Interview: Daniel Mertzlufft Talks Composing 'Remember My Name' for RATATOUILLE: THE TIKTOK MUSICAL & More

Ratatouille: The TikTok Musical rose from a buzzy social media trend to become the most successful fundraiser in The Actors Fund's history.

By: Jun. 17, 2021
Interview: Daniel Mertzlufft Talks Composing 'Remember My Name' for RATATOUILLE: THE TIKTOK MUSICAL & More

Ratatouille: The TikTok Musical was a musical theater phenomenon unlike any that had come before it. Born from the minds of enterprising Gen Z and Millennials during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Ratatouille: The TikTok Musical rose from a buzzy social media trend to become the most successful fundraiser in The Actors Fund's history. This lightning-in-a-bottle musical theater movement can be traced back to two points of origin: Emily Jacobsen's original 'Remy, the ratatouille, the rat of all my dreams' TikTok, and Daniel Mertzlufft's responding TikTok, expanding upon Jacobsen's song with full, Disney-style orchestrations and a computerized 40-person backing ensemble, asking people to imagine a 'Big Act II finale. Lots of glitter, Remy centerstage, listening to his adoring fans praise him'.

And praise him they did. Mertzlufft's TikTok inspired hundreds of TikToks (and millions of views on those Tiktoks) expanding upon the fictional Ratatouille musical with more songs, sets, and costume ideas. Ratatouille: The TikTok Musical became bigger than anyone could have ever imagined, and was eventually produced into a full-fledged virtual concept production, produced by and starring some of theater's biggest names. Ratatouille: The TikTok Musical is currently the first TikTok production to be eligible for an Emmy Award.

We spoke with Daniel Mertzlufft, Music Supervisor, Music Producer, Arranger, and Composer of 'Remember My Name' about his original TikTok, the process of bringing the virtual show to life, being eligible for an Emmy Award and much more.

Tell me what your thoughts were when you first saw Emily Jacobsen's original Ratatouille TikTok, and how you went about composing the orchestrations for your original TikTok.

A friend of mine named Rocky Paterra tagged me in the comments of Emily's video, and all he said was, "Is this next Grocery Store Musical?" which was something I had done earlier in the year, and it was my first big viral video that got me on Good Morning America and all that, and had lots of collaboration as well. That's when I first discovered the incredible collaboration capabilities of TikTok. I listened to Emily's video, thought it was so funny, and especially the last line, "May the world remember your name," just struck me as a big, Act 2, Disney finale. You can just imagine the ensemble singing that as Remy is lifted on a huge thing over the audience, you know? So I tried to recreate that, and I thought of Hunchback, and the finale of The Little Mermaid, and all those big, huge, choral and orchestral things. I put together a huge orchestra, all virtual on my computer, and then a huge choir, which is really just fifteen of me and fifteen of my friend, Cori Jaskier, who actually ended up being in the ensemble for the concept production. There was 30 of our voices to create that first video. And I posted it thinking it would do well, based on the Grocery Store Musical and other musical parodies I had done, but I never thought that it would launch a Ratatouille musical movement.

What was it like for you seeing that TikTok blow up in the way that it did?

It was really crazy to watch, because I had assumed that duets would happen in the same way that Grocery Store did, because that's how that was built. And at first that's what happened, there were some duets, and people dressed up as Gusteau and as Linguini, which was fun, but it was really when all of these other content creators started adding to this theoretical show that made it really interesting, where it wasn't just the song, people were really invested in this show as a whole. There were songs for other big moments in the show, there were the costume designers, the set designers, the directors, the stage managers calling cues to my song, I would have never imagined that it would start not just investment in the show, but it became something so tangible and so real, as so many people were putting together this fictional show.

Ratatouille blew up so much that it then began being developed as a full virtual musical with an incredible team involved. Tell me what you did for Ratatouille: The TikTok Musical and what the process of bringing that to life was like for you.

I had quite a few job titles for the concept production, I was Music Supervisor, Arranger, Composer, and Music Producer. Basically, what my big job was, was leading team music and taking the songs that we decided to be in the show, and creating a cohesive score by doing the arrangements for those, and by writing a couple of new tunes, and then putting that all together with the rest of the music team, and producing with our incredible other producers.

So, what does that mean? Basically, Seaview Productions contacted me on December 4th- the performance was January 1st- and they called me and said, "Hey, this is going to be a real thing, Disney approves of it, and we would like you to come on as Arranger/Music Supervisor." From there, we sat down with Michael Breslin and Patrick Foley, who wrote the book, the producers, and Lucy Moss, our director, and went through, "What beats do we have? How are we going to tell the story? What beats are we missing? What songs does that require?" And once we had those songs, we were really off to the races. From that first day that I opened Finale, the notation software, and put a single note in there, to being in the studio with an orchestra was only thirteen days. So, it was really crazily fast. Which meant it was literally a song a day.

There were two beats we realized didn't have songs yet. And those were the opening number, which, we knew Kevin Chamberlin's 'Anyone Can Cook' was going to be part of the opening number, but that we had a bunch of other information we had to get across, and we also had to establish that Remy was going to be the narrator. So, Kate Leonard and I wrote that whole middle section called 'Remy's Introduction' as well as his 'I Want' song, which, of course, is the classic musical theater trope where your lead character says what they want, and hopefully they get it. 'Part of Your World' is a classic example, "I want to be where the people are, I want to see, want to see them dancing." Or, "In my own little corner in my own little chair," is the perfect example of an 'I Want song', and we really needed one for Remy, so we could establish what his wants were. Our big conversation was, Emily Jacobson's song started off this whole movement, so we had to use it, and we knew that that was going to be the finale. But, it doesn't actually make a bunch of sense because it started off as a whole joke! So, we literally wrote the entire 'I Want' song to justify the finale, so that when it arrived it felt worthwhile. That's why it's called 'Remember My Name', so that when we reach the ensemble saying, "The world will remember your name!" that was his 'want', he wanted to change the world and he wanted to become a chef.

And the payoff of that? You can feel it! I never thought that something that had started on TikTok would make me so emotional when I was watching it, but it did!

I'm so glad you said that because I also get emotional still when I hear it, because it did start from such a small, little, fun moment, and then led to this big movement. And really, all I wanted to do when I joined TikTok was to bring some joy to the world, and honestly, it was for myself at first. I thought what I was posting was funny, and if no one ever watched it, I had a grand old time making it, and I made myself laugh. Truly! If I made this video and no one had ever seen it, I would have been more than happy to make it, because I thought it was so funny. And I'm just so happy that it was able to bring other people joy at such a dark time, not only for the world, but especially for our industry. I remember writing that, it was the first thing I wrote, and putting it into Finale [software], and being like, "People are actually going to sing this, people are going to see this." It was a very emotional moment.

Ratatouille made an incredible impact. It was the most successful fundraiser in Actors Fund history, it's the first TikTok production to be eligible for an Emmy, how do you feel having been at the helm of this groundbreaking show?

It honestly feels surreal, the entire experience feels surreal. That's the only way I can say it. The music was put together in 13 days, the entire production including everything else was 31 days, so December 2020 will always be sort of a black hole for me because I remember next to nothing. I never imagined that we would raise $2 million dollars for The Actors Fund, and that was another really exciting part of it. Our industry has been hurt so much by the pandemic, and we're still struggling with that, and it's exciting now that we're hopeful for a fall opening, but still, people are really struggling. The Actors Fund has given over $18 million dollars in relief funds since the beginning of the pandemic, and the fact that we were able to make $2 million dollars that can go to that is just so exciting. I'm very proud to have been a part of that.

With the Emmy's, it's sort of unbelievable that something that started on TikTok with such a small couple of videos could land here. I think the most exciting thing is that, of course Emily's and my videos started this movement, but the reason the whole movement is so incredible is every single person who participated in it is a part of it. That's every single person who interacted with a video, who shared a video, from Emily's and my videos, to a kid in Missouri who sang along and dueted one of them, every single person is just as big of a part of the Ratatouille musical movement. So, the fact that it is Emmy eligible is thanks to every single person who did that, not just the people who happen to be working on the actual concert itself.

How would you feel if you were nominated for an Emmy?

I think I would be speechless for the first time in my life if I were nominated for an Emmy for Ratatouille: The TikTok Musical! Truly, it's something that I've always dreamt of. You dream of getting nominated for awards, and you dream of having successful productions, and you dream of all of all of those things, and it's fun how sometimes dreams come true in a way that one would never expect. And the fact that there is a possibility that my first major nomination could come from a TikTok musical, which is an app that I didn't even know about a year and a half ago, is so bizarre, but it also somehow feels very right.

What do you think the future of TikTok musicals are?

I don't know the future of TikTok musicals specifically. I think that Ratatouille came together for a very specific number of reasons, one, the IP itself is very time relevant to Gen Z, it came out right when they were kids. Of course, we were in the middle of a pandemic, so I think lots of people missed theater and the theater-makers were willing and had time to create, and also were on TikTok a lot more. It's just such a well-known property, I think that's really why the movement took off specifically. So, I don't know if we'll ever be able to re-create something that is Ratatouille, but what I'm hopeful about is that we'll be able to take the lessons that we learned from Ratatouille and apply them in a more sustainable way that doesn't rely on virality, but taking the idea of being able to elevate unheard voices, and also changing what theater can even be completely changing our entire concept of theater. Because even before the concept production, even though there wasn't an actual show, the show existed, and it was something tangible, we all were participating in it, and we knew the show. It's also a complete re-concept of what musical theater can be.

So, that's what I'm hopeful for, not necessarily that things will go viral again and we'll create it in the same way and do a concept production, but that we're really able to focus on the accessibility that Ratatouille brought, not only to creators, but also to consumers, because the concert was $5, pay-as-you-can Those are the lessons I hope we can take and apply in a sustainable way, versus hoping that something goes viral again.

What are you planning for the future, what are you working on?

I have to say the terrible line of, I have a bunch of projects that I can't quite talk about at the moment, that I'm very excited for! I'm really thankful for Ratatouille because it really did help launch my career. I'm a classically-trained composer, I have been working on things for many years, I did the BMI Musical Theatre Workshop, I did Off-Broadway shows, so I was laying the path for that career, but this was a very nice jump start of the path that I had already been setting. So, I'm very thankful for Ratatouille. There's lots of things that I am currently working on, but one of the big things that I can sort of talk about is taking what we learned from Ratatouille and creating education and theater-creation initiatives, and trying to create sustainable programs to be able to re-create what we did, including mentorship programs, education, and specifically working with unheard voices.