Review of Interview: Ratatouille: The TikTok Musical’s Daniel Mertzlufft & Kate Leonard

Daljit Kalsi

Ratatouille: The Musical is a unique social media experience that brought together a number of creative individuals, including Daniel Mertzlufft & Kate Leonard, who were kind enough to speak to about their experience adapting the popular Pixar animated film.

Based on the Disney/Pixar film, Ratatouille, the musical sensation is an unprecedented, community-written, Broadway-caliber special event that first hatched when TikTok creator Emily Jacobsen’s musical Ratatouille-inspired post was discovered by fellow TikTok creator and composer Daniel Mertzlufft, who arranged her melody into an Alan Menken style musical finale last October. Jacobsen and Mertzlufft’s work inspired hundreds of content creators to create videos and songs under the hashtag #ratatouillethemusical.

Mertzlufft’s post also caught the attention of Tony-winning Seaview Productions, who hired a range of talented theater creatives including Mertzlufft to produce an hour-long production inspired by the creators and featuring expanded versions of some of their songs. This became Ratatouille: The TikTok Musical, which premiered online on New Year’s Day. The Broadway Sinfonietta, an all-female-identifying, majority women-of-color orchestra showcasing BIPOC female musicians that was founded by the show’s co-music director and orchestrator, Macy Schmidt, recorded the show’s score.

It’s the first TikTok production to be eligible for an Emmy and also recently won the Webby People’s Voice Award for Television & Film, Social Video (Social). Starring Wayne Brady, Tituss Burgess, and Adam Lambert with a full production team behind it, the musical raised over $2 million in COVID relief for The Actors Fund.

Ames: Thanks for talking to us about Ratatouille the TikTok musical!

Dan Mertzlufft: Of course!

Kate Leonard: I’m so excited to talk about it!

How did each of you get involved with this unique production? Because this is something unprecedented, right?

Dan: Yeah. I mean, it’s quite a long story, to be honest. And it all started in October when I stumbled across Emily Jacobsen’s original video called “Ode to Remy,” where she sang a cute little funny meme song about our dear friend Remy. And I listened to it, thought it was really funny and the song had been doing really well. I’ve had a couple of other things go viral on TikToK that were musical parodies. So, I was like, “Oh, you know what? This just strikes me as a big end of Act II Disney finale, ala Alan Menkin. So, I decided to go with a big, huge orchestra. I mean there’s strings and horns and bells and lots of percussion and then a huge choir that is actually just 15 of me and 15 of my friend Corey Jasper, who actually is also one of the ensemble members in this production. I put that video together pretty quickly, posted it on Tik Tok, and hoped it would do pretty well, but didn’t realize that it would literally launch an entire Ratatouille musical movement that started online.

So, then a couple of months later, when I got an email from Greg Nobile and Carly Callahan at SeaView Productions saying, “Hey, we got the approval from Disney to do a concert benefit for the actors fund. Do you want to be music supervisor? One, I just could not believe the words I was reading. And two, I said, “Yes, of course!”

Kate: So, I joined later on and Dan had already been working on the project for a while, and one of the pieces that was missing when they were compiling all of the different songs from TikTok was an, “I Want” song for Remy; and he’s the main character, it’s a musical convention, we need to know what he wants and hear about it in song. So, Dan turned the little “Ode to Remy” 15-second clip into this beautiful, sweeping number that didn’t have any words. So, he contacted me and asked if I could write the lyrics for it. And then, later on, I ended up adding some lyrics to a few other songs here and there that needed to be filled out from the original TikToks.

Were you surprised by the enormous reaction from so many talented individuals with this project?

Kate: Oh, absolutely. I was not on TikTok prior to this project — I still am just a lurker — and I didn’t realize how massive it had grown just within the platform. And then seeing how that expanded into the wider world after we did the production, it was mind-blowing.

How much of this reaction stems from Ratatouille being a beloved Pixar film, or TikTok being this unique platform that gives people the freedom to do so many creative things? Or is it a mixture of both?

Dan: I think the reason that it did so well was a combination of lots and lots and lots of different things. And I do think the two main things are that Ratatouille is a beloved story and that its story rings true, but also just TikTok itself — and especially in the middle of a pandemic — the way that the platform works allows for collaboration.

So, I’ll break those down really quick, but with Ratatouille itself, it’s a story about teamwork and it says, I mean, “Anyone can cook, anyone can create, anyone can do anything that you put your mind to!” So, I think a lot of people feel that way, especially in theater. There’s no reason that Linguini and Remy should have worked; and then working together, their collaboration allows them to make magic. And I think that that’s a good analogy for how theater works, but then also with TikTok itself, it is just a collaborative platform in a way that no other social media platform is, specifically with its uses of sound so that people can reuse other sounds, the uses of duets so that people can add onto different videos; and then the “For you” page itself, which just doesn’t exist on any other platform. You have the discover page on Instagram and you can see other people’s retweets on Twitter, but specifically, with TikTok, it’s tracking every single thing you interact with and then showing you more stuff in that world. So, it’s very easy to have five followers and have a video go viral because it just doesn’t matter about followers. If your content is good and people relate to it, it’s going to do well.

So, I think a combination of all of that underneath the umbrella of a pandemic is really why Emily and I’s videos could launch a movement of thousands of creators.

Is this a new form of entertainment you could see growth within the online community?

Kate: Well, after Ratatouille started gaining steam, you saw so many other versions of big jointed efforts to put together musical adaptations on TikTok. There was one for Lilo and Stitch, I think I saw Bridgerton, which was very well known at this point — that was primarily two songwriters, but other people contributed ideas.

I think that this collaborative spirit, especially enabled by this technology that so many young people are excited about and spending all their time on anyway is kind of … it’s not necessarily where all theater and all of adaptation is going, but it’s definitely one of the avenues that is available now that has not been available in the past.

This seems like a real opportunity for people who normally wouldn’t get the chance to share their talents to really show off what they can do.

Dan: I just think it’s so interesting when you say that, because I think beyond just the thinking, “Is this a way to create new theater,” I think we need to completely rethink what theater can be. And this is exactly what Ratatouille was. Prior to it being the concert production with SeaView, it still was a tangible show that we all experienced and felt. Did we all sit down in the theater and see it? No, but you still felt like you were a part of it. You still felt part of the fandom. And that means that every single person from Emily and I’s videos are just as important as the kid in Missouri, who duetted one of the videos and sang along with it. Every single person who contributed to it is also part of that movement, and that’s a real, tangible thing. And I think that it’s also not a complete rethinking of what musical theater can be as we move forward in these opportunities of collaborations online; and I’m also hoping that not only we as an online community believe that, but that it also reaches around the world, and even in, “professional theater,” that this is valid and this is real and anyone can create.

Speaking along those same lines, people who don’t normally go to the theater might have an opportunity to be introduced to it via social media as well, right?

Kate: I think that’s totally true. I encounter people pretty often who say they don’t like musicals as though musicals are one style of music. It’s an art form and it has all different musical styles and all different narrative storytelling styles. And there are many different ways that you can structure a theatrical piece that uses music to propel character and plot forward. And one of the nice things about these collaborative things that we’re seeing come up on TikTok, like Ratatouille, is that all of these people with diverse tastes are coming together and bringing their own musical flavor and their own lyrical concepts; and we’re putting together something that has all of these little spices from here and there to make one large dish of Ratatouille if you will.

Is there a specific film story of production you would want to see adapted as a TikTok musical?

Dan: That’s an amazing question because the list is limitless. I’m constantly thinking of new things that would be an amazing musical. One of the first things that I ever worked on TikTok was writing songs for Avatar: The Last Airbender musical, which is a show that I’ve loved for many, many, many years. I mean, there was a whole community of people that we’re writing songs for this fictional Avatar show that was sort of the precursor to Ratatouille, I think in my mind. There’re hundreds of things that I would love to adapt, but Avatar was definitely really special. It already happened. And I’m proud of those songs that we put out.

Kate: Yes, there are so many different properties that would be incredible to develop. Um, one of the really nice things about Ratatouille is that our adaptation ended up being sanctioned in the specific context by Disney and in general adaptations that get to a certain point. You know, if you want to have, a paying audience to support a full production, you have to get the rights. And that’s always going to be a tricky thing for a lot of these big beloved stories that many people are familiar with. And that’s why you see so many fairytale adaptations in Greek myth adaptations and biblical story adaptations because they’re not rights protected. And so there is an endless list of properties that are, you know, behind a gate, but I’d love to get access to, but there are also so many beautiful stories that are out there for the taking, um, that, or to shine a new light on that haven’t been seen in a modern adaptation before, but it’s been around for a very long time.

This is the first TikTok production to be eligible for an Emmy nomination. What would it mean to receive a nomination for your work here?

Kate: Oh, goodness. That’s the dream, isn’t it? To have people appreciate something that you do and recognize it in a formal capacity? I worked in television for years before I transitioned into theater. So there’s a little bit of goofy irony for me in this situation. But it would be such an incredible gift and honor for Ratatouille to be nominated, especially considering it’s something that we put together on such a quick timeline just because we were passionate about it; and didn’t have any expectations about how people would react to the outcome of our work.

Dan: Yeah, it’s exactly what Kate said, but specifically it is all for and thanks to the TikTok users. Especially “Remember My Name,” which is the song that Kate and I are eligible to be nominated for —that only exists because of the love that the entire TikTok community put into it. And I know when we were writing, that was something we were always acutely aware of is that this is all for that community and we just want to do that community right. And while, of course, it would be really incredible for us to get that, it is also on behalf of the hundreds of thousands of users and creators who supported Ratatouille on the platform who contributed in huge and small ways and engaged in it. So, it would be very exciting for us, but I think also for everyone who was able to be a part of it.

Here’s a final question for each of you, and this is a tricky one, and you gotta be honest about this. Have either of you ever eaten ratatouille?

Kate: Yes! The night of the Ratatouille musical premiere, January 1, my family and I made the ratatouille dish from Ratatouille. I believe the recipe for how to do it that specific way came from Smitten Kitchen. And it was phenomenal! It was so delicious. It’s fantastic. It’s one of my sister’s go-to recipes.

Dan: I’m going to say that I ate what was attempted Ratatouille, but I don’t know if it was successful. I tried it, but I don’t know if it was accurate to what Ratatouille was supposed to be.

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