Crowdsourced musical production benefits The Actors Fund, providing assistance and resources for performing artists and entertainment professionals in theater, dance, TV and film
Music theatre alumnus JJ Niemann ’17 performs in “Ratatouille: The TikTok Musical” — a crowdsourced musical based on the Disney film “Ratatouille” — which has already raised $1.9 million to benefit artists struggling during the pandemic.
An encore of the show streams on TikTok at 8 p.m. Thursday night on the @ratatousical account. The stream is free but donations are encouraged. The show premiered on New Year’s Day and ran for 72 hours on TodayTix.com.
The musical began as viral TikTok videos, reinterpreting as a stage musical the animated film about a rat who helps a kitchen worker and becomes a renowned chef. As more and more creators added to the online videos envisioning it as a stage musical, Broadway took notice and incorporated the original creators’ content into a filmed performance. Tituss Burgess, Andrew Barth Feldman, and Wayne Brady led the cast of Emmy and Tony nominees. Niemann was a member of the ensemble.
The message of Ratatouille, that anyone can cook, was transformed into a musical that proves great art — and great artists — can come from anywhere, Niemann said.
“It really began out of Gen Z’s random sense of humor. It was ridiculous, like ‘Why is this here?’ but these nonprofessionals wrote this music and songs that are amazing,” Niemann said. “It shows us that great artists can come from anywhere, even TikTok.”
Niemann performed on Broadway in “The Book of Mormon” for two-and-a-half years as a swing — understudying multiple roles in case actors call out. He landed that job just three days after graduating with his B.F.A. in music theatre.
He became a TikTok creator during the pandemic, posting comedic videos and behind-the-scenes looks at Broadway. He was skeptical of TikTok at first, but grew to love the humor, creativity, and unfiltered nature of the platform. It’s allowed him to reach new audiences and encourage more young performers as they make their way into the performing arts. He has more than 550,000 followers and 100 million views on the platform.
His “Ratatouille” TikTok caught the attention of Daniel Mertzlufft, who arranged the original “Remy the Ratatouille” for TikTok audiences. Mertzlufft is a New York-based composer, arranger and music director who became the streaming show’s music supervisor. They connected online, and Niemann jumped at the chance to perform with the choral ensemble when he found out the show was happening.
Next, choreographer Ellenore Scott recruited Niemann to dance in the show as well. They originally connected through auditions in New York.
The production was a whirlwind. He received the music, learned the choreography, and recorded both in three days before Christmas. Then a team of editors worked internet magic mixing his voice with the other ensemble players with a recording of a 20-piece orchestra and his dancing, lip-syncing image alongside the show’s other performers.
Niemann appreciated the purity and absurdity of the final show. He and his family in his hometown of Wilmington, N.C., where he’s relocated during the pandemic, held a watch party for the premiere. He’s proud to support The Actors Fund, helping them find housing and healthcare among other services, at such a difficult time for artists and performers.
Niemann has kept busy during the pandemic by coaching young actors through college auditions with Broadway Collective, and teaching dance clinics and lessons through Broadway Plus and Artists and Beyond.
“It’s been fulfilling to assist other artists,” he said, “sharing my love and joy for the arts, and reminding them that even when we can’t go see shows, how special the arts can be.”