Better Than Broadway (at least cheaper, faster, and more fun)
Daniel Mertzliufft is an incredibly talented composer, he clearly can get himself in over his head, and we are all the better for it as he tries to “Compose” his way out. Having jokingly spawned a musical meme on TikTok, it became a movement, and evolved into a full-scale, campy musical broadcast over the internet. With NO set, NO costumes, and only music and imagination, this piece made history. He also put together a musical history lesson about the “Pride” flag for Nickelodeon with the performance help of Nina West. This is one of the goofiest interviews I have ever done and I loved it.
JH: Ok Daniel thank you for taking the time on this, it has been a delight getting ready for this conversation.
DM: Oh yes, thank you, happy to be here.
JH: So, I put the musical on at the gym this morning to get into this. I told my daughters about this opportunity, and they said “DO IT!!! THAT IS SO COOL”
DM: Well I’m excited, hello to them.
JH: So, lemme explain, my daughters loved Kevin Chamberlain from the show “Hey Jesse”, and they all love TikTok so of course, they loved the show. And I remember watching it the first time and thinking “This looks SOOOO CAMPY”, it looked like it was so much fun.
DM: Yes, all of the “Camp” was the whole goal.
JH: Ok, the jokes, … Are you having issues from the screen actors guild, or contract issues are you? I know Disney blessed it.
DM: Well, it started as an online movement and it was never shut down because there was never a single person to shut it down, my friend Emily Jacobson and I launched our first videos, and after that, we didn’t post anything and then it just kept going and became an online movement with hundreds of thousands of people. I was always worried, I posted a video that was clearly parody, then the New York times posted something on it, and that’s when See view productions got the word from Disney said we could do it. We also got away with it because it was a fundraiser, and we were doing it for the actor’s fund. And we had this amazing cast because it’s Covid, and thus, people are free. It wasn’t a long-time streaming thing or even an album, it was just a one-night concert. Though I still can’t believe they said sure do it.
JH: It reminded me about “Sueded” films, they are mock “Fan Films” with no set, or real costumes, there was one of “Aliens” of this woman walking around with a cigarette lighter and a can of hair spray blowing flame, and some guy with an alien mask on his head, all just a big joke remake of the movies. All for fun, and you guys did that well. But there was no real solid, production direction, and everyone threw in what they could, and that made it so damn charming.
DM: YES, it was like that, it was this online phenomenon with totally different versions of the songs in the show, depending on what you had seen on Toktok, everyone had their own versions of the show in their head so when we had to sit down to figure out which songs to use, and what dialogue to use, we just knew it was going to be camp because it was written by fourteen different writers. No songbook existed until we sat down and pull it all together. We were aware of the fact that we had less than 30 days to put it together, and people were going to be recording from their homes, with little to no rehearsal time. So, we had no budget, and we all just said “Lean into the camp” that is what this whole thing has been about. So in the opening number, I just threw in as many musical theatre jokes and references as I could, because we all miss musical theatre right now.
JH: Well, you get into something like this, where even the original actors couldn’t be offended by it, but they would look at it and appreciate how well done it was.
DM: You’re right, we were not putting together the Broadway production, we were putting together the fan fiction.
JH: It felt a lot like the musical Pippin, where you had no real set, and you just had all these people with mouse ears, and whiskers painted across their faces. Just like Pippin, it was the ensemble with no real “Production” design, just grab what was there. I saw that being to your advantage.
DM: It’s funny Lucy Moss was our brilliant director, and since you had no one in the same room, she was writing it shot for shot, so people would be standing here, looking one way, while the other was talking as if they were there. Lucy had just done a musical “SIX” that was supposed to open the day Broadway shut down. So when she did this for us, she wrote each shot out like that.
JH: Yeah, and still, you tried to make some of the backdrops in zoom look like they represented the real thing, the skyline of Paris kind of thing. But it was still all “Coming from a bedroom webcam near you.
DM: Lucy had a line for line breakdown of each shot, and Michael and Patrick the directors read the entire thing to the actors, so the actors said their lines off that as IF they were talking to each other. We put the score and music together in thirteen days.
JH: Well, the tech behind it was great too, who had the better webcam, etc. The world has learned to embrace the AD-Hoc of everything in the pandemic. I think that War, Calamity, and Hackers are who push the tech forward by light-years. So you guys were the first to do it like this, I’m sure people are going to try and do it again, just for the magic.
DM: Yeah for a musical, from conception to production on stage is seven years, and for us and our understanding of the art-form, and thought, meh, let’s do it anyways.
JH: One of the first times this was done, you know Monty Python.
DM: Of course….
JH: Do you know the story of the coconuts?
JH: They had no budget, so they said “Let’s practice the horses bit, with the coconuts just to keep the meter and timing in place as if we HAD horses, so we can be ready day of filming”. And they did it that way all through rehearsals. Then comes a week before shooting, the money wasn’t there, they didn’t get the horses, and they “What the hell are we going to do?” and they said “Well, we have practiced with the coconuts”… And so they DID it with the coconuts, just as a last fail move, that became the iconic piece of comedy film history.
DM: You’re right about the fact that on the night of the concert. There was this trust of everyone working off each other. I was writing and underscoring for dialogue that hadn’t been written yet, hoping that the guestimated 16 bars that wrote were going to work. It was completely backwards, but it worked and we did it. But would I ever want to do it in a month again? NO, but 6 months? Totally.
JH: So what story would you want to do like this in the future? Inquiring minds want to know. Like would you do a musical on “The Tiger King”?
DM: Something that I have been thinking about a lot which is very bizarre is that I have gotten into “Retro Nintendo” again, and I think a “Legend of Zelda” musical would be AMAZING, you would have to live in the “CAMP” of it. I always loved the fun people you meet along the way, it seems like a Disney movie if you frame it that way.
JH: But YOU could do that, mix the “Tiger King” with “Dances with Wolves”.
DM: Totally, I mean, I don’t think could watch or read anything without imagining it as a musical. Ok, I’m going to pitch you my billion-dollar idea, and hope no one steals it. Harry Potter as a musical, but it’s eight different musicals, and they all are simultaneously all in different theaters, and they are constantly happening, and in New York, you have an eight-show week, so you could do it in a week. I could go on this, I mean I have a whole plan for any Broadway producers with seven billion dollars. It’s gonna be amazing.
JH: Oh hey man I would second act that. So can you look at anything in the same light that you used to do it? Or now do you look at it as “Anything is possible”.
DM: I think they are both true, the Ratatouille musical takes, it works for a reason. The idea of doing a couple of years to write it, working with producers to get it to Broadway, it works for that kind of show. But I think it’s more of a re-framing of what theatre could be. Before we did the concert the show was real, tangible, it was all online, and each person had a version of what the show was based on what they had seen. Think of the way that TV has to constantly adapt, but musical theatre is the same as it was 70 years ago. So the way that TV adapted to streaming, musical theatre needs to adapt to the modern world as well.
JH: So you’ll go down as one of the pioneers, the “Rogers and Hammerstein” of the TIKTOK musical.
DM: Well, none of the people were in the same room with each other, only the musicians were allowed to be in the same room together, and they were only allowed four at a time. So we had to re-record each section four times. I still have yet to meet any of the cast members.
JH: You guys are going to have one hell of a cast party. By the way Ashley Park, her accent. MAN, ok, I speak French, I used to live in France, and I went to a French university in Montreal, and if there is one thing I can’t do, is to speak English pretending to have a French accent. It’s impossible for some reason for me. And then her performance, she is AWESOME.
DM: I have to give her credit, and Ashley went to her own private coach because she wanted the accent. And as a human in general, she is amazing because of stuff like that. But the whole cast, the amount of commitment, they just did it.
JH: So I could see that, everyone had to do was focus on their own performance, because they were really never around each other. So SHE was amazing with that. I was thinking “I am in love”, so pass that on to her.
DM: Well, you know when I sing in French, they say I do it with a German accent. But yes I’ll pass that on to her.
JH: Well, like Bob Geldof and Midge Ure, when they did Live Aid, they didn’t set out to do it, they did something simple hoping to raise a few hundred thousand pounds, what they WANTED to happen, is what did happen, it launched and got out of control, and ended up changing the face of humanity, for a brief moment anyway. You guys did something simple and it launched, and went far beyond what you had planned on, and did something great. So, you all have everything in the world to be proud of.
DM: You’re right, I was happy with where it was and that it had gotten so much press, and the fact that we were able to do the concert benefit, was just icing on the cake. Except now it keeps getting more and more, with a “For your consideration” campaign, and billboards on times square. I think it’s just the world’s “Most expensive Meme”. It started as a joke, and I thought haha, and now here I am talking to press outlets about an Emmy campaign. Who ever would have thought.
JH: Yes, well, you guys nailed it. So, greetings from my daughter, then I’ll move on to the important stuff, and “Pride”.
DM: Yes, happy pride to your daughter, and thank you for being such an ally.
JH: So, “The meaning of Pride”, that song educated me. I did not know what the rainbow actually meant.
DM: Me neither.
JH: But you’re the gay guy, YOU should know that.
DM: I know, that’s so bad.
JH: So I watched it and saw it was right off the paradigm of “Schoolhouse Rock”.
DM: Yes, ask me how I know the preamble to the constitution.
JH: So, it was very much like the opening sequence of “The Great Space Coaster”, it was one I watched as a kid, it brought all that back to me. So, Nina West, who else was in the running on that?
DM: Actually, Nina was cast on that before I was brought in, it’s because they knew she was doing educational songs. And I’m so passionate about education, and that they got involved with Nickelodeon, and they did a “Blues Clues” thing that was a pride parade with Blue. So Nina was already attached, I had an idea of the song about the colors. But I wanted it to be a “bop”, so when it hit the chorus you would bob along with it. I am such a big fan of Nina, so when we went on, she said “Oh, I’m such a huge fan of yours”, and I was like “REALLY?”. She was such a kind person, and passionate and serious about education. They didn’t take the gig with Nickelodeon because it was going to be a big paycheck, but because it was going to be about education, which makes me adore them so much.
JH: So the reason I asked is, do you know the drag queen “Alaska Thunderfuck”?
DM: YES I do!!!
JH: Yeah, that girls’ nuts man, absolutely wonderful. So when I interviewed her, she was telling me about how she was trying to steer it to become a move valid art form, instead of just something you see at a cheeky cabaret club. And I do give her the respect for that, also Ada Vox, a hell of a performer too. I appreciated that it was a drag queen, but also safe representation, nothing that’s going to freak people out or scare kids, it’s just “Hi, I’m this jolly happy boppy person”. Kinda like that old Canadian kid’s show, “The Doodlebops”.
DM: Oh my god, … yes that’s something that Nickelodeon has been doing, I just love the idea of showing queer characters, just being a “Person”, but don’t get me wrong, I love the coming out books. But it’s just showing queer people living their lives, and not being in crisis, but just people experiencing problems because they are just people. In this song, we are talking about the flag, and it happens to be a drag queen telling it. It’s important because I didn’t see that when I was a kid, I couldn’t have imagined seeing that, it would have been so fun and exciting.
JH: So, the standard questions then, how old were you when you knew, when you came out, let’s hear it?
DM: I think we all know fairly early, but I didn’t come out to my parents till I was 22. But I was out to my friends earlier than that.
JH: So how did your parents handle it?
DM: They were surprised that I had taken so long, but they weren’t actively surprised. But they thought, “If he were gay, wouldn’t he have told us by now?” and then it was “Ok, took you a while, but that’s ok”.
JH: My friend Ron Wasserman, was the composer for Nickelodeon on Spongebob, and Power Rangers. He told me about how everyone was sending letters complaining about the gay undertones of Spongebob and Patrick. He said that they were annoying as hell, but not gay, just best friends. Squidward was the gay one. He said they would be laughing about all this in the studio every week, and Nickelodeon didn’t say a word.
DM: See, the hate we have gotten from the pride video has been absurd. I mean, people are saying I should kill myself, and that we are all pedophiles… IT’S A SONG ABOUT COLOURS!!!!
JH: Well I’ve been known to be insensitive about flags and the community. I have a great friend, I have known her since I was 14, she is trans, and I told her “Look man, the Trans flag SUCKS” because it does, it’s these drab pastels, the colors do not reflect the beauty of what the trans folk give to the world. I told her that, and to let “Them” know. She said “Noted”, I’ll let THEM know. I mean, I know somewhere in the bible it says “Thou shalt not insult thy friend’s flag”, but yes, it’s good that you mentioned that in the song. So, what are your next steps?
DM: One thing I’m excited about is a piece called “Breathe” it’s five short stories, and ours is a queer couple and it’s a tragic love story, but it has nothing to do with the fact that they’re gay. It was fun to write a love story for them, and there is one song called “Clear as Day” you can stream the whole thing on Apple Music, and Spotify. But “Clear as day” is them reminiscing about the day they met and re-falling in love.
JH: This kind of launched your career pretty heavy, sure “Ratatouille” is great, but this avenue with Nickelodeon was something you should be most proud of what it was and who it was addressing.
DM: I could not be prouder that Nickelodeon asked me to do it and the result, and to put something positive out there in the world for a child to see in themselves something they have never seen before.
JH: Yeah, Here in Utah there have just been too many bad stories about it. So, I have one last question, I ask everybody. What would your message be to the young gay kid who is afraid, in the closet and the vulnerable state?
DM: I hate to steal Dan Savage and Terry, but it gets better, just be true to who you are, be ok with taking your time and figuring things out. If you are in an unsafe place, it’s ok to not come out at that moment, but it does get better. It’s the crook of my song, “Be true to you”. It does get better and listen to Dan Savage.
JH: Hey man, thank you for your time Daniel.
The Full Audio can be streamed here. https://stickyjazz.sounder.fm/episode/daniel-mertzlufft-ratatouille
More of his music can be heard here