André De Shields and The ‘Ratatouille’ Whirlwind
Photo Credit: Seaview Productions
There are a lot of things 2020 has thrown at us and if you would’ve told me that a TikTok meme about Remy from “Ratatouille” would become a star-studded musical event, I wouldn’t have believed you. But, as the film’s food critic Anton Ego muses, we need a little perspective. And for veteran Broadway actor André De Shields, that perspective couldn’t have better timing.
De Shields, who has admittedly never seen the 2007 Pixar film, has been caught in the “whirlwind” of “Ratatouille” since he was asked to take part in the role of Anton on December 16th.
“I never would’ve thought I’d be doing anything on TikTok,” De Shields said. “And here I am. Working with Lucy Moss the director of this piece who also directed ‘SIX’...It was fun. Just crazy, crazy fun.”
The musical was born on TikTok after a song by Emily Jacobsen from August went viral. Jacobsen’s song has been reused in other videos over 18,500 times and became a mainstay of theater TikTok. Artists all over the app began putting together other pieces of a musical about Remy, bringing in costumes, new music, and ideas that sparked this larger project.
TikTok and Broadway’s Seaview Productions are producing the show on January 1 to raise funds for The Actors Fund and all contributors are being compensated. Tickets are pay what you can with increments from $5 to $100. No matter what donation you’re able to make you will be able to view the performance starting on New Years Day and for 72 hours after.
De Shields is excited to be part of the fundraiser in part because, as an actor-activist, he knows how important The Actors Fund is—particularly in times like these.
“Tens of thousands of people are out of work because of the pandemic,” he explained. “[Funds from The Actors Fund] are going to be equitably disseminated among whoever needs the help or the assistance. It’s not only rejuvenating to have the gig, [but] it also appeals to our responsibility as actor-activists. We can’t just shelter at home and be sedentary until Governor Cuomo says ‘Broadway is back.’ We have to stay in the trenches and be looking forward to the new world that we have to create.”
As someone who has been on the scene for decades, De Shields sees this new digital project as a new kind of Avante Garde theater. Not only is it refreshing for him as an actor to be brought in for something like this, but it’s also further proof that the living theater is constantly evolving.
You need not look any further than the casting of the musical itself is far and away more diverse than the original film. Alongside De Shields are performers such as Tituss Burgess as Remy, Wayne Brady as his father Django, Adam Lambert as Emile, and Ashley Park as Colette. When asked about the much more equitable casting including his own role (Anton Ego was played by Peter O’Toole in the film,) De Shields looked to the future of the theater.
“Once we let go of the old and allow the new to breathe, that is exactly what the living theater will represent,” he said regarding diverse stages. “It has to look like the life that it represents— the life on the streets. Regardless of the political point of view, we are not a homogenous society. We are everything. That’s the beauty of being in the living theater.”
And while De Shields may not have been familiar with “Ratatouille” the film before getting the call to play Anton, he knew as soon as he encountered the character that it was meant to be.
“It was an epiphany for me because I talk a lot about perspective,” he said. “When I got the script for Anton Ego, I thought ‘wow, this is intended for me.’ It was a sign, an omen from the universe.”
While theaters may still be shuttered for an unknown amount of time because of the COVID-19 pandemic, projects like the “Ratatouille” musical are further proof that artists are not merely waiting for the world to reopen. They are creating art where they are in whatever manner they can at this moment. And, since the theater is a living art, there is no time like the present to examine what that really means. To De Shields, it means letting the culture and the art evolve in this time of great change.
And he is not waiting around for things to get back to normal.
The old way is gone, he explained. There is no need to look over our shoulders and be nostalgic for how things used to be. There is no “new normal” and we don’t yet know if there ever will be. We’re past how things used to be, now is the time to focus on what will come next.
“We performer-activists are the people who know how to live in the moment,” De Shields said. “Who know how to make something of nothing, the people who know the arts own the power of transforming individual lives, the power of the arts can alter governments. The power of the arts can make a change in the world we want to see. We are respectful of the covid protocol, but we are not going to be held captive. We will not respond in panic and fear. We are going to screw our courage to the sticking point and create this new world.”