The creator behind the viral crowdsourced “Ratatouille: The Musical” is back with another TikTok-inspired project. This time, it’ll be performed live on Broadway.
Composer and orchestrator Daniel Mertzlufft is known for arranging TikTok memes as musical theater numbers. His latest project “For You, Paige” is an homage to TikTok’s vibrant musical theater community, partially inspired by the success of “Ratatouille: The Musical.”
The musical, produced in partnership with TikTok itself, will be simultaneously performed on stage in New York and streamed on TikTok this week. It will be hosted by Andy Cohen, and stars Roman Banks and Sri Ramesh.
Inspired by the 2007 Disney-Pixar film of the same name, “Ratatouille: The Musical” started as a TikTok meme in 2020. After creator Emily Jacobsen’s ode to the character Remy the rat went viral, Mertzlufft arranged the song in the style of a musical theater finale. His arrangement went viral on TikTok, inspiring thousands of musical theater parodies of scenes from the movie. Creators crowdsourced musical numbers, and adapted and arranged them into a cohesive production. A filmed version of the musical was livestreamed in January 2021, with proceeds benefiting the Actor’s Fund.
“For You, Paige” — a play on TikTok’s For You Page — follows a composer named Landon and his best friend Paige, a fan of a young adult novel series called “Utopia.” Paige and Landon write a song together inspired by the series, which ends up going viral. When a producer approaches Landon about turning it into a full show, he runs with it without acknowledging Paige’s work.
“For You, Paige” will be the first live theater debut broadcasted by TikTok. It streams on April 14 at 7 p.m. ET / 4 p.m. PT via the @TikTok handle.
Ahead of the show’s Broadway debut, Mertzlufft discussed producing the hybrid musical, collaborating with other creators and the future of musical theater.
How’d this project come to be?
I worked on ‘Ratatouille: the TikTok Musical’ about a year and a half ago. It was such an amazing project of creating accessible theater. It aired on TikTok [for free] and even when we did sell tickets for the Actor’s Fund, we raised over $2 million from selling tickets for only $5.
There were writers from all over the world who came together to create this thing. So I was trying to figure out ways to take the idea of that project in terms of accessibility, and I started working with Media.Monks, who is co-producing this, to come up with some strategies. We started meeting with TikTok, and came up with Project Broadway, which is this overarching umbrella over ‘For You, Paige.’ TikTok decided to officially commission their very first musical ever, which is kind of crazy.
You don’t have to buy a ticket. You don’t have to be in New York City to see this show. If you have a phone and you have TikTok, it’s free to watch.
Was this story inspired by your own experience writing ‘Ratatouille: the Musical’?
I would say ‘For You, Paige’ has elements of my story. But it’s not in any way autobiographical. I know so many people who’ve experienced the incredible joy and love from the musical theater community, and I in now way would ever want to say that it’s my story, but there are definitely some moments that hit close to home and were easier to write than others.
But it is truly about the feat that many, many amazing composers and writers and choreographers, dancers and performers on TikTok who’ve been discovered and whose voices are able to be heard in a way that I don’t think they could have on any other platform.
This show is going to performed on stage, but I’d love to hear more about what it was like creating a musical that would be livestreamed, too. How did it translate?
It was actually really lovely to know from the very beginning that we were going to be livestreaming because we knew exactly what the show was for. We weren’t adapting something that was already existing, trying to make it work for the screen. When we were giving assignments to different songwriters, they also knew that, as did the directing team, that this was going to be livestreamed. There’s lots of TikTok inside references, and lots of very meta inside joke humor, which is huge on TikTok, but I think on a traditional stage might not read very well.
You worked on ‘Ratatouille the Musical,’ which was a whole production, but you’ve also done other jokey songs like the Little Lad ballad or the grocery store song. They were all derivative of things that had already gone viral. Do you see that in this musical because it pulls from TikTok culture or do you see it as more of a standalone production?
We didn’t want it to be an existing IP because that inherently carries many, many a problem, and thankfully Disney allowed us to [fundraise for] the actor’s fund when we did Ratatouille. So we knew we wanted it to be something original.
So that’s how we landed on ‘For You, Paige,’ which is sort of an homage, a love letter to the musical theater community on TikTok. One of my favorite parts of the show is that we’ve taken a bunch of very famous TikTok sounds or trends and incorporated them into the show, but we did that so if you didn’t know it was a reference, it just sounds like a normal dialogue moment. It’s finding as many of those little tiny references, but again, making sure that dramaturgically, it still stands on its own legs.
But if you are active on the platform and know all those things, it’s just riddled with inside jokes.
It’s like an added treat for the viewer.
Exactly. With how quickly internet culture moves, and how quickly trends go viral and then die out, how did you preserve the evergreen aspects of making a musical while also being conscious of how quickly trends move?
That was always something on our mind. We had our list of trends, we were constantly adding new ones. We did have to make the early decision to accept the fact that not every single reference in the entire show was going to be of the moment, and that’s OK. That’s not what this is about. But there are placeholders, for instance, in the show. One line specifically says, “Landon, can you keep it down? We’re watching...” and then in parentheses, “show that’s topically appropriate on TikTok.”
[We] have these things to try to tie it to the moment, but also make it so if you’re not on TikTok, if you happen to not know exactly what’s going on in these trends, it’s still enjoyable.
This isn’t the first time that a musical has been inspired by TikTok or born through collaborations on TikTok, but what was it like to choreograph and produce this musical for both the stage and something as small as a phone screen?
One, it’s being shot vertically. So you will experience it the same way that you would experience any other TikTok, which has been an enormous challenge for all of us, but especially our incredible directorial and choreography team.
Musical theater is such an intimate art form. It just inherently is because it’s in person, we’re in a room together. So it’s the idea of taking that and putting it on your phone, which I think is a very intimate place. We hold so much of ourselves in this tiny little piece of metal and glass.
We hold so much of ourselves in this tiny little piece of metal and glass.
composer and tiktok creator daniel mertzlufft
In terms of writing, there is one ballad in the entire show. Why? Because when we’re scrolling our attention span is short. We want it quick, fast and funny. Being aware of that was a challenge, but I like to think boundaries are freeing and having that boundary to live within was very exciting.
What was different about writing a musical with this pacing in mind, versus writing a traditional musical?
We knew it was going to be one act. Our aim was somewhere between half an hour and 40 minutes. Are we keeping our attention? Is this exciting enough, are enough things happening? It’s true that 30 seconds go by where you’re bored, you’re going to scroll, and I don’t even know if 30 seconds is being very generous, you know?
Even our ballad, it’s timed very specifically so that it’s just over halfway through, so people who have been there long enough are invested enough to enjoy that.
You mentioned accessibility in musical theater — there is this notion that all the great theater is in New York, or Chicago, or other major cities. That’s not accessible for everyone. How did that play into writing this musical?This goes back to ‘Ratatouille.’ That was really the starting point to see, can we create what we had with that without the IP and virality? I’m not saying that the system we currently have doesn’t create good theater, but that system requires seven to 10 years from a writer to start doing it. And then they write a draft, they get it to a producer who will hopefully get the money to possibly do a reading to get more money, then do a workshop and then possible get it to a Broadway theater. That has been the system for a very long time.
It does create really good theater, but it cannot be the only way that theater is created. We started writing in January and it is currently the middle of April. This happened fast. Is it only half an hour, 40 minutes? Yes. It’s not fully staged with $20 million sets. We are on stage, it’s fully staged, but you know what I’m saying?
I understand a lot of these take time, but there must be other ways to do that. Are we doing it the right way? Who knows. But unless we try, how will we ever figure that out?
‘Ratatouille: the Musical’ was born during a time of extreme social isolation where everyone was forced to be alone on TikTok. Do you think that ‘Ratatouille’ would have happened if not for the pandemic
I do not think that ‘Ratatouille: the Musical’ would have happened without the pandemic. But what I’m hopeful is that the things we learned from that, we can now use again and again and again to create more accessible theater throughout the world. I do think it was a combination of being in social isolation, and being able to create, but that hasn’t stopped. There are still constantly people putting incredible work out on TikTok — incredible new music, theater, dance, all that is still happening.
And we have live theater back too, which is so exciting. [‘Ratatouille’] was amazing and it changed my life, but that scene was isolated. People recorded on their phones from home, it was edited, the vocals were recorded from home. And that’s because that’s how it had to be.
But now we are in a room. We’re in an actual theater, coming directly to TikTok. I’m really, really hopeful it allows people who might not have access to theater in New York, let alone theater anywhere, to experience musical theater in a very intimate and exciting way.