One of the best lines and lessons of Pixar’s 2007 film “Ratatouille,” a portrait of the artist as a young, culinarily-inclined French rat, is delivered by food critic Anton Ego: “The bitter truth we critics must face, is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so.”
So when it comes to “Ratatouille: The TikTok Musical,” a piecemeal creation that began as a TikTok meme in August 2020, a genuine critique would be remiss. After the sharing of one 17-second video by TikTok creator Emily Jacobsen — a “love ballad” to protagonist Remy — everyone from choreographers to graphic designers began to lend their very serious talents to a “Ratatouille” musical that, at the time, was very much a joke.
Eventually, the theatre industry took notice. Broadway production company Seaview got behind the project and helped turn it into a one-night-only virtual event (which, at the time of writing, has turned into two nights), with proceeds going to the Actors Fund, which benefits struggling entertainment professionals. Though the cast was brimming with established Broadway veterans, such as André De Shields as Ego and Tituss Burgess as Remy, meticulous efforts were made to ensure the show maintained the grassroots appeal that had spurred its original popularity. The music was kept largely the same (all TikTok contributors were rightly credited and compensated) and costumes were composed of eyeliner whiskers and gray pieces from actors’ personal wardrobes.
From its Jan. 1 premiere on TodayTix, the show managed to raise over $1 million in ticket sales, with an encore performance Jan. 10. It was indisputably a success — financially, of course, for the Actors Fund, and creatively for both the TikTokers and the veterans who saw their beloved industry blighted by the pandemic over the past year. More important than anyone’s individual opinion on the musical itself is the fact that it was something joyful, collaborative and genuinely uplifting, qualities that most of 2020 notoriously lacked.
The most incredible part of “Ratatouille: The TikTok Musical” is how fortuitously the show and its ragtag origins embody the morals of “Ratatouille’s” underdog story. Though the film’s $623 millon gross is certainly nothing to sneeze at, the movie has largely flown under the radar in the 13 years since its release, especially when compared to the rest of the Pixar oeuvre. This relative obscurity might be attributed to the film’s character-driven narrative, or its nuanced portrayal of an outcast struggling to find acceptance in an artistic career — both making the movie somewhat less kid-friendly than other Pixar films of the era. However, it is likely these very traits that inspired passionate defenses of the movie’s superiority years later, and ultimately led to its second life as the first-ever TikTok musical.
At face value, the story of “Ratatouille” is a silly one: a rat with epicurean tendencies fumbles his way from his trash-eating rodent family into a gourmet kitchen, befriends a bumbling garbage boy and impresses an important critic, eventually becoming the head chef of his own restaurant. But its genius lies in the fact that it takes itself seriously. The thesis of the movie comes from the world-renowned Chef Gusteau’s motto that “anyone can cook.” By acknowledging the ridicule that this warm optimism receives in an industry as particular and pretentious as haute cuisine, its buoyant rebuttal feels all the more triumphant. The film’s climax, where Remy’s ratatouille overwhelms the jaded Anton Ego and makes him nostalgic for his mother’s cooking, is a beautiful, triumphant desecration of the elitist notions of haute cuisine.
The mere existence of “Ratatouille: The TikTok Musical” is a victory of the same caliber. A project that in any other time would have been regarded as a farce made it as close to Broadway as any musical is getting these days (given the complete lack of theatre openings this year, Tony nods aren’t entirely out of the question yet). It illuminated a myriad of brilliant upcoming artists and brought joy to its seasoned stars who unexpectedly found themselves out of work and creatively uninspired. It lent credence to the importance of theatre as a whole, proving that shows can still be performed right now and that people will actually attend and maybe even enjoy them.
Much as “Ratatouille” demonstrates that a great chef can come from the most unexpected of places, “Ratatouille: The TikTok Musical” proves that great musicals can, too. At best, it’s an ebullient dose of hope for anyone who has ever loved art. At worst, it only cost $5 to see Wayne Brady give his all to this air guitar performance.