Tituss Burgess plays Remy in Ratatouille: The Musical”Remy, the Ratatouille, the rat of all my dreams!” A sweet, squeaky, pitch-altered little voice begins this online show, unaccompanied and poignant: it’s Emily Jacobsen’s song, originally written to piss off her family, which then went viral on TikTok and inspired a whole community of creators to dream up a ‘Ratoosical’. Then a full orchestra picks up the melody, and it thickens into full musical theatre lusciousness; something small and sweet, made special by the love and care of artists working in harmony.
When Jacobsen posted ‘Ode to Remy’, other creators responded with generosity; first, Daniel Mertzlufft wrote a full Broadway-style orchestration for the tune, and then other creators joined in with a flood of illustrations, songs, and choreography for an imaginary Ratatouille musical. Disney has wisely decided to respond to this generous, uncommercial spirit by letting the show go online (temporarily); it’s available for 72 hours only, as a Pay What You Can online stream that’s already raised over $1 million for The Actor’s Fund.
It’s kind of hard to categorise or explain the resulting show, except to say that it’s musical theatre comfort food; heartwarming, nostalgic, and way more traditional than you’d expect for something cooked up on Gen Z’s social media platform of choice. Its refrain is ‘Anyone Can Cook!’, which could be the motto of pretty much any fandom; give people a set of familiar ingredients and a sense of community, and they’ll have the boost they need to create something special. With a running time of only 50 minutes, this show beefs up fan videos and songs with immaculately-cast professional performances. Tituss Burgess is ideal for principle rat Remy; he’s got a gorgeously yearning falsetto, a hapless charm, and enough charisma to hold us as his narration leads us through this story’s twists and turns. Wayne Brady is hugely good value as his Dad Django, playing a spam-can banjo and bringing a welcome note of silliness to this earnest production, while Andrew Barth Feldman is all fresh-faced, tongue-tied befuddlement as young chef Linguini. There’s also a memorably glam eye-linered rat from Adam Lambert, a wonderfully polished old Broadway appearance from Priscilla Lopez, and a wise, saturnine turn from André De Shields as critic Anton Ego. These performances have been filmed separately, but the videos are stitched together on screen with impressive fluency. They’re set against playful illustrated backgrounds that make it feel like you’re looking at a moving magazine spread; in the show’s big numbers, TikTok users pop up on screen doing ratty choreography in tiny rectangles.
This show doesn’t try and hide what it is; it gets so much DIY charm from the way you can see dancer’s bedrooms behind them, or Wayne Brady using an old bottle of orange juice from his recycling bin in place of a bottle of wine. This visible-seams approach means that you’re always aware that it hasn’t been written, so much as assembled from cherry-picked bits of fan culture. Director Lucy Moss deserves a huge amount of credit for stitching together songs made by different TikTok artists into one reasonably coherent whole (even if some of fan’s quirkier imaginings are left out, like an imagined backstory involving Remy’s mother).
If I was going to be an evil critic in the vein of Anton Ego (before his transformative encounter with rodent cuisine) I’d say that this show falls down hardest in its pacing and storytelling; Remy is left to narrate a lot of the plot, because it’s basically impossible to stage the pivotal kitchen scenes where he sits under a chef’s hat and manipulates chef Linguini like he’s a sweet-grabbing machine in an arcade. And, perhaps because this is such a nostalgic work, one built around affection for Remy and his nimble-pawed associates, it’s also much stronger on character-building than on world-building. This is a show about food, without the original movie’s mouthwatering bits of production design. The movie is as close as you can get (outside theme park 4D cinemas) to a multi-sensory experience; you see smells wafting across the screen, and the kitchen becomes a wonderland of bubbling pots and alchemical ingredients; here, we get only the merest visual hint (a silhouette of the Eiffel Tower) of the Paris that Remy’s so delighted to find himself in.
But as Ego himself says: “the average piece of junk is probably more valuable than the piece of criticism designating it so…the new needs friends”. The main ingredient of Ratatouille isn’t courgette or tomatoes, it’s passion. It’s a passion for food that takes a tiny rat from suburbia to the big city, a dangerous place where he must disguise himself as something he’s not in order to achieve his dreams (a storyline with obvious appeal to frustrated creatives everywhere). So it’s appropriate that it’s passion, bordering on obsession, that’s created this musical. The super-limited, fund-raising release of Ratatouille the Musical means it can sidestep loads of questions about how you divvy up credit for something like this; about what happens when you start to professionalise passion. It feels like a powerful advert for TikTok’s distinct mindset, one where anyone can be a creator and find an audience for their talents, if they work hard enough – one long self-tape audition, played out in one-minute bursts. And it also simultaneously raises complicated questions about who ‘owns’ this show. Is it the fans who got the ball rolling? Or is it the uber-starry cast and professional director and orchestrator who made those fans’ dreams a reality – while also taking creative control over the ‘Ratoosical’ out of their i-phone clutching paws?
I think bold claims about Ratatouille being ‘the future’ of musical theatre would be unhelpful here; it feels more like an incredible product of a particular moment in time, one where big players TikTok and Broadway have got on board to make fans’ dreams come true. And perhaps that willingness comes from a moment where that generosity is also a strategy for survival. Global crisis conditions have made it plainly obvious that the future of musical theatre doesn’t lie in super-producers or shuttered playhouses, it’s in the new online communities that keep the flame alive – and set off new sparks – while theatres’ doors are closed.
Ratatouille – the Musical is available to watch online until 11.59pm on 4th January 2021. More info and tickets here.