“Ratatouille: The TikTok Musical” opens just like any other musical — with an overture. But rather than a bare or curtained stage, it features superimposed videos of the pit performing alongside clips of TikTok creators. What follows is a delightfully campy video production of the Disney movie — complete with simple special effects, at-home sets, a celebrity cast and an original score written by TikTok creators.
As the Broadway shutdown enters its ninth month, “Ratatouille: The TikTok Musical” is a testament to the ways theater and performers have changed and adapted over 2020. It is a hybrid of theater and social media that proves the versatility of what constitutes “theater.”
The New York Times featured TikTok Musicals as one of the “11 Ways We Found Theater Without Theater” in their “Best of Theater 2020” round-up. The app, which brought in many new users and sparked legal controversy in 2020, housed multi-user performances of songs like New York September to create Grocery Store: The Musical. Even now, users are making parody songs for a musical about 2020 and The Great Gatsby now that it has entered the public domain.
Arguably, the most popular TikTok musical trend was the crowdsourced creation of “Ratatouille: The TikTok Musical” on TodayTix. From a simple trending sound, “Ode to Remy,” about the leading rat in Disney-Pixar’s 2007 film “Ratatouille,” emerged thousands of collaborators contributing their concepts of songs, dances, scenic designs and more to their TikTok feeds. The creative team behind the charity livestream condensed the most popular videos into an hour-long musical that raised over $1 million for the Actors’ Fund.
What is refreshing about “Ratatouille: The TikTok Musical” is that it isn’t trying to recreate traditional theater. It seems to understand that this is one big inside joke for TikTok users and the whole show leans into the unbridled fun, joy and camp of the concept. Some pauses, between lines or for imaginary audience applause, are jarring, yet also serve as self-aware reminders that this is supposed to be a theatrical experience. No one is taking themselves too seriously and that alone is enjoyable. The show is far from Shakespeare (and his pandemic creation, “King Lear”), but it is great fun and for a good cause.
The production earns the second half of its name by matching the format of TikTok. The show felt like a string of interconnected TikTok videos (and sometimes self-tapes) that just happened to be blessed with a little longer than 60 seconds and that users didn’t need to scroll through. Sometimes the view widens to a landscape view, but many videos are vertical just as TikTok videos are.
This could be attributed to the creative team’s proximity to the medium of digital theater and TikTok. Two of the executive producers, Michael Breslin and Patrick Foley, co-created “Circle Jerk” — a online farcical play about queer culture that felt like a half-YouTube-video-half-bootleg-recording-of-a-blackbox-performance narrated by a Bouffon-esque troll. And the other executive producer, Jeremey O. Harris, is both a serious playwright (whose “Slave Play” broke records with 12 Tony Award nominations in 2020) but also a very online individual. He’s open about his passions for “nerd” culture like anime and makes fun TikTok content about theater and his experiences in the industry. As for director Lucy Moss, she has coincidental ties to TikTok as the co-creator of “Six: The Musical,” which also went viral on the app.
The online audience of TikTok supports tangential efforts of theater similar to “Ratatouille: The TikTok Musical.” Popular creators on the app like Charlie D’Amelio and Addison Rae are getting performance gigs, from a Hulu reality show to a leading role in the upcoming remake of “She’s All That,” proving that social media clout can serve as creative currency.
Part of what makes TikTok the most useful social media platform for performers is how interactive and frankly theatrical it is (It was formerly known as Musical.ly, after all). The “Duet” and “Stitch” features allow users to directly engage and edit other users’ videos and build upon them. “Acting Challenges,” “Point of View” scenarios and cosplayers, all build characters and worlds in 60-second chunks throughout the For You Page.
Actors are becoming more aware of the importance of their online presence, even when their industry emphasizes being present offline, though. USC alumnus Tyler Joseph Ellis gained 87 thousand followers on TikTok for his character, “THAT Theater Bitch.” Michaela Boutros-Ghali plays both Alexa and Sky, two stereotypical New York and Los Angeles girls that move in together in a series of videos on her channel. Even Broadway performer Jared B. Goldsmith went viral on TikTok for his theater-y cover of the song “Lemonade.”
At the end of the day, it was heartwarming just to see users continue to create during a challenging year worldwide. Many of the most prominent TikTok creators from the trend were brought onto “Ratatouille: The TikTok Musical” and rightfully credited for their work and writing. Playbill has a complete program for the show and the stream ends with a montage and cinematic credits sequence. What could have been a project simply “inspired by” their work was actually theirs — which is rather ironic given the fact that TikTok creators often struggle to get credit for the trends they start.
Who is to say that these online performances aren’t, in some way, theater? Where is the line between film and theater drawn? Even before the pandemic, directors like Katie Mitchell and Ivo van Hove pushed these boundaries through Live Cinema productions and the incorporation of cinema in theatrical productions. As theaters remain closed and artists explore online performance mediums and social media, there is room for those lines to continue to blur. As much as “traditional theater” will eventually return, there will clearly be a path, even after the pandemic, for online performances (and performers) to thrive.
I hope that this industry-wide pause has inspired theater artists and audiences to expand their definitions of what theater is and can be — even if it is as seemingly silly as an hour-long ode to “Remy...the rat of all our dreams.”
“Ratatouille: The TikTok Musical” is available to watch until Jan. 4 on TodayTix. Pay-what-you-will donations start at $5.