As bad as the pandemic was for plays, it was just as bad for musicals that not only work closely together but are also inherently unsanitary. The next “A Chorus Line” won’t appear if all are six feet apart. No new “Hamilton” can spit out its rhymes from behind a mask wall.
But the urge to tell stories in song and dance doesn’t go dark just because theaters do it; it finds new media. And so we now have “Ratatouille: The TikTok Musical,” a show that turns crowdsourcing from a danger to an aesthetic. Compared to the excellent Disney-Pixar film “Ratatouille” from 2007, it’s a minor thing, but I mean that in a culinary sense: it’s a silly, multi-layered joy.
Neither humans nor rats were injured in the creation of the show, which premiered on New Year’s Day as a benefit for the Actors Fund and runs until 7 p.m. Eastern Time on Monday. Created largely online, it allowed contributors from across the country, many young and seemingly stuck in their parents’ basement, to work with old hands. Whether the novel development process will change the way musicals are made in the future remains to be seen, but “Ratatouille” serves the moment admirably.
This is partly due to how quickly it happened. As recently as August of this year, Emily Jacobsen, a 26-year-old teacher, released a 15-second song called “Ode to Remy” on TikTok. Remy is the cartoon rat protagonist and dreams of becoming a good Parisian cook, despite his family’s doubts and the logistical problems of rodents in the kitchen. He operates from the hood of a clumsy garbage boy named Linguini and finally manages.
“Ode to Remy” doesn’t go into all of that: Just a Squib, it gets its brief humor from the contrast between its soaring lyrics (“May the world remember your name”) and its small, squeaky, hairy subject. It’s sarcasm tuned to a tiny tune.
But then the crush on TikTok raved as fans and staff contributed extensions and overlays to a project that wasn’t a project yet. Soon the material of a budding meme accumulated: songs, arrangements, sets, makeup concepts, choreography, and even key art – all but an actual show.
The part “actual show” is still missing; The rush “Ratatouille” gave its moxie also kept it flat. Only fragments of the TikTok material made it into the hour-long piece, and even less into the richer action of the film. Most of what is true of the book, “adapted for the stage” by Michael Breslin and Patrick Foley (although there is no stage), is a bleak narrative delivered straight to the camera to get by asap Number to number. Fortunately, the job of delivering it is almost entirely up to Tituss Burgess, who plays Remy in a rat-gray turtleneck. he finds the right disposable tone for the disposable material.
The rest of the cast – all of the leads are professionals – are pointy and stylish enough that you wish they had more to do than sing numbers selected by TikTok and augmented by the show’s music team. As a linguini, Andrew Barth Feldman, a new Evan Hansen, appears to have animated his face to match Pixar’s version: he’s instantly adorable while looking like he’s still gnawing your toe. Adam Lambert as Remy’s chilled-out brother, André De Shields as the banned food critic and Mary Testa in a magical mustache as the suspicious chef are experts in the art of one-song performance.
These songs are good enough, albeit malnourished in some cases. Testa sells a classic “sneaky bad guy” number called “I Knew I Smelled a Rat”; Lambert rocks to “Rat’s Way of Life” – with amusingly cloned choreography by Ellenore Scott – and De Shields makes a lot of the faintly nostalgic title track.
But only Burgess gets a real Broadway show stopper: a hymn called “Remember My Name”, which the arranger Daniel Mertzlufft made from the core of Jacobsen’s “Ode to Remy” into a classic Disney Act I finale in the brassy style of Alan Menken Has. There is even a subtle poetry in the Howard Ashman style: “I will not allow a narrow-minded view / determine / what vermin / can.”
Otherwise, the authors try to compensate for the lack of content with a variety of inside jokes, familiar faces and Broadway Easter eggs. (Take a look at Priscilla Lopez’s cameo and the references to “In the Heights” and “Les Misérables”.) In the ensemble, I was happy to discover small parts of emerging music theaters like Larry Owens and Natalie Walker and Raymond J. Lee. The entire cast of “Six” is also at hand – presumably because Lucy Moss, the co-director of this show, also stages “Ratatouille” in a frenetically good mood.
The presence of the cast of the “Six”, the opening of which on March 12th was canceled at the last moment due to the shutdown of the pandemic, offers perspective. that “Ratatouille” raised around $ 1.6 million and that it matters more to the Actors Fund whether it’s great or groundbreaking.
And in truth I am not convinced that the TikTok mindset can be applied to music theater content (as opposed to its process) in the future. As long as works like “Ratatouille” – see also Mertzlufft’s “Grocery Store” and “Thanksgiving” – get stuck halfway between the sincere appropriation of the classical musical comedy style and the impulse to satirize its hackneyed tropes, they will never reach full strength either position and complete beyond the virtual stage of the “Brooks Ratkinson Theater”.
Still, the tone of the deflationary homage feels contemporary and educational. “Ratatouille” reminds you of similar elements in current Disney musicals and forces you to think differently about his models. A big rat hymn like “Remember My Name” is an incredibly stupid idea, but it’s not very different from one for a mermaid or a hunchback. Disney itself was built on a mouse.
Maybe the crush is fixated on something. Surely it would be healthier for the theater if Broadway musicals like “Ratatouille” could be built by individuals rather than conglomerates in just a few months. Our current process, which costs years and more money than anyone but a corporate giant, can too often suppress idiosyncrasies and cut artists off from their communities of inspiration.
In Ratatouille, these sources are alive and well: there may be too many chefs, but they offer, as one character puts it, “just the right amount of cheese”.
Ratatouille: The TikTok Musical
Until January 4th; ratatousical.com.