With Broadway dark, TikTok creates viral 'Ratatouille' musical

Kalhan Rosenblatt

One evening in August, Emily Jacobsen was cleaning her apartment when she began to think of an article she had just read about a new Disney World ride based on the 2007 Pixar film “Ratatouille.”

Jacobsen, 26, of Hartsdale, New York, said she sometimes makes up little songs about Disney characters as a hobby, and, as she tidied, lyrics began to come to her.

“I just kind of started singing a song about the main character, Remy, and I found the song kind of funny — particularly catchy, and really couldn’t get it out of my head,” Jacobsen told NBC News.

She recorded the song, adding effects to her voice to make it more cartoonish and adding images of Remy, an animated rat, with flashy lighting effects. Then Jacobsen uploaded the clip to TikTok.

The silly lyrics, combined with the pitched-up vocals and visual effects, created the perfect recipe to capture Gen Z’s humor and catapult the video to viral status. The song also unexpectedly gave way to a trend that has given theater lovers a creative outlet to cope with the loss of Broadway amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Several months after Jacobsen’s video was posted, remixes of the song produced in the style of a Broadway musical began to appear on TikTok. Users, imagining what a “Ratatouille” musical would look and sound like, began to compose and upload their own original songs. Soon, costume designers, set designers, choreographers and more were adding their contributions to an imagined “Ratatouille” musical.

The trend reached a fever pitch last week when Disney finally acknowledged the viral social media musical and appeared to give the TikTok creators its blessing by posting lyrics from Jacobsen’s song to its social media accounts.

As of late November, the imagined “Ratatouille” musical has had its hashtag viewed nearly 90 million times on TikTok.

Some said the concept of a “Ratatouille” musical has garnered popularity, especially among Gen Zers, because the film’s story of a rat who dreams of becoming a world famous chef is an allegory that resonates with so many young people.

“‘Ratatouille’ is really interesting to me because it is so much the story of an underdog meeting an underdog meeting an underdog meeting an underdog, and I think that, really, Gen Z as a whole are sort of a whole generation of underdogs,” said RJ Christian, 21, a senior studying musical theater vocal performance at New York University.

The plot of “Ratatouille” isn’t the only reason the trend has gone viral, according to those participating.

While musical fandoms thrive on TikTok, many say they’re feeling the void left by the shuttering of Broadway in the coronavirus pandemic. TikTok users who are also musical fanatics say creating a “Ratatouille” musical has helped them cope with the absence of live theater in their lives.

“I think the reason people have been so engaged is because, sadly, we have no other option. So we are looking to TikTok to find that musical theater that we miss,” said Daniel Mertzlufft, 27, a New York City-based composer, orchestrator and arranger.

Mertzlufft said one of his quarantine pastimes has been to create parody songs and arrange pop songs as musical theater numbers on TikTok. After a friend showed him Jacobsen’s song, Mertzlufft decided to give it the Broadway treatment.

“This is it. This is a perfect Act II Disney finale,” Mertzlufft said of hearing the song. “I took Emily’s song and gave it the full Disney Broadway-ification.”

Mertzlufft created the track in Logic Pro X, adding a synthetic orchestra and singing his own layered vocals with a friend. After uploading the video in October, which would go on to be viewed more than 1.5 million times, the “Ratatouille” musical trend exploded.

Although the biggest interest is in posting original songs, other TikTok users have contributed by creating mockups of playbills and shoebox set designs.

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Christian has been a prolific composer for the TikTok “Ratatouille” musical, imagining songs for characters like Chef Gusteau, the revered restaurateur, and Anton Ego, the food critic.

“I always knew if there was going to be a ‘Ratatouille’ musical, there has to be an ‘Anyone Can Cook’ song. Like, that just has to be in it. So I put on my Alan Menken-Stephen Sondheim romantic musical theater hat,” Christian said.

His songs have become so beloved, racking up hundreds of thousands of views, users have even asked him to write reprises of some of his tracks.

Although the passion for TikTok’s “Ratatouille” musical is undeniable, many who have participated say they aren’t sure if Disney will be bringing “Ratatouille” to Broadway any time soon.

Disney Theatrical Productions did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

“Bringing a show to Broadway is really expensive. As much as we’ve loved this engagement, would we love it for two and a half hours on a Broadway stage? Is there enough story there?” Mertzlufft said, adding that he could see the film being adapted as a 40-minute Disney World parks show.

Regardless of whether “Ratatouille” becomes anything more than a TikTok phenomenon, those who are participating in its imagining said they’re grateful for the community and the opportunity to create during a period of extreme uncertainty for the theater world.

“It just allows people to get a little bit of normalcy,” Jacobsen said. “There’s all these musicals that we love to see that we kind of rely on in our life, and we don’t have it so let’s just make one ourselves.”