TikTok, other platforms bring musical theater fan fiction to life
Emily Jacobsen insists that she was just warbling a bit of nonsense while cleaning her apartment this summer. She didn't intend to create a fake musical about a rat who bakes vegetables.
"There was almost zero thought put into the song," she says.
The 26-year-old teacher in Hartsdale, N.Y., has a habit of posting TikTok odes to Disney characters, especially non-legendary ones such as Mr. Waternoose from "Monsters, Inc." One day in August, she recalled an article about EPCOT center's upcoming Remy's Ratatouille Adventure, mixed it with memories of hymns and broke out in song: "Remy, the ratatouille, the rat of all my dreams ... I praise you, the Ratatouille ..."
Then, just three months after she posted it, TikTokers had conjured up an entire "Ratatouille" musical universe. A composer spiced up her song with Disney-fied orchestrations. Songwriters whipped up tunes for Remy, his brother, his dad, his fellow chef, the food critic Anton Ego. A director explained how he'd stage the show. Dancers demonstrated how they'd dance it. A puppeteer showed how he'd puppet it. A designer created a breathtaking Playbill, in a video that's been seen nearly 5 million times. Stagehands, ushers, photos of the Broadway marquee -- all of it materialized.
But, of course, it didn't -- really. In 2020, while Broadway is closed and TikTok is king, some of the most exciting theater was a figment of our imagination.
Like our own sourdough, the "Ratatouille" musical was a concoction of pandemic boredom. But it's also the culmination of a larger phenomenon in musical theater: Social media platforms, especially TikTok, are allowing for a fan experience that goes beyond the live attractions. Call it a new ecosystem of musical theater fan fiction, where creativity flourishes in unpredictable ways.
Even long ago, your Broadway experience could be unpacked once you got home. You could discover the "Oliver!" cast album, see the tour, star in a high school production or sing for your parents in the basement. You could perform a parody song in a cabaret show, share fan art on Tumblr, gossip on All That Chat, lip-sync to "Glee" covers from iTunes -- like football fans who pretend they're Patrick Mahomes.
Now, the fan/performer experience has heightened, sped up, morphed -- led by pioneers such as Alexa Chalnick, a 19-year-old Ithaca College sophomore who's attending her virtual classes from home in Freehold, N.J. She'll play the piano part of a song and invite her 600,000 TikTok followers to create their own videos singing along with her, using the app's "duet" function. Or she'll invite them to try out for coaching sessions with her and Broadway performers.
She held "auditions" for a hypothetical "miscast" production of "Hamilton," giving worthy actors roles they wouldn't usually get. Yes, in a trend popularized on Instagram last year, fans hold auditions for productions that will never happen -- they just solicit videos and then post the cast list, and the winners see them as a badge of honor.
Chalnick notes that TikTok's features -- including its "For You" recommendations -- give even obscure videos a shot. "What makes TikTok so different is that any video that you post has the possibility of blowing up, which I think is a little bit different from Instagram or YouTube, which won't necessarily push out your videos" as often to viewers who aren't following you, she says.
Katie Johantgen, 28, discovered this in October 2019, when she uploaded her first few videos to TikTok, logged off and returned a couple of hours later to discover that she had 12,000 followers. She and her fiance, James Penca -- they're enduring the pandemic with her parents in Wayne, Pa. -- post impersonations, songs performed with paper dolls and spoofs of tropes, such as "How to write a letter if you're in a musical."
"More than karaoke, it creates the piano bar vibe," Johantgen says of the app.
Daniel Mertzlufft knows that vibe. The 27-year-old composer, orchestrator and arranger in New York is the one who injected Jacobsen's Remy song with cello, chimes, French horn, glockenspiel, choral harmonies and more. He had done this kind of thing before: In September, he posted "Grocery Store: A New Musical," a 43-second song inspired by a Louisa Melcher lyric, where he plays one half of a couple bickering in an aisle. Fans used the duet feature to add more and more characters: his wife, his lover (played by "Pitch Perfect" star Skylar Astin), their kid, a can of soup, even "the water sprayers that always mist you when you're reaching for kale," as the TikToker put it.
Even the comedy site the Onion has noticed the trend. "TikTok Apologizes After Inadvertently Giving Platform To Thousands Of Theater Kids," proclaims one headline, and the story includes a fake quote from the CEO: "TikTok was devised as a harmless way for hot, popular teens to have fun. Elaborate harmonies and costuming have no home on TikTok. TikTok is no place for using a split screen to sing a duet with yourself in full 'Wicked' makeup."
Mary Neely was duetting with herself quite a lot early in the pandemic -- though on Twitter, where she created TikTok-esque videos by lip-syncing to such show tunes as the "Beauty and the Beast" opener, dressing up as each character and filming it herself. The 29-year-old ended up on year-end best-of-theater lists in both The Washington Post and The New York Times and is moving from Los Angeles to New York to pursue a musical theater career.
While isolated, Neely remembered that as a child, acting out soundtracks in her bedroom was what made her happy in times of loneliness. So she decided to indulge a passion that often made her feel like an outlier.
"When I made these videos, I was like, I don't care if people think they're lame. I don't care if I get made fun of, because I like this, and this is a huge part of me and has informed my life in a really positive way," she says. "So why should I be muting that part of myself?"
Even Broadway performers and shows have started to benefit from this kind of interactivity. "Six," a new show about the wives of Henry VIII, saw a clip of its song "Don't Lose Ur Head" lip-synced by Loren Gray (50 million followers) and Charli D'Amelio (103 million). Women have lip-synced to its lyric "Yeah that didn't work out" over photos of their ex-boyfriends. As the show's marketing chief, Amanda Pekoe, puts it, "'Six' lives and breathes in their lives."
Even if they have no idea what "Six" is. Trevor Boffone, a lecturer at the University of Houston who is writing a book about Broadway and TikTok, calls them "stealth musical theater fans."
After the user @pescatarian_mama_ created a 16-second clip called "phantom of the wapera," mashing up the musical with the hit song "WAP," it was used in more than 200,000 videos -- one of them featuring very awkward dance moves by "Phantom" composer Andrew Lloyd Webber.
The veteran songwriter Andrew Lippa added his own imaginary show to the pandemicanon: "Tiger King: The Musical," with a video in which Kristin Chenoweth sings as the Netflix show's controversial character Carole Baskin, which gave way to more songs. But Lippa sees this fragmented online project as a lark.
"I'm of a generation that likes to sit in the dark and have someone tell me a story," says the songwriter, who also wonders whether the younger generation "has grown up in a world where their understanding of story is to also be interactive with it. I'm going to have to catch up if that's the case."
For that generation, the "Ratatouille" collaboration evokes the camaraderie of a real show -- and a virtual concert is even set for Jan. 1 to benefit the Actors Fund.
"Ratatouille" is "both something and nothing at the same time," says RJ Christian, a 21-year-old vocal performance student at New York University who wrote a few of its popular songs. He says the thinking is, "I'm going to use these themes of 'Ratatouille' to express myself rather than I'm going to use myself to express 'Ratatouille.' That actually came out more poetic than I thought it was going to be."
His songs, including one that uses the film's mantra "Anyone Can Cook," moved some commenters to tears. "It felt really good to do my thing and have people think, 'Yeah, that's legitimate, and that works,'" he says.
"Ratatouille" probably won't ever be a fully staged production. Disney Theatrical Productions says in a statement, "Although we do not have development plans for the title, we love when our fans engage with Disney stories," which seems to indicate that the company is OK with TikTokers borrowing the property
Mertzlufft, the composer-arranger, points out that a real show would come with downsides. "Some of the magic is, you can be a part of it, too, you can interact with content, versus a formalized getting-it-to-Broadway, where there's a lot of baggage that comes with that. Songs have to be cut. People have to be cut."
Imaginary theater is theater without the bad parts. No competition. No rejection. No $160 tickets.
You can even devise productions that bend the space-time continuum -- a hobby of James Forbes Sheehan. Last year, on Twitter and Instagram, he began creating posters for productions of contemporary musicals as if they had happened in the past: "Zero Mostel is Shrek." "Introducing Mandy Patinkin as Evan Hansen." "Carol Channing is SpongeBob SquarePants."
Sheehan, 27, was inspired in part by sitting in casting conversations as an associate producer on Broadway. "Inevitably someone will say, 'What this play needs is Charles Durning circa 1980 or Gretchen Wyler would have done this in 1965.' "
Now he can create his own past. Why couldn't Gwen Verdon have gotten a shot at conceiving a "Tootsie" musical? The appeal of fan fiction is that anyone can take control of a medium guarded by a select few, grant opportunities to those who don't get their due, and shape it into what they wish it could be.
Last month, Sheehan gave a nod to his partners in fantasy, envisioning a "Ratatouille" musical that opened on Sept. 24, 1957, starring Mary Martin as Remy and Boris Karloff as the food critic.
Another version of the same show, neither of which exist.
Or do they?
Even in a world of imaginary theater, the aspirants, like Remy, can achieve their dreams. There are 2 billion cooks in the TikTok kitchen, and cook they shall. Anyone can.
Right after Jacobsen started it all by singing nonsense while cleaning her apartment, she re-watched the "Ratatouille" movie. As an adult, it resonated even more. It spoke to the fear of feeling like an impostor. That you'll never live up to your potential.
At one point, she thought she'd have a career that involved singing and music education. When she entered NYU and had her first big audition, she botched her sight-reading, setting her on a different course -- to teach English as a second language.
Now a fake musical has brought her back to those real aspirations.
"It almost feels like fate," Jacobsen says. "It gives me a taste of something I left behind."
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"Ratatouille: The TikTok Musical"
What: The viral sensation will stream as a fundraiser for The Actors Fund
When: 6 p.m. Friday, Jan. 1; after the premiere, the event will be available to buy and view for 72 hours.
Tickets: Start at $5 and are on sale at TodayTix.com