: Jacobsen posted her song on TikTok just to make her friends laugh, but wound up skyrocketing to viral fame, capturing the imagination of countless theater geeks bored at home during the coronavirus pandemic, and, with a whole lot of teamwork and creativity, achieving internet magic.
On the first day of 2021, Ratatouille: The TikTok Musical premiered on TodayTix.com as a benefit concert for the Actors Fund, which is providing aid to out-of-work actors and other entertainment workers during the pandemic. Tituss Burgess (Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt), who starred as Remy in the streaming concert, himself received help from the nonprofit early in his career. “The pendulum of good fortune swings back and forth whenever it decides, so it is up to us to pull our weight when we’re doing OK and give back,” Burgess told BuzzFeed News.
Raising more than $1 million in its first night and drawing 160,000 ticket sales as of Saturday morning, the musical (available for streaming until Monday evening) is undoubtedly the buzziest virtual theater event of the pandemic. Watching the show on Friday evening, part of its success comes because it embraces what it is: a digital tribute to a beloved underdog story and a dose of Broadway magic that stays true to its goofy, intimate, internetty roots. The performers appear in split screens reminiscent of TikTok’s duet feature, most filmed by themselves in their homes, with the original creators appearing next to the actor who sang their song during “bows.” The choreography incorporates nods to straight-from-TikTok moves, such as “The Dolphin.”
“The way I’ve kind of been describing it is like if a Zoom reading drank like 20 Red Bulls and then exploded onto the screen,” said director Lucy Moss, 26, whose own original musical, Six, made her the youngest woman Broadway director in history.
In less than a month, a ragtag team of the original TikTok creators, big-time stars (Wayne Brady and Adam Lambert, among them), and Broadway professionals (including a choreographer and a 20-piece orchestra) came together to make TikTok’s vision a reality. In the process, they also made something from the ashes of 2020 that was wholly good.
“This is a piece of theater that is grassroots, homegrown, and from the fans, and it was made without the normal gatekeepers OK-ing it,” said Patrick Foley, who cowrote the musical’s book. “The story of Ratatouille is ‘anyone can cook’ — the story of the nontraditional hero being allowed to follow his dreams in a space that was previously hostile toward him. And as cheesy as it may be, that’s the dream of many people.”
“If Remy is the hero of 2020,” he said, “I think that’s a better ending than I could’ve thought of.”
Blake Rouse, a 17-year-old musical theater fan from Fort Collins, Colorado, hadn’t even seen the original movie when he first wound up on Ratatouille TikTok in October. New York City–based composer Daniel Mertzlufft, now the show’s music supervisor, had just posted on TikTok an arrangement of Jacobsen’s original song, “Ode to Remy,” transforming it into a stage-ready number, with horns, strings, and percussion, and a whole chorus (himself and a friend’s vocals, layered 15 times).
Rouse had seen Jacobsen’s original TikTok, but when he saw Mertzlufft’s arrangement he was immediately inspired to join in and write two songs himself: “Rat’s Way of Life” and “Kitchen Tango.” “I thought [Mertzlufft’s take] was genius,” Rouse said. “And I knew for a fact that I had to do something.”
For months, TikTokers piggybacked off one another, contributing songs, choreography, costume and set ideas, vocals, and more, creating a crowd-sourced musical that felt like the seeds of something you might actually see on a Broadway stage. “I believe really amazing creativity can come from anywhere or anyone, and I think this app is just highlighting what I’ve always believed,” said Gabbi Bolt, a 24-year-old in Bathurst, Australia, who wrote the song “Trash Is Our Treasure.”
As more people added to the “musical,” it became less of a joke, and more like a genuinely remarkable collaboration. People began to ponder if it would get the attention of Broadway producers, particularly after Broadway actors Kevin Chamberlin (Seussical, The Addams Family) and Andrew Barth Feldman (Dear Evan Hansen) got in on the trend.
Chamberlin first found out about Ratatouille TikTok from a friend, then he rewatched the movie and found inspiration in the film’s motto, “Anyone Can Cook.” He now appears in the show as Chef Gusteau, singing the original song he wrote for the show. “I wrote ['Anyone Can Cook'] within 40 minutes,” he said, “and then I called my husband who was out Christmas shopping, and said, ‘Go to Sur La Table and get me a chef’s hat!’”
On Dec. 4, the heads of Seaview Productions, which produced the Tony-nominated Slave Play, called Mertzlufft. Rather than serve him a cease and desist order, as he’d only half-jokingly worried about, they said Disney Theatrical Group President Thomas Schumacher had greenlit a one-time benefit concert for the Actors Fund, and they asked if he’d like to be a part of it. He immediately agreed.
”Then they said, ‘We want to do it Jan. 1, and we want a full score with a full orchestra,’” he told BuzzFeed News. “I said, ‘That’s not possible, but it is for theater people, and we’ll make it happen.’”
Harpist Elizabeth Steiner plays "Ode to Remy" during a recording session.
With just weeks to pull it off, the show came together at a dizzying speed. “I had about 14 days to deliver 12 numbers orchestrated for a 20-piece orchestra,” said orchestrator Macy Schmidt, 24. “I would wake up every day, check my phone, turn my phone off for 12 to 15 hours, and then just not go to sleep till the song of the day was done.”
It was something of a Cinderella story for the TikTok creators, for many of whom this is their biggest break yet. As Seaview contacted them with the big news, several said they didn’t believe it was real at first. “I kind of just sat in shock for 20 minutes when I received that message,” said Sophia James, the 21-year-old “I Knew I Smelled a Rat” writer. “I couldn’t even fathom that my silly little rat song was liked enough by these professional Broadway producers and directors.”
Prior to the show’s announcement, some of the TikTok creators were a bit apprehensive about what might happen if Disney and Broadway producers decided to make something of their DIY musical. Would they be cut out of the process? Or even sued? Would the show lose its TikTok spirit? Instead, they said they’ve been pleased by the professionals' commitment to keeping the musical true to itself and ensuring the original TikTok creators get their due. They’re all being paid for their work, credited, and will retain the rights to their songs.
“There were all these conversations about, ‘How do we do this and honor the work of TikTok creators, and not just take what they did and make it a Broadway thing?’” said Michael Breslin, who cowrote the book with Foley. “[We] were really adamant about that…and everyone had the same perspective, which was, ‘How can we get out of the way of something that already exists?’”
RJ Christian, 21, who wrote food critic Anton Ego’s ominous solo and the titular song "Ratatouille," told BuzzFeed News he was having one of the toughest times in his life in the months leading up to the Ratatouille musical. A senior studying vocal performance and musical theater at NYU (now virtually), he worries about how he’ll find a job when he graduates this spring given the uncertain future of live theater. “Even without the pandemic, finding work as an artist in musical theater, that’s hard work,” Christian said.
Though he’s new to composing, having his song included in such a major production — and performed by Broadway icon André De Shields, who played Ego — has given him some much-needed confidence. “I’ve been grappling with the fact that I’m about to graduate into a field that sort of doesn’t exist right now, but this really made me feel like I can make this work,” Christian said. “People see my work and think it’s good… I just feel very validated in this moment, and I feel ready to take on the world, just from this little moment of people acknowledging I can make art.”
Christian wasn’t alone in feeling grateful that the Ratatouille musical helped him rediscover a love of making art in a time when doing so felt insurmountable. Jess Siswick, 33, found a unique way to contribute her graphic design talents: She created the Playbill in November, which was officially used for the benefit. “I lost my brother at the end of July very unexpectedly, and any spark of creativity I had inside me was just gone,” Siswick told BuzzFeed News. “[But] seeing all these people collaborate together and create something…that spark was relit again, and I couldn’t ignore it. Getting that creativity flowing again has meant so much to me.”
Even Chamberlin, a veteran actor, said the musical has inspired him to start writing more music. “Isn’t it fascinating how art is pushing through?” he said. “Even during a pandemic, art pushes through, and is almost inspired and fed by it.”
While out of work during the pandemic, 30-year-old Chris Routh also turned to his hobby of miniature set design to pass the time; visuals from the “Shoebox Musicals” creator were used in the show’s opening, his first professional theater credit. “I’m just blown away by Broadway seeing my set designs,” Routh said.
The unique nature of the show has allowed the creators to rethink typical theater norms, including whose work deserves acclaim and elevation. As a result, it’s remarkably diverse — not just among the cast, but all who worked on it behind the scenes. An all-women, majority-BIPOC orchestra, led by Schmidt, provides the musical accompaniment to the show, appearing at times on the screen performing together in face masks. The role of Chef Skinner is also gender-flipped, played by Broadway legend Mary Testa (Oklahoma) with a mustache painted on her upper lip.
“I am so grateful that casting was able to bring so many people of color and have a female Chef Skinner,” choreographer Ellenore Scott told BuzzFeed News. “I hope it continues to open minds and eyes that a character doesn’t necessarily need to be any certain type of way. If whoever portrays that character plays it with honesty and truth, then it doesn’t necessarily matter what color their skin is or what pronoun they prefer.”
It’s unclear what’s next for the Ratatouille musical. As of now, it’s scheduled to disappear from the internet after 72 hours. A Disney Theatrical Group spokesperson told BuzzFeed News they have no current plans to bring it to an actual Broadway stage, though of course, theaters will continue to be dark for a while anyway.
But no matter what comes of the Ratatouille musical, it has already done something important for its theater-deprived creators and fans: It cut through the bleakness of 2020 with pure, unadulterated joy, positivity, and absurdity. It brought people together amid the loneliness, spiraling into a bouncy, exuberant group project with its own lore and fandom, and acted as a salve and a beacon. It was the antithesis of, well, everything else from 2020.
“It feels like we’re making theater again,” said Mertzlufft, the music supervisor. “So as stressful and crazy as it’s been, it feels like we’re home again.”