In October 2020, an unlikely new musical project came about. Given the many social restrictions that have hampered both established and new theatrical productions in recent times, it came as a shock to many impresarios that a brand new musical could be launched at all. And yet, that is exactly what happened when an unofficial adaptation of the charming family film Ratatouille was developed for an off-Broadway production. Perhaps, that should read off-off-Broadway because, in these socially distant times, the stage that this musical would be performed on was virtual. Indeed, it would make use of the social media phenomenon of the day to come to life, TikTok.
As one of the leading social media platforms of the last year or so, TikTok has an army of users, many posting meme-driven content that is designed to be shared widely. The Chinese social media platform often features dance performances, magic tricks, bursts of songs and jokes. In other words, it is the ideal platform for trying out a song you might have written that could have been inspired by a Disney Pixar movie that was made thirteen years before. Okay, so not everyone uses TikTok to sound out their Ratatouille-inspired melody but that is exactly what one 26-year-old school teacher from upstate New York did. And the idea caught on.
“While I was cleaning up my apartment,” Emily Jacobsen, the elementary school teacher concerned, said, “I began singing a little song to myself about Remy, the main character Ratatouille.” According to Jacobsen, she was not able to shift the song from her head and she began to wonder whether she was on to something. Jacobsen decided to record her Ode to Remy, as she called it and went on to post the song on her TikTok account. According to the school teacher, the initial idea was simply to make some of her like-minded friends laugh and to see whether other Ratatouille fans would enjoy her song.
They certainly did. The song was listened to and shared widely on the social media platform. In fact, it went viral almost instantaneously. What’s more, the track seemed to be just as popular among fans of Broadway who were feeling starved of creativity and new productions in the face of the pandemic as much as people who had seen and enjoyed the movie as kids. Indeed, her catchy number seemed to even be popular among a generation of youngsters who had never seen the Disney film before and who may never have had the opportunity to see a stage musical in-person, either.
As such, plans for Ratatouille: The TikTok Musical were soon laid which would operate as a benefit concert for the Actors Fund, a charitable organisation in the United States. With a premier on New Year’s Day, 2021, the musical was unlike any other production that had preceded it. Also known as Ratatousical, the production was only available online although it was put together by an established production company, Seaview. Perhaps the most profound difference with a conventional musical – apart from it being streamed – was that it had no single creator. In fact, as well as being crowd-funded it was crowd-written. There was no single lyricist or melody maker. Instead, all of the tracks in Ratatousical were penned individually and simply curated online to fashion a storyline that reflected the one in the film.
A Professional Production
Hundreds of fans who had viewed Jacobsen’s original post took her idea and ran with it. Some new songs came together organically and were built from the initial ideas of other people’s song posts. Others used the social media platform to exchange ideas about planned running orders as well as set and staging concepts. Despite what might be seen as an uncoordinated approach, it seemed that the preparations for the online musical went from strength to strength in the autumn of 2020.
For example, a stellar cast was signed up to perform the original songs. Wayne Brady, perhaps best-known for his improvisational comedy, was cast as Django while Andrew Barth Feldman, who took the Broadway lead in Dear Evan Hansen, portrayed Linguini. Tituss Burgess, who had previously taken roles in productions of Guys and Dolls and the Little Mermaid, starred as the hero of the piece, Remy. The Broadway Sinfonietta, a twenty-strong orchestra, provided the score. In all, twelve numbers were used for the online benefit concert which was warmly received by many theatre critics despite the fact that the performers were not physically present with one another. Perhaps this is why one reviewer called it the most telling theatrical production of our times.
About the author – Manuel Charr
Manuel Charr is a journalist working in the arts and cultural sectors. He writes extensively for Culture Geek and MuseumNext. Manuel has a background in marketing, Manuel is drawn to arts organizations which are prepared to try inventive ways to reach new audiences.