I avoided downloading TikTok for as long as I could. I watched as friends got drawn in, downloading it from the App Store and ending up glued to their phone for hours, as the app scrolled through short-length videos automatically. I never had Vine or Musical.ly, never cared about that side of Gen Z’s pop culture. I never saw the appeal of the short video format. Who could effectively tell stories in so brief a time? What meaningful ideas and thoughts could come from it? I decided as it grew in popularity that I would not download TikTok and waste my time watching mindlessly humorous videos of people I didn’t know.
I finally caved in to the social pressure in January 2020 when a friend convinced me to get the app on the way back from a Broadway performance. Normally after seeing a show, I would spend hours examining the details from scenic transitions to the melody of a single lyric. That night I only spent a brief amount of time discussing the show, the musical “Jagged Little Pill,” with my friend. Once we got back to where we were staying on the trip, I sunk into the couch, sucked in by the TikTok pull.
So isn’t it ironic that the very app that pulled me away from thinking about theatre two years ago has ended up being a huge force in theatre’s development since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic? Somehow an app with only a 60-second (and since July 2021, three-minute) video time limit has become a force in the development of theatre works.
On Aug. 10, 2021, this development began with the post of a video by Emily Jacobsen. Jacobsen created an original audio for the app of herself singing a self-deemed “love ballad” to the rat Remy, the leading character in the 2007 fan-favorite Disney movie “Ratatouille.” As of March 22, 2022, this video has 1.2 million views and 160.5 thousand likes. But the story didn’t stop after just one video. On Oct. 19 of that year, Daniel Mertzlufft added onto Jacobsen’s original tune in a new video. By turning it into what he imagined as an Act Two finale song for a Disney-style Broadway musical, theatremakers began to see this as a project they could piece together note by note, costume sketch by costume sketch.
Disney Theatrical Group, the producing agency wing of the Walt Disney Company, is responsible for live performances, plays and musicals. To this day they have produced over 15 productions, including incredibly successful adaptations of animated movies such as “Beauty and the Beast,” “The Lion King” and “Aladdin.” The rise of Disney on Broadway brought about some amazing art and important steps forward in the Broadway industry, particularly through “The Lion King.” Known for its use of innovative puppetry to portray the animal characters, the broadway adaptation took home six Tony Awards the year it opened in 1997. Director Julie Taymor became the first woman in the history of the award show to win in the Best Direction of a Musical category. The musical still plays to Broadway audiences today, with over 9,000 performances under its belt.
Unlike “The Lion King,” “Ratatouille” never got the Broadway treatment. Who in the high-risk world of Broadway would ever tackle the challenge of conveying the story of a rat talented in the culinary arts on a stage? A number of plot factors make this movie a very unlikely, potentially difficult stage endeavor from having both rat and human characters, to having to deal with scaling items as if they were being seen from a rat’s-eye-perspective.
Luckily, in pandemic-era society amidst the Broadway shutdown, the TikTok community stepped in to make it happen. While some contributed videos just for fun, others considered “Ratatouille: The TikTok Musical,” affectionately dubbed the Ratatouisical, an actual project. Set designers, choreographers, graphic designers, famous actors like Kevin Chamberlin and a puppet designer with Broadway credits all chimed in pieces for the project. Over just two months, traction for the project grew and demand for a live production of the show led Broadway producer Seaview Productions to announce a streamed benefit concert of “Ratatouille: The TikTok Musical.” It was initially available on Jan. 1–3, 2021 with an encore release on Jan. 10, and the production raised over $2 million for The Actors Fund. It went on to win a People’s Voice Award in the 2021 Webby Awards. While it may not have been the first TikTok musical, boy was it one of the most successful.
This success should be celebrated. In the world of commercial theatre, collaborative and organic works rarely thrive, even in pre-pandemic times. Yet, against all odds, within the constraints of TikTok’s format, theatre continued throughout the pandemic. It shouldn’t stop here. Seeing artistry and creativity coming to life through my screen and the community and joy formed around this musical project, I realized all the areas commercial theatre could stand to learn from TikTok musicals like the Ratatouisical or other successful projects like “The Unofficial Bridgerton Musical” (which was nominated for a 2022 Grammy Award). If mainstream commercial theatre could consider these creations as accomplished works, they might discover the important choices TikTok musicals make and learn from their success.
TikTok musicals are rooted in collaboration. While all theatre is based in collaboration and communication, with the wrangling of producers, actors and designers into a cohesive creative system, TikTok takes that collaboration to a new level. One person, like Jacobsen, might publish a video for fun, for someone else to come along and be inspired. From there, they can save the audio from the original and use it in their own video of choreography to the music. Or they can duet the original video to add a clip of them singing harmonies. Or they can create new audios, perhaps a song for the antagonist, or an instrumental dance break. The possibilities are truly limitless. There are no constraints of time in a rehearsal room or conflicts over the constraints of the show’s run time. Everything can be added to the pool of content through the simple use of a hashtag or tag of a user.
Anyone with a TikTok account has access to the materials, the ability to post. Broadway, on the other hand, is historically difficult to access. As of 2017, in the history of the Tony Awards, which began in 1947, only three winners of the Best Play category have been written entirely by women and only one Best Musical winner. A 2020 report found that in the 2017–2018 Broadway and Off-Broadway season, 94% of directors were white and only 20% of the shows were created by people of color. But on TikTok, content can come from anyone. In fact, with “Ratatouille: The TikTok Musical,” submissions from anyone interested in participating were encouraged. The website for the concert featured a submission page for creators to enter their content to be featured. This allowed for greater visibility for all the artists involved and emphasized their pride in the collective effort it took to get the work to the virtual stage.
In 2018, all four nominees for the Tony Award for Best Musical were adaptations of films or television shows. In 2019, two of the five nominees were adaptations of films. It’s no secret that producers tend to stick to stories they can prove people will like before they invest in taking them to the stage. But on TikTok this is not a concern. Since there is not an immediate expectation for the art to end in profitable performances, creators have more freedom to explore ideas they care about and test possible variations and additions.
While “Ratatouille: The TikTok Musical” may be an unofficial adaptation of the animated Disney film, other users have begun to use the TikTok platform as a space to generate original content. Mertzlufft’s newest project, “For you, Paige: A TikTok Musical” is an original work with a meta plot, playing into the TikTok terminology of the “For You Page,” and examines the creation of a fictional musical, “Utopia: The Musical” on TikTok. The main character Landon, a high school student, realizes he can’t make it on his own and has to collaborate with others on the social media platform to make “Utopia: The Musical” a reality.
As TikTok theatre grows more self-aware of its capabilities, reach and community investment, it’s time commercial theatres stop discrediting the work of TikTok artists and begin to recognize the surprising success of the online productions. And if it isn’t too much to ask, I hope that even the most profit-driven commercial theatres can learn from the organic and crowdsourced successes of TikTok and begin to incorporate a more collaborative, accessible approach to theatre in the future. After all, “The rat of all our dreams” has shockingly become a legitimate way for theatre creators to reach some of their own dreams.
Daily Arts Writer Mallory Edgell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.