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Commentary: Why TikTok’s ‘Ratatouille’ experiment is the future of musical theater

Tituss Burgess, left, Andrew Barth Feldman and Ashley Park in "Ratatouille: The TikTok Musical."
(TodayTix)

A standout moment of the 2007 movie “Ratatouille,” about a rat who teams with a human to achieve his culinary dreams, comes when cynical restaurant critic Anton Ego is served the titular food. Though he’s initially confused by the offering in a former five-star eatery — one chef calls the humble plate of stewed vegetables “a peasant dish” — the first bite transports the critic back to his childhood, and he unabashedly gobbles the rest of it up in glee.

I had the same, pleasantly surprised reaction while watching “Ratatouille: The TikTok Musical,” a virtual proof-of-concept concert among TikTok users and Broadway creatives that benefits the Actors Fund and is funded in part by Lowe’s. (Yes, you read that correctly.)

The implausible collaboration came to be after fans inspired by the Pixar movie spent months posting original songs — an earworm about the lead character, Remy; a theme song for chef Gusteau; a tango between Linguini and Colette — as well as videos imagining nearly every element of a fully staged version: choreography, costume design, Playbill cover art, makeup design and more.

Seaview Productions (“Slave Play” and “Sea Wall/A Life”), director Lucy Moss (“Six”) and book writers Michael Breslin and Patrick Foley (“Circle Jerk”) jumped on board; Adam Lambert, Priscilla Lopez, Mary Testa, Owen Tabaka and Andrew Barth Feldman joined the cast.

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Even Disney didn’t mind the fan fiction: “Although we do not have development plans for the title, we love when our fans engage with Disney stories,” the company said in a statement. “We applaud and thank all of the online theater makers for helping to benefit the Actors Fund in this unprecedented time of need.”

As someone used to feasting on Tony Award-winning performances in million-dollar commercial productions, I braced for this much-lower-budget presentation featuring footage shot by actors in their homes and songs crowdsourced on social media. But by the end of the Broadway Sinfonietta’s overture and Kevin Chamberlin’s opening number — complete with a cancan kick line! — my skepticism for the scrappy experiment had waned.

Kevin Chamberlin, dressed in chef whites, plays Gusteau in the "Ratatouille" musical.
Kevin Chamberlin, center, plays Gusteau in the “Ratatouille” musical.
(TodayTix)

The actor and ‘Let’s Make a Deal’ host calls it ‘the ultimate improv exercise’ and says the social media platform helped him secure his next TV show.

I was bowled over by Wayne Brady, who as Remy’s father, Django, painted whiskers on his face and tucked rat ears into his beanie to perform “Trash Is Our Treasure”; Ashley Park, who as fellow chef Colette, brought punchy spice and a flawless French accent to “Kitchen Tango”; and Tituss Burgess, who as Remy, vocally and emotionally soared on the tender “I Want” song “Remember My Name.” Without any slick sets, naturalistic props or costars even in the same room, their playful performances were still so inventive and full of story — theater, at its core. This ragtag aesthetic may not be for everyone — why do only some actors playing rat characters wear ears? — but its free and easy spirit ultimately worked for me.

The quality of a dish like this is only as good as its ingredients — in this case, the songs, which genuinely celebrate the compositional conventions of musical theater and animated Disney movies, and which feel as though they’re written by those who truly love them. They are each earnest and delightful, and brimming with character, humor and emotion — the winning combination on which the most established composers have built their careers. (It doesn’t matter that the lyric that started it all — “Remy, the ratatouille, the rat of all my dreams” — doesn’t even make sense because its hook is infectious and will be stuck in your head for days.)

Thanks to the democratic nature of social media, these talented, mostly Gen Z songwriters from all over the world have bypassed the industry’s institutions and gatekeepers to get their work heard and now professionally produced. Though the songs have different writers, the score is cohesive thanks to Daniel Mertzlufft, who expanded on and provided its musical arrangements. Breslin and Foley’s book — peppered with references to “Les Misérables,” “A Chorus Line,” “Rent,” “Cats” and “Six” — has Burgess summarizing what viewers already know from the movie, arguably to allow the songs to be the star.

Some of the TikTok users who created the "Ratatouille" musical.
Some of the TikTok users who created the “Ratatouille” musical: clockwise, from left: Blake Rouse, Nathan Fosbinder, Emily Jacobsen, Sophia James, James Penca and Katie Johantgen, Daniel Mertzlufft, RJ Christian and Gabbi Bolt.
(TodayTix)
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Why is this lightweight, not-even-an-hour-long fundraiser important? In a time when stages remain dark and the industry has begun to question which writers are given a fair chance, I hope this project serves as encouragement to both theater creators and fans too accustomed to celebrity to seek out and embrace its undiscovered voices. The talent is there; the work is just as good. And with the initial TikTok videos getting a collective 200 million views and the stream’s pay-as-you-can ticket sales raising more than $1 million so far, the audience is hungry.

“The world can often be unkind to new talent, new creations; the new needs friends,” said André De Shields as Anton Ego in an abridged version of the movie’s iconic monologue. “Last night, I experienced something new, an extraordinary meal from a similarly unexpected source. I now know not anyone can cook, but a great cook can come from anywhere.”

Watching the production’s curtain call, with the songwriters taking a virtual bow alongside their actor counterparts, I couldn’t help but agree.

‘Ratatouille: The TikTok Musical’

Where: TodayTix
When: 4 p.m. PT Friday (available until Monday)
Rating: suitable for all ages

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