In the beginning, there was a rat. Specifically, Remy, the Parisian rodent at the center of Ratatouille, the 2007 Pixar movie about a rat who loves to cook. Ratatouille, though critically acclaimed upon its release, was not a commercial juggernaut like Disney properties Frozen or The Lion King — yet over the past few months, it has enjoyed a renaissance on musical theater TikTok, where members of Gen Z are building a musical adaptation from scratch (potential litigation from Disney be damned.) We spoke to over half-a-dozen of the creators and, what follows, is a brief oral history of how Gen Z theater kids came together in the midst of a pandemic and made a musical; first as a joke, and then in concert as a community.
For the uninitiated, a brief summary of Ratatouille:
RJ Christian, composer, “Anyone Can Cook”: It’s an underdog story about Remy, a rat who wants to be a chef, mixed with a second underdog story of Linguini, who comes from nothing and owns his father’s business, and another underdog story of Colette, a woman in a male-dominated industry who becomes the sous chef of this restaurant. They’re all packed with this Disney magic that is ripe for musicalization.
Emily Jacobson, composer, “Remy the Ratatouille”: It’s one of those movies that really gets overlooked by people. It was a little bit popular, but it didn’t take off like Frozen. It’s not actually a musical, and [compared to other Disney movies] it has more of an adult vibe. I watched it recently and i couldn’t believe it was rated-G because it had all of these themes — feeling like an imposter and not living up to your potential. For children it would go over their heads but, as an adult, I did feel a connection to those stories.
Ratatouille served as creative inspiration for Jacobson back in August, when she posted a TikTok of herself singing a paean to Remy in falsetto. The lyrics of the song are, “Remy, the ratatouille/the rat of all my dreams/I praise you, my ratatouille/may the world remember your name.”
Jacobson: In my childhood, I got dragged to church every week and I memorized all these different songs from the Catholic church. I like making up random songs, and I thought it’d be really funny to use words like “praise,” as if Remy was like a god. It was just supposed to make my sister and a few friends laugh.
Jacobson’s song went viral after Brittany Broski, a creator with 5.8 million TikTok followers, posted a TikTok using Jacobson’s sound, on top of footage of a life-size Remy dancing at Disney World. But it wasn’t until last month — when composer and arranger Daniel Mertzlufft was tagged in a TikTok using the sound — that the idea of actually creating a Ratatouille musical came to be. Mertzlufft had experience writing viral TikTok musical theater parodies, having created a trend based on Louisa Melcher’s “New York Summer” earlier this year.
Daniel Mertzlufft, composer, “Remy the Ratatouille (orchestral version)”: The lyrics didn’t actually make sense. “Remy, the ratatouille?” He’s not actually the dish.
Jacobson: The ratatouille is just, like, a symbol for your dreams. I had no intentions of trying to explain it.
Mertzlufft: I knew it needed to be the Act 2 finale of a Disney show. That’s what it sounded like: It’s triumphant, and you can hear the entire chorus singing about Remy as he comes up on center stage. It screamed to me a big, big Disney ending, like Little Mermaid‘s “Part of Your World” or the ending of Hunchback of Notre Dame. For the orchestration I did lots of tremolo high string, tubular bells, a glockenspiel, a French horn — [Disney composer] Alan Menken uses a lot of French horn.
The resulting lavish orchestration, envisioning Remy flying over the audience on high wires with glitter and confetti everywhere, has almost a million views.
Blake Rouse, composer, “Ratatouille Tango”: It started as a joke. And then people sort of started saying, “Hey, check this out. This could be the song, this could be the dance numbers, these could be costumes.” People started to become invested in this TikTok musical theater baby everyone’s collectively taking care of.
Mertzlufft: [That’s] what led people to contribute and say, “Oh my God, this actually could work.”
Gabbie Bolt, composer, “The Good in the Garbage”: The idea of a rat having to be onstage or the notion of a chorus of singing rats is quite funny to a lot of people. But I don’t think a lot of us saw it being taken this far.
Over the past few weeks, TikTok teens and out-of-work musical theater actors, composers, costume designers, set designers, stage managers, and choreographers have assembled on the platform to present their own unique visions for what Ratatouille: The Musical could look like.
Jacobson: Probably my favorite song is the first one I heard early on, “Anyone Can Cook.” It was a very solemn song for Chef Gusteau, who in the movie is dead. He really played the part. He had a costume, holding pans. It really reminded me of Stephen Sondheim. [That] gave me hope — that this could go somewhere.
RJ Christian:, composer, “Anyone Can Cook”: I started seeing a lot of comments like, “This has made me tear up. Why am I so emotional? This is a story about a rat who loves to cook.”
Costume designers, set designers, stage managers, and choreographers also started getting involved.
Marci Wilson, costume design: I didn’t want to make him too animal, like, this isn’t Cats! So instead of painting whiskers on his face and sticking him in a fur suit, his whiskers are represented on a bow tie.
Jacobson: There was an overture created, with all these musical instruments. One guy made a Playbill. Things like that have kinda blown my mind.
The pandemic has been a major factor in spurring the Ratatouille: The Musical movement.
Mertzlufft: People are longing for theater right now, because there isn’t any. I think a lot of us have gone to this platform for that reason as well.
Jacobson: A lot of the videos I saw early on had text that says “please hire me.” You feel so bad for those people so bad, especially people who have just graduated with degrees in music or acting and they’ve entered this world where there are no jobs to be had, no real physical in-person performing to be done. For these people, it’s kinda an outlet for them to be creative and still get their face and their music out there.
All the while, the specter of potential legal action from the notoriously litigious Disney has loomed in the background, even as Ratatouille: The Musical has received a shoutout on Twitter from none other than Patton Oswalt, the voice of Remy the rat himself.
Rouse: It’s been in the back of everyone’s head – is Disney gonna do something about this? That’s been a big discussion within the community posting this stuff.
Bolt: People have been begging me to put my song on Spotify, but I don’t know if I can release it because of copyright law. I feel like if I make a single cent, that would be in breach of the original idea. For now I need to consult more and make sure I’m not gonna get sued the pants off me by Disney.
Disney did not immediately return request for comment.
Nonetheless, there’s been a push within the TikTok community for Ratatouille: The Musical to become a reality, or at the very least a concept album. A central TikTok page was set up to serve as a “hub” for the Ratatouille TikTok community, which has garnered more than 168,000 followers.
Genevieve Sull, composer, “Colette’s Training Song”: There’s one account that wants to stage it. Whether it’ll be virtual or in person, or how legal it even is, is an open question. But I sent my resume into them, and I know other people have too. I think it’s just a matter of taking that next step.
Still, some are skeptical about the prospect of Ratatouille: The Musical ever hitting Broadway.
Mertzlufft: You have the problem where you need a dual or a triple set for everything. You have to play with scale because you don’t want Remy to be a puppet the whole time. What size is the puppet? Is he the size of a rat? He has to be a small enough to go into a hat. There are a lot of problems you have to solve.
Christian: I’d love for it to be displayed and workshopped and made into a full production. I think if this became a real thing it would have some heart and theatrical merit. At the same time, I am conscious of the fact that it would be a musical about a rat who wants to be a chef.
Bolt: There’s a cynic in me that goes, “There is nothing that’s gonna amount from this crazy idea. It’s just gonna be 15 minutes of fame.” But the other half is like, “If Disney wanted to do a showcase and they asked if you want to be involved, of course you’re going to say yes.”
Even if it fails to come to fruition, the artists involved in Ratatouille: The Musical have learned an important lesson: with a little help from a global pandemic and the TikTok algorithm, art-making can be a collaborative, truly democratic process. To paraphrase Chef Gusteau himself: Anyone can cook.
Bolt: I’m in a country town in Australia. I don’t have access to Broadway at all. And Ratatouille TikTok is really showcasing talents who would not otherwise be visible.
Sull: What I’m taking away from it is to not underestimate the way theater is evolving and to pay attention to platforms that are being used as a genuine way to create art. Accessibility is such a common conversation in the theater community and getting rid of this reputation Broadway tends to have of being an upper-crust, stuffier world. Throughout history, it keeps getting more accessible and social media is a huge part of why that’s happening. Look at Beetlejuice — it was dying until it got reborn on TikTok. There is this feeling that it’s crazy this is happening on TikTok, but it shouldn’t be written off either. And it’s genuinely cool to see this community we’ve built.