When Daniel Mertzlufft's Ratatouille: The Musical debuted on TikTok, it marked a different kind of production.
In August 2020, user Emily Jacobsen had just created a short musical tribute to Remy, the rodent protagonist of the Pixar film. It caught the eye of Mertzlufft, who turned it into a Broadway-style number. Millions of views and tons of input from other musical theater fans later, a charity benefit concert was livestreamed on TikTok on January 1, 2021, for 72 hours, and eventually raised $2 million for The Actor's Fund.
"When it aired on TikTok, you didn't have to pay for it," he explained. "If you had an iPhone and had TikTok, it was right there but not only accessibility for the audience, accessibility for the writers and creators as well."
Now, even TikTok is tapping into the trend. For You, Paige, which debuted on April 14 and will stream again on May 3, marks the platform's first commissioned musical. Mertzlufft, who served as executive producer, believed it showed the power of the app to bring niche interests together despite geographical barriers.
"TikTok has become a place where the musical theater community has thrived," he said. "And it's been really exciting to see TikTok not only acknowledge that but with this project, embrace this and support us."
With Broadway, the West End, and other theatrical hubs shut down during the height of the pandemic, TikTok became a meeting place for musical theater fans. #Musical has been viewed more than 6.7 billion times on TikTok, and creator-led productions like Unofficial Bridgerton Musical have even garnered Grammy wins.
"TikTok has been like such an instrumental way for theater fans around the world who aren't getting to come to New York and see live productions to be involved in musical theater as a community," co-executive producer Macy Schmidt said.
For You, Paige, a play on words referencing TikTok's For You Page, revolves around two high school students named Landon and Paige who want to make a musical based on a fictional young adult series. While Landon is reluctant to join the project, he eventually agrees and gets egotistical about his work. Eventually, he learns the power of teamwork and collaboration. Of course, the whole thing is explained through song.
Actor James Henry explained that it made sense for TikTok, which in part originated as the app Musical.ly, to return to its music roots. He joined the platform in its first iteration and has since grown his audience to more than 3.8 million followers with his comedic videos and dance clips. Henry has booked commercials and hosting gigs and now ventured on stage with For You, Paige.
"Music is really like some of the backbones to a lot of these platforms, and it just creates so much creativity and inspiration," Henry, who plays Tyler in the production, said.
But while the plot of the musical may seem at home on Broadway, the production was a bit different. It was going to be broadcast directly on TikTok, meaning it would have to capture the attention spans of an audience used to scrolling by instead of sitting still for 45 minutes on the same video.
"It's been I know a really unique challenge for our creative team to do this vertically and meld stage musicals as we know them with being able to view in the palm of your hand," co-executive producer Schmidt said.
The team worked on weaving in viral trends and sounds. The research involved spending time on TikTok which made work fun, admitted co-bookwriter Kate Leonard. It also meant keeping songs light, with only one ballad in the entire program.
"We worked on finding moments that not only felt like they lived in the TikTok universe but also moved at that lightning pace," Leonard said.
Productions like this may be a way to modernize theater for another generation, especially at a time when it needs the most help coming back to the new normal amid the pandemic.
"Broadway took the biggest hit out of all," actor Henry said. "And it's just really fun to see and inspiring to see that we're still finding new ways to make sure that this industry does not die."