The time has come, radical theatremakers of 2020, to talk about the rat-based musical taking TikTok by storm. Even if you’re not on TikTok yourself, you’ve probably seen one of the many articles about it, ranging from strict documentation of the musical’s contents to musings about whether this new creative process could possibly be the future of theatre. This “Ratatusical”—revelling in moments of spontaneous play, collaboration, and surprise—has been a light in the dark for many Zoomed-out theatremakers. For me, the most heartwarming aspect of this project is these TikTok creatives’ longing not for the beautiful final product, but their relish for the smaller moments of the production process that create memories to last far beyond the stage door.
At its heart, the plot of Ratatouille—the 2007 Pixar movie which follows a rat named Remy on his quest to be the next great chef in a rodent-phobic field—makes it a logically attractive story for 2020. The musical, or #Ratatousical, combines everything most Americans have been missing during the pandemic: eating in restaurants, travel, adventure, and the butterfly-fueled days of a budding romance (it’s hard to replicate the accidental brush of a hand over Zoom). And the story’s central message—“Anyone can cook”—is simultaneously encouragement for the plot’s underdog (under-rat?) Remy, as well as for these young creators, empowering them to be a part of this story’s creation by simply pressing “record.”
@e_jaccsA love ballad #remy #rat #ratatoille #disney #wdw #disneyworld #ratlove #ratlife #rats #Alphets #StanleyCup #CanYouWorkIt♬ Ode to Remy – Em Jaccs
The origins of the musical can be traced to TikTok user Em Jaccs (@e_jaccs), who in August posted an a cappella “love ballad” to Remy, the rat chef. The lyrics: “Remy the ratatouille/ The rat of all my dreams/ I praise you, my ratatouille/ May the world remember/ Your name.” In October, user Daniel Mertzlufft (@danieljmertzlufft) transformed the song into a Disneyfied Broadway number complete with orchestration and a full chorus. He also added captions that function as stage directions for this bring-down-the-house number: “Confetti everywhere!” and “Remy on a lift flying over the audience!!!”—SpongeBob SquarePants meets Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark aesthetics.
Since then, the musical has taken off in the hands of its largely Gen Z creators, as dozens of users have written and shared new songs—a tango-style duet for Linguini and Collette, an admonishing solo sung by Remy’s father, a chilling song for the dreaded food critic Anton Ego—while others have proposed potential choreography.
And the work extends far beyond the aural realm. Technical designers have posted costume concepts for a dancing rat chorus, drafted stage and lighting designs (complete with a turntable), and have designed a Broadway playbill ready to be sent to the presses. Broadway puppet designer Brandon Hardy (@brandon.hardy.art) has proposed that the musical could make creative use of puppetry, since Remy piloting Linguini as a puppetmaster from under his chef’s hat is already a central trope of the story. There is even a voiceover for a radio spot, presumably to generate interest among the generation that prefers radio to TikTok.
@chamberlin_kevin@ratatouillemusical Anyone Can Cook #Gusteau #ratatouillemusical #kevinchamberlin #theatrekid #musicals #broadway #ratatouille #fyp #composer♬ original sound – Kevin Chamberlin
The project has also caught the attention of famous figures in the industry, including Tony-nominated actor Kevin Chamberlin, who posted a video of himself wearing a toque blanche (or chef’s hat) singing a song as Auguste Gusteau, the French chef that inspires Remy to make the leap into the culinary world. Even New York producer Ken Davenport threw his non-toque hat into the ring, pitching himself to the “all the creators of Rat-at-ouille the Musical!”
This is, of course, not the first musical of crowdsourced digital creation, and it isn’t even the first TikTok musical to come out of the pandemic. But what is so compelling about Ratatouille: the Musical is its celebration of, and nostalgia for, what would be ordinarily considered the unremarkable parts of the theatremaking process. Along with the more showy musical offerings there are other TikTok videos that highlight offstage moments. There is a video highlighting the rehearsal process, complete with an enthusiastic music director and a jamming chorus. Another clip shows a disgruntled diner waiter keeping their cool after the high school “theatre kids have made Denny’s the stage for an encore of Remy the Ratatouille musical.”
@still_nichopefully they leave soon #greenscreen #ratatouille #ratatouillemusical #remy #remytheratatouille♬ original sound – danieljmertzlufft
Yet another is from the point of view of a stage manager calling cues for the musical’s final dress rehearsal, congratulating the team on a smooth production, and troubleshooting a confounding quick change. These routine moments would usually pass without much comment, but now, after months of being kept physically distant and away from the rehearsal rooms and switchboards, they are undeniably precious.
When I first saw these TikTok musicals emerging, it reminded me a lot of the digital LARP (live action role playing) Facebook groups that took off earlier in the pandemic. Players join these Facebook groups—whose names largely follow the formula “A group where we all pretend to be…”—and pretend to be anything from ants in an ant colony to employees of the fictional Magnus Institute, concertgoers at the same venue, boomers, straight people, and so on. As the coronavirus has shut down and kept closed even the most mundane aspects of our lives, these groups have allowed users to socially engage with others, to manufacture and revel in novel situations. While it is inadvisable to attend a large in-person gathering at the moment, it is possible to role-play a scenario where you strike up a conversation with other concertgoers about the music that’s playing or “walk” over to your coworker’s desk to ask if she’s heard the new rumor about Stacey in accounting—you know, the one with all the pictures of her cats? The most important rule of these groups is that all participants stay in character and remain within the bounds of the imaginary scenario; many groups ban mentions of the coronavirus. These interactions, tinged with nostalgia for the mundane, fulfill a kind of social need that is going unmet during this time of physical and social isolation.
@stageandmanagementWhat this show sounds like from my experience #ratatouille #ratatoosical #stagemanagement♬ original sound – danieljmertzlufft
With a TikTok musical about a rat chef, creators have touched on a similar longing on the part of theatremakers for routine moments of creation, not just the shiniest, most perfect ones. The glow of opening nights feels like a distant memory, and for many theatre artists this nostalgia can be most acutely felt surrounding even the tiniest of moments: the jammed printers, laughing over prop snafus, hanging lights, troubleshooting costumes during curtain call. After several months trapped in my apartment, this dramaturg would happily jump at the opportunity to sit idly through an eight-hour cue-to-cue.
There are many tittering voices wondering whether or not Ratatouille will get the Disney blessing to grace Broadway stages in 2021. But gripping the question what does TikTok mean for the future of theatre too tightly might be putting too much pressure on what this project is and the unique way it captures our current moment. Whether or not the Ratatusical graces the Great White Way (though the creative team seems to have high hopes—there’s already bow music), I am grateful to its creators for reveling in and reminding us of the joy of creating and connecting with one another during a difficult time for us all. For, as a rat chorus might one day sing: “Finding the good in the garbage, the gold in the gruel.”
Linnea Valdivia (she/her/hers) is a professional freelance dramaturg, producer, and playwright based in San Luis Obispo, Calif. She also served as the literary manager for National Queer Theater in New York City.
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