From the first song (“Anyone Can Cook”) to the final line of dialogue (Anton Ego the critic: “I didn’t like this musical…I loved it”), “Ratatouille” traces the journey not just of Remy, an unappreciated sewer rat who attains his dream of becoming an acclaimed chef in Paris. It is the remarkable journey of the musical itself, which – as you may have heard – began in the middle of the pandemic as a ten-second video on TikTok.
And if you haven’t heard the origins of the musical, Emily Jacobsen, the schoolteacher and Disney enthusiast who posted that first video, is happy to tell you about what she calls “the first crowd-sourced global musical theater phenomenon.”
Jacobsen is the first person we see in “Ratatouille The TikTok Musical,” introducing the 60-minute video, which premiered New Year’s Day and is available on demand at TodayTix through Monday, January 4th, as a fundraiser for The Actors Fund.
A snooty critic like Anton Ego might look askance at the baked-in self-congratulations, and point out that the end result is not a global phenomenon like, say, “Oklahoma!” The production as a whole is most accurately described as a work in progress. For one thing, it’s designed for streaming; how easily adaptable is it to the stage? But even Ego would ultimately be won over – as am I. “Ratatouille” is deeply satisfying for a whole host of reasons. Its songs are fun and flavorful Broadway fare, richly orchestrated. The starry cast is terrific. The dialogue is bright. But its special appeal rests in the exuberance with which it was created – and in which it has been received — in these challenging times. In its own way, “Ratatouille” is certainly innovative, and, depending on what the future brings, might turn out to be just as much a landmark in musical theater as “Oklahoma!” In the meantime, it’s thrilling.
Yes, much of this has to do with the circumstances in which it was made. Hundreds of TikTokers built on Jacobsen’s first video. Their cumulative efforts have now been shaped into a showcase for the talents of a selection of them, including a dozen mostly early-career theater composers. But the musical is also now a product of an impressive array of Broadway pros. That first song, “Anyone Can Cook,” is performed by Kevin Chamberlin as chef Gusteau; he also wrote the song. Yes, he’s a TikToker but also a ten-time Broadway veteran. That last line is uttered by Tony winner André De Shields, who portrays Anton Ego.
The musical’s director Lucy Moss is also the co-writer and director of the musical “Six,” which was set to open on Broadway on the night in March that Broadway was shut down. Moss and the librettists Michael Breslin and Patrick Foley (creators of last year’s avant-garde streaming sensation “Circle Jerk”) tackle the challenge of turning the 2007 Disney Pixar animated film into a musical performed by human actors without the benefit of animation…as well as the challenge of being unable to perform (or rehearse, or even just meet) in person. The first smart move: Remy is the narrator, not just the main character. He relates some plot points that are thus not dramatized, an efficiency that occasionally muffles a climactic moment. In general, though, Breslin and Foley create a coherent and witty narrative that works in its own right, and allows the songs to shine.
“We’re about to go on a very big journey…Honestly, I’m already exhausted, but that’s just showbiz,” says Remy at the outset — his patter, like his platters, neither overcooked nor too raw. It helps that Remy is portrayed by the agile comic performer Titus Burgess, without makeup or costume other than a grey pullover; another smart choice (“Before you have to ask, I am indeed a rat. I might not look like it, but I am.”)
Remy soon introduces in song the characters who will be central to the story: Alfredo Linguini, whom Remy the narrator describes as “the cook without a clue” (spot-on Andrew Barth Feldman, Broadway veteran of “Dear Evan Hansen,” hilariously nervous and gawky) who secretly employs Remy to help him keep up in Gusteau’s, the fancy French restaurant where he’s employed; Linguini’s colleague and rival and eventual love interest Colette (Ashley Park, with a French accent thicker than vichyssoise, who is humorously fast-paced and domineering in her duet with Feldman, “Kitchen Tango“); their no-nonsense boss Chef Skinner (the always amusing Mary Testa, complete with villainous mustache, who sings a jazzy “I Knew I Smelled A Rat.”) We also meet Remy’s brother and father Django and Emile (Wayne Brady and Adam Lambert), neither of whom approve of his culinary aspirations, because they are rats, after all, which each gets his own funny song to emphasize — Django, “Trash Is Our Treasure” (Don’t waste your whiskers on dreaming/Try to see life as I do./Take in the smell of it steaming/This wonderful dump here in front of you.) and Emile, “A Rat’s Way of Life.” (with Lambert going full-on pop star.) De Shields, imperial and imperious, makes the most of the title song, astutely paired for his Proustian madeleine-like moment with his younger self, portrayed by Owen Anthony Tabaka.
But Remy gets the best lines. “All this time I thought I was a rat in the sewer, but I was wrong,” he says. “I was a rat in Paris!” And in the song that follows, “Remember My Name,” he sings of the dream he must pursue: “I won’t let a narrow-minded view/determine what vermin can do.”
The creative team makes sure it’s clear that what we’re seeing is a real musical. There is an overture, performed by the 19-piece (and all female) Broadway Sinfonietta — lush strings, horns, harp. At the same time, they also respect its TikTok origins. There is the occasional playful caption, and Ellenore Scott’s choreography is filtered through a video design by David Bengali that’s greatly influenced by standard TikTok technique – multiple screens, chorus lines of the same performers in triplicate, some with silly accessories and simple special effects.
“Say what you want about rats,” Remy observes after one such number, “but when we sell a musical number, it’s with just the right amount of cheese.”
There are people who will love “Ratatouille The TikTok Musical” because of the validation it gives TikTok; others because they loved the animated film and its characters. But I’m a newcomer to TikTok, and, for the record, I was almost as baffled by the outpouring for “Ratatouille” the cartoon as I was for “Anastasia” the cartoon. Some of the movie was cute, yes, but I couldn’t get past the scenes of the rats scampering through the sewer with ratlike movement that was WAY too realistic.
No, I love “Ratatouille The TikTok Musical” because I love theater — or more precisely, in this case, the hope and the promise of theater.
“I now know that not anyone can cook,” says the critic near the end, “but a great cook can come from anywhere.” The cooks for this musical came from TikTok, with Broadway in their hearts. As many as there are, they don’t spoil this broth; quite the opposite.