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Interview'I didn't expect the musical, let alone being asked to join'

‘Dear Evan Hansen’ star stirs TikTok fans to donate $2m in ‘Ratatouille’ musical

Andrew Barth Feldman plays the lead role in a crowdsourced version of the Disney classic performed virtually during the pandemic to benefit struggling actors

Andrew Barth Feldman performs in the titular role in 'Dear Evan Hansen' with, from left, Michael Park, Jennifer Laura Thompson and Mallory Bechtel. (Matthew Murphy/via JTA)
Andrew Barth Feldman performs in the titular role in 'Dear Evan Hansen' with, from left, Michael Park, Jennifer Laura Thompson and Mallory Bechtel. (Matthew Murphy/via JTA)

NEW YORK — Andrew Barth Feldman is making the most of it. The 18-year-old Jewish-American kid from Long Island was supposed to be a freshman at Harvard this fall, and the most popular kid on campus for anyone into musical theater. His short career has been a triumph, winning the 2018 National High School Musical Theater Award (also known as The Jimmy Award) and then, in January 2019, taking over the lead role in the beloved (and award-winning) Broadway musical “Dear Evan Hansen.”

Feldman was still just 16 years old at the time, the first actual teen to play this emotionally devastating role of a teen in crisis.

He left the role in January 2020, a feted rising star on Broadway embraced by the community, and was hard at work creating projects under his own production banner. But sadly, his mother passed away from cancer.

Much of his love of theater, encouraged by his mother, was inspired by big Disney showcases, so it’s a bit perfect that he should kick off this year starring in a new and unusual project. “Ratatouille: The Musical” isn’t an officially sanctioned Disney production. It is something that could only have been created by young people today.

It began really as something of a joke on TikTok, but had a viral spread (the good kind of virus, not the bad kind) while theater people were stuck at home during the pandemic. Every day, users of the video-sharing app started tossing out lines and ideas. Composers started making up songs. Arrangers added orchestration. Actors added zings and, eventually, producers wondered, “Hey, do we have a show?”

Andrew Barth Feldman, fourth from left, in a production of ‘Dear Evan Hansen’ at Broadway’s Music Box Theatre in New York. (Courtesy)

Since they didn’t have the rights to the property, they couldn’t do it “for real,” but since they did it to raise money for The Actor’s Fund at a time when it was especially needed, it meant Disney’s lawyers ended up taking a hands-off approach. (They’d look like monsters if they pulled the plug, and, besides, it mostly works as free advertising.)

The short TikTok-friendly stream, in which Feldman plays the rodent-aided chef Luigi, co-stars reals stars such as Adam Lambert, Tituss Burgess, Ashley Park, and Wayne Brady. It was made available for a limited time just after New Year’s.

I had the good fortune to video chat with Feldman from his home after “Ratatouille: The Musical” surprised everyone with its runaway success. Below is an edited transcript of that conversation.

The Times of Israel: So this “Ratatouille: the Musical” is no joke — it raised $2 million in charity in a matter of days! This has to be way more than you expected.

Feldman: I did not even expect a “Ratatouille” musical at all, let alone to be one of the first people asked to join. Nothing in my mind imagined the cast that was brought on, or the beauty of the orchestration, the amount of people behind it, the amount of people watching, and the amount of money raised. I can not fathom the number “two million.” It’s incredible.

Well, it’s all a very sweet story, how it came together organically, for a cause. Plus Broadway, of all the arts, is, unfortunately, the last one likely to come back in any normal form.

Theater requires to be together, so the pandemic is plaguing the industry. It’s a difficult industry already, but for it all to be gone right now, it’s super tough for actors. I mean, if there was anything else for us, we wouldn’t have gotten into theater in the first place, you know? So it’s been a rough time.

It’s super tough for actors. I mean, if there was anything else for us, we wouldn’t have gotten into theater in the first place, you know?

You were originally planning to go to school — to Harvard — this fall. Did you push it?

Yeah, I took a gap year. Online courses didn’t really seem to make sense for me, plus there were other projects I’d started during the pandemic like Broadway Jackbox and Broadway Whodunit, so it felt like maybe it was more productive for me to focus on that instead of online schooling.

You didn’t ask for it, but I’ll give you my opinion: You made the right decision. Going to college is more about being there and meeting people than just hitting the books.

This is what a lot of people say. My mother was a college admissions counselor, so I want as much of the experience as possible.

How aware were you of the spontaneous “Ratatouille” TikTok thing that began months ago?

I haven’t gotten that into the TikTok universe, too much. Even now.

You stick to Twitter. You are a classicist.

Yeah, I guess. But with theater kids, word spreads fast, so I became aware of the “Ratatouille” thing, but I wasn’t aware of just how ginormous it was. Then my good friend Nathan Fosbinder, who is a composer, asked me if I would sing a song for it if he wrote it. I said “yes, of course” and we did it, and this led to me and Kevin Chamberlin, who plays Gusteau, doing videos back and forth. So when the producers wanted this to ultimately be TikTok-forward, that’s what led to us being asked to be in it.

If I hadn’t done that silly video in five minutes in my basement, we wouldn’t be talking right now.

@chamberlin_kevin

@ratatouillemusical ???? Anyone Can Cook ???? #Gusteau #ratatouillemusical #kevinchamberlin #theatrekid #musicals #broadway #ratatouille #fyp #composer

♬ original sound – Kevin Chamberlin

Which song was it that your friend wrote?

It’s “Anyone Can Cook (Reprise).” It’s a great song, he’s a tremendous composer.

I mean, that’s the thing — all the music is great. Also the second one you do.

Kitchen Tango” by Blake Rouse.

It’s not just clever and catchy, but seems like a difficult number to do in duet under normal circumstances, let alone in isolation, opposite your phone.

First of all, Ashley Park had never done a French accent before, and she sounds incredible. But it was all quite hard. It took some real breath control. It’s a patter song, really rapid fire. It was a lot of practicing, I just kept at it over and over. There are different components with the dialogue and the dance.

How much of the show was you and your director one-on-one, or is it you and your “scene partner” with the director? Or was that done after-the-fact and spliced in?

It wasn’t quite like that. They sent us a spreadsheet with a shot list. “Do this shot this way.”

It would say to add X amount of seconds before and X amount of seconds after. It could not have been more specific — it was amazing. Then I had a meeting with our director Lucy Moss and we talked about the whole thing, and then I just went and did it.

@mikeyjosemusic

Full version on my insta @mikeyjosemusic #remi #ratatouille #musical #singer #disney #theatrekid #disneymusicals #fyp #foryou

♬ original sound – Mikey Jose Music

So you uploaded your material, then the director would give you adjustments after-the-fact?

If we had more time, maybe? But there really wasn’t a second round. I did say “anything you want as a re-do, let me know!” And they were like “we don’t have any time for that.”

So … you kinda self-directed yourself on this.

Sure, in a sense. But that’s the mark of a great director. She wanted it in a way that everyone is bringing their own thing to the table, that’s why they hired us.

When there were scenes with a lot of people they would send us a track of everyone’s lines and the timing. Other times it would just say “leave time for other people to talk” and it worked far better than I expected.

For someone so young you have loads of theater experience, but you have not done so much in film or television. It’s a different skillset, yet you have, in a way, leap-frogged ahead with this project. An actor with a hundred film credits probably hasn’t been asked to look at a spreadsheet and knock off a shot list by themselves.

That’s why I think only theater actors can do this. Only theater actors are able to say “I have a trash can, a broom, and a hat, what can I make of this?” That’s always our mindset.

A large part of this project was delivering my scene to this guy [holds up a stuffed Remy the Rat toy]. This was the goal, the do-it-yourself vibe, much like the original TikToks.

Of your co-stars in this project, have you ever met them in real life? Have you met Tituss Burgess, for example?

Only Ashley Park, but not anyone else, I don’t think.

Eventually, you will, and it’ll be, “We were in a thing!”

“We were in ‘Ratatouille!’” I have spoken to Kevin Chamberlin, but, right, I am very much looking forward to seeing some of these people and saying, “We were in a musical together on Broadway.”

Because normally that’s what I treasure about theater, getting close to the cast. And this time I wasn’t even in the same room.

Normally that’s what I treasure about theater, getting close to the cast. And this time I wasn’t even in the same room

You weren’t just in a musical together, you were in one that made $2 million dollars in just a few days.

$2 million! It’s deeply hilarious.

Let’s assume this pandemic ends soon but, God forbid it doesn’t, if you had to revive another beloved Disney cartoon as a musical, what would it be?

I think “Onward,” the very recent Pixar movie, would work very well as a musical. I’d love to play Ian, the Tom Holland character. But going back? Well, I’d have no business being in it, but “Up” would be a heartbreaking musical.

Here’s the thing: when you are in theater, the question isn’t, “Wouldn’t this be a good musical?” It’s, “How do you make this a good musical?” It’s about having ideas for making anything work, which is why “Ratatouille” was so amazing, you could do anything. You could do puppetry, you could do costumes, forced perspective. It’s not “would it be good?” it’s “isn’t it fun to imagine?”

I’m going to go out on a limb and guess you had a theater-themed bar mitzvah?

I did indeed.

What were some of the highlights?

The centerpieces were different shows that I’d either been in or wanted to be in. So “Rent” and “Avenue Q,” but I hadn’t been in either, obviously, since I was only 12. It was just photoshopping my face on the jacked body of John Tartaglia holding an “Avenue Q” puppet.

A year or so after my bar mitzvah my mom took apart the centerpieces and put them all over the walls of the basement, to my humiliation. Now that my friends have been going off to college, they’ve taken some of the individual Styrofoam pieces and put them up in their dorms and whatnot. So there’s a Styrofoam piece of me as Nathan Detroit in the 6th grade somewhere up in Boston as witness to God knows what.

What was the first show you saw that made you realize theater was for you?

My first musical was “Beauty and the Beast.” I was three years old, but I realized that being in the seat watching the show was just a way to have an immersion. A year later “High School Musical” came out and I just wanted to be Zac Efron so badly. But I didn’t process that you could just go and do it, until I was eight years old, and first acted in “Annie.” Then I discovered “Rent” and realized musicals weren’t just fairy tales, it could be anything.

What was the first time you saw a show but said, “This is good, but I know how to make it better.”

In doing community theater, really. Being in a show and coming up with schtick. I was cast as Donkey in “Shrek,” and on the first day I went to the director and said, “Thank you so much for giving me this part” and he said, “I already regret this.”

I was just a huge ham. One of my first shows, when I was nine or so, I was in “Beauty and the Beast” as LeFou, and I came up with this weird thing where I curl up into a ball and Gaston mounts a rifle on my back. I’m always looking for ways to make things different.

The biggest one was for “Seussical.” I saw a lot of productions of “Seussical” that really focused on the flash, but at its heart it’s such a beautiful show and score. So one of the first things we did at my production company was to strip that down a little.

A raw, gritty “Seussical.”

Perhaps an excessively dark “Seussical” — we did focus on the social commentary, which is what Dr. Seuss was about, but, yes, maybe not the job that should have been taken on by 14-year-olds.

You’ve got a lot else in the works right now as we wait out the pandemic. Tell me about “As The Curtain Rises.”

This is part of the Broadway Podcast Network. It’s basically a soap opera about a soap opera about a theater company making a musical based on the movie “Avatar.” It’s hilarious and has an amazing cast of Tony-winners and legends and they all play zany characters, and I am the only one who is playing myself. But, I am Andrew Barth Feldman as a science consultant about the world of “Avatar.”

This is sweet because you are very young, but you’ve been embraced by the elder statesmen of Broadway. You have not gotten any “who the hell does this young kid think he is?” treatment.

It’s really been lovely. It was Ashley Park, actually, at an event at 54 Below, who first pulled me aside to let me know how excited people were to welcome me. I’ll never forget that.

Well, keep that in mind. You aren’t gonna be a teen forever. Some day some new kid will show up and it’ll be your turn to be —

I’ll dissuade my jealousy, I’m sure. No, I’m kidding. I really hope that my being in “Dear Evan Hansen” and my good friend Renée Rapp being in “Mean Girls” has changed things for younger performers, and how we think of training.

On that show, they truly trained me. Benj Pasek says that when I walked into the audition room, they needed an “Evan” and I was an “Evan.” But I wasn’t ready. I wasn’t ready to hit those high notes or cry each night or do what I had to do, but I was “him.” So that’s such a great way to think of casting. This is the right person for the role, now let’s equip him with the tools to tell the story.

I wasn’t ready to hit those high notes or cry each night or do what I had to do, but I was ‘him.’ So that’s such a great way to think of casting. This is the right person for the role, now let’s equip him with the tools to tell the story

The actors who had played the role previously had never been that young, correct?

I was by far the youngest. Younger even than the character. The others were mostly in their 20s, even 30s.

I mean, I can get why. It’s heavy shit. But you handled it!

It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but also the most enlightening experience I’ll ever have.

Tell me about Broadway Whodunit.

I always used to organize murder mysteries for my theater friends, so with the pandemic this is an all-virtual, all-live murder mystery. I write out objectives for the actors and it plays out, with multiple improvised storylines. Anyone can get a ticket, it’s a lot of fun. Another project is Broadway Jackbox, which has raised over $100,000 for the Actor’s Fund, and also for a group called Broadway for Racial Justice. Normally there’s a greenscreen behind me for these events.

Yeah, for a theatrical guy, I’m looking at a very blank, boring room with nothing but a folding chair.

Yes. This is the office. This is not my bedroom. There is a guest bed in here and that’s it. But I gave you the authentic view today.

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