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Thursday, September 22, 2011

First-Person: Jacob Richmond on Ride the Cyclone


It’s Just A Ride 
(About the creation of “Ride the Cyclone”)
Jacob Richmond
The initial seed of the idea for writing “Ride the Cyclone” was my desire to dramatize an accident.
I seem to recall Aristotle said in the Poetics there was nothing dramatic about an accident, or a natural disaster… that structurally there is nothing interesting about such events, for they have no real rhyme or reason, and the best they could achieve is a form of spectacle.

No one lives their life thinking they’re going to end up volcano or hurricane fodder. 
This always struck me as an unfair sentence to those humans who fell prey to the accident or disaster. Although I could see his point…
“Julius was wandering down the streets of Pompeii to visit his beloved Agrippina, he was finally going to tell her what he wanted to tell her all these years, his heart raised as he approached her house when--holy shit! A huge river of lava came out of nowhere and Julius burst into flames and he evaporated. The end.”
Imagine variations of this theme occurring twenty times and there you have a terrible half-a-finished-draft of a play I called “That night in Pompeii”.
Accidents, disasters, are themselves - when told in Hollywood - always the tale of one man or woman who escapes… One willingly shuts out the billions of people whose stories came to an abrupt end in a movie like 2012 because, hooray John Cusack lived, because he's super hip and famous!
It is my opinion that no one considers themselves an extra in their own lives… even the most sheepish, self-effacing person is forced to see the world from their own two eyes and has hopes and dreams that might be totally delusional… yet they are theirs. No one lives their life thinking they’re going to end up volcano or hurricane fodder. 
...all you really know for certain is the cosmos just kicked you and them squarely in the nuts.
In my own experience, as with many people I know, we have all lost a loved one in an untimely matter through some unbelievable stroke of bad luck. An event that has no intrinsic meaning, a fire, a car accident, a freak brain aneurysm, ETC. Events where one cannot eulogize “They died as they lived”, or “They brought it on themselves”… there is nothing to say or understand and all you really know for certain is the cosmos just kicked you and them squarely in the nuts.
This brings me back to my initial preoccupation with accidents… this wasn’t for me a “fun idea for a project”, but something that came with a palpable need for answers.
I had met a composer named Brooke Maxwell who was writing music for our Vaudeville Cabarets in Victoria… and I was like, hey, do you want to write a musical with me? And he said, “Maybe, what’s it about?” And I told him “I don’t know yet, but I know every character in it dies in an accident. And I don’t want it to be an ironic musical… I want the music to actually be good.”… He kind of laughed and walked away… I think hoping I would never bring it up again.
...now all that was left to do in our musical was write all the music….  That’ll be a snap…yeah musicals! Yahoo!
A few months later I had the story, and the characters… “Ride the Cyclone” would be about a chamber choir that died on a roller coaster. This would be their last concert from beyond the grave. Brooke liked it… now all that was left to do in our musical was write all the music….  That’ll be a snap…yeah musicals! Yahoo!
And four years later, after a million and one version of songs, I learned the hardest part about writing a musical… was the music itself. The book, forget about the book. When was the last time you went to a musical and said “All the songs sucked ass, but wow the dialogue between all those horrible shitty discordant songs made it all work for me!”
The hardest thing for Brooke Maxwell (the co-creator) and myself was that we really didn’t know anything about musical theatre. We knew of  “Grease”, “Grease” we both had seen… and that was the film version. But Brooke, (a man who studied jazz at the prestigious Berkeley School of Music) loved Gershwin, Cole Porter, Kurt Weil… yet had no idea the amazing catalogue of Jazz standards at one point came with scripts, and characters… at one point were musicals.
So our only framework was “well structurally, this is a good place for a song in the vein of “Greased Lighting”…
 I myself, had had a bad experience being forced to sing the music of “Rent” in theatre school—and formed an unfair snobbery against the form throughout my twenties…. Assuming every musical was just like “Rent”.
So our only framework was “well structurally, this is a good place for a song in the vein of “Greased Lighting”… an exciting, dance song that brings the cast together… or this is the place in “Ride the Cyclone” where we need our “Hopelessly Devoted to you” number. Over the years we have both become better versed in the form… and I now go to any musical I can.
It has taken us four years… and it still is being tweaked, polished, workshopped… all I can tell you from the experience is this…
Musicals are hard. 
Brooke and I, during several gruelling nights of reworking a number, have joked that we will probably die ourselves, re-working our musical where everyone dies.
“Ride the Cyclone” is a musical about six teenagers who die on a roller coaster.  The kids themselves have nothing in common, only the manner of their passing… and that they are all ashamed, ashamed of the randomness of their passing, ashamed of the crummy town they lived in, ashamed of how they acted in the town… and in the course of the show they get to express themselves… by singing what they perceive the most awesome song in the universe.
I know for certain singing and dancing is a good start.
I often think if someone told me I had ten minutes on earth… what would I do?  Well I would think it would be great to suddenly bust into a total choreographed number, end up in a swimming pool with a thousand chorus people à la Busby Berkeley… culminating in me climbing to the top of a human pyramid of my friends and family, where I did a back flip into my own coffin-- That seems to me infinitely more awesome than updating my Facebook status, or Twitter.
As to the initial questions I had about accidents, random tragedy, which happen, I think, more frequently in our lives than the formal tragedies Aristotle describes… what meaning have I to extrapolate from nearly half a decade with “Ride the Cyclone”… well If I was able to answer a question like “What does everything mean?”… I probably wouldn’t be an obscure playwright—but shilling my bestselling book on Oprah…. 
I know for certain singing and dancing is a good start.
Here is a quote by a comedic legend that I read at the outset of starting “Ride the Cyclone”, that inspired me to place the show on a rollercoaster…
“The world is like a ride at an amusement park. And when you choose to go on it, you think that it's real because that's how powerful our minds are. And the ride goes up and down and round and round. It has thrills and chills, and it's very brightly coloured, and it's very loud and it's fun, for a while. Some people have been on the ride for a long time, and they begin to question - is this real, or is this just a ride? And other people have remembered, and they come back to us. They say 'Hey! Don't worry, don't be afraid, ever, because, this is just a ride.' And we...kill those people. Ha ha ha. 'Shut him up! We have a lot invested in this ride. SHUT HIM UP! Look at my furrows of worry. Look at my big bank account and family. This just has to be real.' It's just a ride. But we always kill those good guys who try and tell us that, you ever notice that? And let the demons run amok. But it doesn't matter because: it's just a ride. And we can change it anytime we want. It's only a choice. No effort, no work, no job, no savings, and money. A choice, right now, between fear and love. The eyes of fear want you to put bigger locks on your doors, buy guns, close yourselves off. The eyes of love, instead, see all of us as one. Here's what you can do to change the world, right now, to a better ride. Take all that money that we spend on weapons and defence each year, and instead spend it feeding, clothing and educating the poor of the world, which it would many times over, not one human being excluded, and we could explore space, together, both inner and outer, for ever, in peace.” Bill Hicks


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