Ride the Cyclone centers on the lives of six teenagers from a Canadian chamber choir whose life are cut short following a freak roller coaster accident. A Zoltar-like mechanical fortune teller invites each to tell their personal story and their dreams for their future that they'll never get to see.
Written by Brooke Maxwell and Jacob Richmond, the musical has played productions in Canada, Off-Broadway, Seattle, Atlanta, Chicago, and Minneapolis, and now it has a world premiere cast recording, released by Ghostlight Records earlier this year. The album features performances from Maxwell and Richmond as well as Lillian Castillo, Chaz Duffy, Scott Redmond, Emily Rohm, Tiffany Tatreau, and Kholby Wardell, with a vocal ensemble comprising Maxwell, Sarah Carlé, Richard Moody, Diane Pancel, Anne Schaefer, Aaron Scoones, and Kholby Wardell.
Maxwell and Richmond walk us through the stories behind each song from Ride the Cyclone in this exclusive track-by-track breakdown:
Brooke Maxwell: It's never been the most straightforward elevator pitch for Ride the Cyclone. Basically, it's the old theatre trope of six kids dying on a roller coaster and being brought back to a limbo existence by the fortune-telling machine in an abandoned warehouse, to sing for their lives in a Muppet Show meets Survivor–type scenario. And there's a rat that plays the bass. And it's a comedy. Sounds dark, but it's pretty much a celebration of life.
Jacob Richmond: Aristotle said in the Poetics that there was nothing dramatic or interesting about an accident or natural disaster. This always struck me as an unfair sentence to those who fell prey to the horrific event. We have all lost a loved one through some meaningless stroke of bad luck: a fire, a car accident, a freak brain aneurysm, etc. The initial seed for writing Ride the Cyclone was our desire to dramatize the undramatize-able.
1. “Karnak’s Dream of Life”
JR: “I know this dream of life is never ending” was a lyrical fragment in a long list of fragments, that I had sent to our amazing director Rachel Rockwell when she said, “Send me everything!” Brooke and I took her at her word and did exactly that. I assumed she would read a couple of them and say, “This isn’t helpful.” Amazingly, she had plucked this lyric out of the piles of writing and said, “This should be the first lyric of the show. And maybe the last as well.”
BM: This one is a lovely hybrid of two of our recurring musical themes. The organ theme is how we used to open the show back in Canada, and we liked its weirdness—the visceral magic created by a $50 thrift store pump organ. We hoped it would feel like a grand but crooked clarion call, a “get your popcorn and take your seats”–beginning to this album experience. The hardcore fans might notice that this theme gets revisited in many different styles throughout the actual show, mostly in the bumpers that underscore each character’s introduction. We also thought it would be cool as a bookend to the album experience, with the final track on the album proper being the Canadian show’s original ending, “Karnak's Theme.”
JR: In the spirit of the show, it would be strange to have our self-aware narrator, Karnak, not be aware that he was making an album. Adding the direct address with the listener hopefully translates the vibe and sense of humor of the show. So... bonus jokes!
3. “The Uranium Suite”
JR: Our White Whale of Ride the Cyclone is perhaps only tied with Ocean’s number for “song with the most rejected versions.” For a musical which is mostly a character-driven ensemble piece, there is a ton of exposition and plot going on in the opening number: we’re establishing the children’s feelings of confinement and stagnation towards their small town, establishing the characters themselves, as well as laying out the tragic way in which they all passed. There is a lot of information coming at you in a very short amount of time. But how to not make the audience feel lost, and not make the opening four hours long? And how to make all that exposition not feel expository, while still having a dramatic pop? Super challenging.
BM: I think we wrote something fairly close to this in our original version, but it needed to be torn apart and put back together several times before we landed where we landed. Alan Schmuckler was a great help on that front, giving some needed perspective and reworking some of our discarded opening material to help build it to the shape it needed to be. That guy is a monster talent. Check him out if he's not on your radar.
4. “Meet Jane Doe”
JR: In the early Canadian version, Jane Doe was introduced in “The Uranium Suite.” Rachel Rockwell wisely steered us to introduce her later in the script, as there was already a lot going on in the opening without meeting a headless spectre with a Victorian-era doll’s head.
BM: I love this sound palette—the choir voices, gnarly guitars, slightly-out-of-tune bass clarinets, the circus organs and long tail reverbs, not to mention Emily Rohm's transcendent voice. So much magic and mystery...
5. “What the World Needs”
JR: As mentioned earlier, Ocean could have an entire show of songs we cut from the show. She at one point used to sing a Marxist gospel number with a Karl Marx puppet. She’s had a Tin Pan Alley, almost tap routine, but none of it felt like the genre for our modern alpha teen. Brooke and I were on the Navy Pier at Chicago Shakes during the summer rewriting Ocean’s number, again. It was boiling hot in the most touristy part of Chicago, and especially packed because of an airshow, so the sound of fighter jets and pop music rang through the air. Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” was playing and we decided there and then that her song should be T-Swift pop, but with really aggressive lyrics.
I had gone home for the night and the next day Brooke had completed the demo. I remember hearing it and going “Wow! Is this a little too mean?,” and our director Rachel saying, “It’s perfect.”
BM: Oh my. Ocean's song(s) almost killed us. I think we have 10 different tunes for this character. By about 2014 in Chicago, not quite able to let go of a Marxist theme we’d loved, Jacob and I pitched a tune featuring Ocean and a puppet of Taylor Swift beating the crap out of a puppet of Karl Marx in a pillow fight at a slumber party. Even though we couldn't stop laughing, for some reason, Rachel didn't love it: “Sorry guys.” But you've gotta try stuff, right? We somehow got the first line of the hook and then ran with the rest of those mean girl lyrics. I still feel extremely unsettled listening to them. The actual recording of this tune with Joby Baker was a real treat, as he had the skill set to make it sound like it had come out of the Max Martin Ikea pop factory. And Tiffany Tatreau killed it. Killed it! And so, we made some mean girl mall pop. With apologies to Karl Marx.
6. “Noel’s Lament”
JR: Oddly enough when we initially wrote this song, I wasn’t sure if it would make it. I loved the idea of our aspiring novelist performing the novel he never got to write, but I was worried that introducing a character who introduces you to another character that they’ve made up might be a bit too meta. And then Kholby Wardell auditioned, and absolutely crushed this tribute to Édith Piaf, Anaïs Nin, and Marlene Dietrich. And so it remained. This is the song that’s probably changed the least since it was first written. It also freed us early on from the constraint that Ride the Cyclone had to be an evening of autobiographical tunes, opening up the possibility that what might be just as engaging are songs that the kids themselves would want to be remembered singing.
BM: This tune has always been a delicate dance. To maintain the joy and innocence of the small-town teen, finally allowed to express himself, while reveling in the darkness and the joy of the suffering (but without crossing the line into becoming a middle-aged jaded misanthrope). We’ve been fortunate enough to have the amazing Kholby Wardell defining the role since day one.
7. “Every Story Has a Lesson”
JR: This is inspired by Free to Be You and Me, Schoolhouse Rock!, and afterschool specials in general. The great thing about this “child agitprop” genre of music is that the lyrics are supposed to be on the nose, and the melody very ear-wormy, but in that crazy-making way.
BM: This seemingly silly piece serves both to transition out of the cabaret energy of “Noel's Lament,” as well as highlight Ocean's need for consequence and order. We do a quick in and out on the album, but in the stage show, Constance derails everything with some of my favorite improv theatre ever.
8. “This Song is Awesome”
JR: This song initially sprung from the idea that Mischa would rap battle himself. I thought this was a cool idea, and we tried it in a couple productions. It was a cool idea, but didn’t really fit the vibe of the show as we wanted to highlight each kid inhabiting their rockstar fantasy, not trash talking themselves in a funhouse mirror. So, we came up with “This Song Is Awesome.” In this song, we asked what would be amazing to a teenage boy who never had money but imagined what it would be like to have money—unlimited chicken nuggets, VIP pass at the Hard Rock Café, a Honda Civic.
BM: It was super fun to create in this style, with everything being so big, with so much attitude. We initially wrote it back in the day, a bit after T-Pain had just come out, when everyone thought that the autotune thing would quickly fade. The line “autotune will never die” was a nice bit of ironic humor for a couple of years there, but as we all know now, autotune is this millennium's electric guitar.
JR: Ultimately, we knew you couldn’t really tell the journey of a series of interrupted lives without telling a single love story. And after several writing attempts, we realized that love songs always sound better in another language. This song has probably one of my favorite visual concepts in the entire show, dreamt up by the choreographer Treena Stubel: a very cool take on the dream ballet.'
BM: Our love song. The album doesn't quite communicate the amazing visual spectacle of dance and projection of the live show, where we get to see the other side of Mischa. It was amazing to find Chaz Duffy, someone with the chops to deliver the rap, the comedy, and the voice to soar above this sweet Ukrainian-style wedding song. In a much earlier version of the show, this melody was dressed as a Beatles-esque rocker, a duet between two characters that no longer exist. Reduce, reuse, recycle.
10. “Space Age Bachelor Man”
JR: When I was a pre-teen in Toronto, I would stay up until midnight to watch B-movies and sci-fi sexploitation films on City TV, like Nude on the Moon, Invasion of the Love Drones, and Barbarella—for research purposes. Ricky’s song arrives at the rhythmic climax of the roller coaster structure of the show. We wanted that feeling of gleeful hysteria, where you're no longer screaming but laughing. Style-wise, a lot is going on here—Bowie, Lionel Ritchie, Prince, Queen, Barry White, and a little ‘80s sexy sax for good measure. Some people are confused about this song’s meaning in relation to the greater themes in the show. The universe is absurd. Anything could happen at any time—Let’s dance, kitties!
BM: A crazy fun number, and one of the first we wrote. Initially this song was almost another musical within itself, clocking in at about 12 minutes with an elaborate mythology, exploding planets and arcane references to Mormonism and Scientology. In the course of our inevitable rewrites, another notable incarnation for me was the dubstep version in Seattle, with Lillian Castillo (Constance Blackwood) playing perhaps one of the most iconic evil cat queens, ever. And yes, it got cut—but might be worth a Google search for the bootleg. The tune was about to be completely replaced in Atlanta, but after a little bit of reworking, we landed with this final version, and finally set Scott Redmond free to redefine the character and the performance. Wow. For me, it was a lot of fun in the studio when the band couldn't stop laughing between takes as they finally heard the lyrics. It's still one of my favorites. One of the other highlights for me on this track is the screaming guitar solo that Rachel Rockwell's 14-year-old son, Jake Helm, laid down over the “meow” section.
11. “The Ballad of Jane Doe”
JR: I think when we started putting the structure of Cyclone together, we knew that a random mass tragedy could be an oppressively grim affair. We intentionally tread very lightly on the theme of “death” until this number. This piece is inspired by monuments like “The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier,” created to commemorate those whose names and very identities were lost as well as their lives. Brooke wrote the first part of this song—fully-formed, a lovely ballad, haunting and sad. But it felt as if Jane was missing her largest emotion: rage, a kind of existential howl which we bring into the second part, via a ragged sort of New Orleans swing. What I really love about this song is that it gives a coloratura soprano a place to show some grit, in a genre usually not associated with that vocal range.
BM: In the first part of this tune, I remember trying to capture the magical beauty of spider webs and the rising tension of a roller coaster climb. It came out of me pretty quickly almost fully formed, which was a lovely—and rare—feeling. The swing section of the second part is my happy place again, as a jazz musician in love with New Orleans and the Tom Waits palette. It was so great to have a soprano voice, soaring above everything and then digging in with such grit. Emily Rohm is a monster musician. Try to keep in mind as you listen to this track that in the live show version, she is singing large parts of this while literally spinning around, upside down.
12. “The New Birthday Song”
JR: I think the title is self-explanatory. Use it royalty-free with the creators’ blessing, if only to throw off the annoying dude who always insists on harmonizing on the last note of the old “Birthday Song.”
BM: Another silly little transition tune to cleanse the palette and give Jane a bit of a boost after her existential crisis. I think Jacob Richmond actually does get freaked out by the regular “Happy Birthday” song, so he was also personally motivated to write some sort of alternative. Everyone's commitment to this vibe on the track and that accordion playing just make it for me.
BM: I think this monologue is one of the first pieces that Jacob wrote for Cyclone. It's always felt like the heart of the show for me, and Lillian Castillo's delivery really gets me there.
14. “Sugar Cloud”
JR: In my mind, Constance’s song has the most verisimilitude to a song that a seventeen-year-old would actually write. And the sheer joy that one can feel in the audience, night after night, with a mere recorder solo was always a thing to behold. I also think it’s cool that this ignored and neglected instrument almost shares the same struggle—and experiences the same catharsis—in our show as the character who’s playing it.
BM: This was a tune from our earlier days as well. It's gone through some changes, always being some kind of sweet, life-affirming rock out. In one very early version however, mostly apropos of nothing, Mischa jumped out in a teddy bear costume, did a cartwheel across the stage, and sang a little interlude about “life being a teddy bear celebration.” Some early fans of the show still complain about that part being cut. Two of the major lessons for me through the course of working on this show have definitely been that a) you can't please all the people all the time, and b) however hard it is, sometimes you just have to cut the guy in the teddy bear suit.
15. “It’s Not a Game/It’s Just a Ride”
BM: Openings are challenging, endings equally so. We worked hard through multiple rewrites to shape this closing, aiming to take the characters from a place of unknown vulnerability to one of foreboding silence, to a slow and gradual rise, culminating in the joy of a marching band and a full-on explosion of life. We were definitely trying our best to musically capture the experience of riding a roller coaster—or living a life to the fullest.
JR: Our amazing director really encouraged us to give as much joy to the ending as possible. I mean, what is more joyful than a marching band? Is it possible for a marching band to even play sad music?
16. “Be Safe, Be Good (for Rachel)”
BM: Rachel Rockwell and I were both huge Supertramp fans, so when we needed something to accompany one of the final scenes, she urged me to run in that direction. This song was only ever performed in the 2018 Seattle version. We lost Rachel just after that. While it's no longer in the script, it's definitely part of the show's fabric, and makes us all think of that amazing woman who was taken from us too soon. Difficult to make sense of.
JR: One of the great pleasures over the years is getting to hear Brooke sing the demo tracks. This song is lovely but felt like it was competing against what was happening on stage at the time, and so sadly it fell to the cutting room floor.
17. “A World Inside”
BM: Jacob and I wrote this in our apartments during a very intense weekend in Seattle while the cast was rehearsing down the street. There was a specific list of things this song needed to do for the show and it was a we-need-it-yesterday kind of deadline—no pressure. I'd set up the apartment ironing board as an emergency keyboard stand and duct taped a microphone to a broom handle. I was coughing like a dog, chugging NyQuil, and my piano hands were raw from learning and playing the central guitar part. It was such a relief when we finally got on the right road. And then finished writing it. And then demoed it. And then scored it. And then transposed it. And then rehearsed it with the cast. Everyone seemed to love it. And then, Rachel didn't feel we had the time to stage it properly and so it was cut. Cue the guy in the teddy bear suit.
JR: Exactly what he said.
18. “Karnak’s Theme”
BM: As I mentioned in the first note, this moody, mysterious, grand and unresolved piece is how we used to end the show in the Canadian version. Kevin McCollum helped us see that this emotional space is probably not the ideal vibe to send musical theatre lovers back out into the world with. But Jacob and I still enjoy the mysterious feeling it has, and it's some of the musical DNA of the show, so we wanted to include it for you on the album experience.
JR: This is the Canadian ending of the musical, which you can only see on Canadian Netflix.
To stream or order Ride the Cyclone, visit GhostlightRecords.com.