“I know this dream of life is neverending / It goes around and round and round again / You know the sun is rising while descending / It goes on and on and never ends” – “Karnak’s Dream of Life,” Ride the Cyclone
If you’ve been on theatre TikTok (or even other sides of TikTok like cosplaying and/or lip-syncing), you’ve probably seen some videos about Ride the Cyclone. The show tells the story of 6 students from Uranium City in Saskatchewan, Canada, who have just been killed in a roller coaster accident. The show has been around for over a decade but has gone viral over the past few months, reviving interest in a show that not many people were aware of. Recently, I had the opportunity to interview Jacob Richmond and Brooke Maxwell, the show’s creators, about Ride the Cyclone and what it’s been like to see it go viral on social media platforms like TikTok and Tumblr.
Kat: How did you first decide to create Ride the Cyclone together?
Jacob: I did a cabaret series in Victoria [Atomic Vaudeville] and Brooke started writing songs for the cabaret. It was really cool. I’d throw him something crazy, like “Can this song sound kind of country-ish meets reggae meets jazz?” And he goes, “Sure got it!” He was a style beast. Any weird combo I gave him, he’d amalgamate them together. One day, I said, “Do you want to join me in writing a musical?” And he said, “Well, what’s it about?” And I said, “Well, all I really got is that it’s about six kids who die in a roller coaster.” And he said, “That sounds really depressing.” And I said, “No, it’s supposed to be life-affirming, I promise!” And then we just started riffing on it. We live in Victoria BC, which is an island, Vancouver Island, and I went to an even smaller island to write the initial first draft, Hornby. Then I sent him off stuff as I went – He actually came up to Hornby for a weekend too! I think the first song we ever wrote was the Uranium song. Then we put it on in Victoria and it went okay, and we thought that was it. Then they said, “Hey, do you want to do it again in Victoria?” And we said, “Sure!” We just kept on getting people asking us to do it again.
Brooke: I’m from a music background. So just to flesh in a little bit of that, I was starting to get bored with the local music festivals and started going to the Fringe Festival, which I’d never seen before. Somehow I came across Jacob’s theatre group, Atomic Vaudeville. So I attended that for quite a while just as a fan because the writing was interesting. It was like punk rock theater – You could tell they didn’t have a large budget, but the heart was really there. It was always very, very funny and very, very topical. You could tell it was written like last night. It was really inspiring and weird, something that shouldn’t be, you know? So I was just a fan at first, and then I submitted a song, saying, “Hey, here’s what I do.” And they never used it! I wrote a theme for them.
Jacob: We didn’t use it.
Brooke: But then that started our relationship.
Kat: So what did you expect the general reaction to be to the show when you first put it on in Victoria?
Brooke: Vaudeville cabarets were really fascinating in that they were theatre that younger people were really attracted to – It was kinda like a scene. They would write a show from the ground up and work so hard to make this thing that existed only once and then it’s gone! A little theatre mandala, never to be written down. It was just these pieces that gradually got worked together into this amazing final production that happened twice or three times. I know Jacob got frustrated with that and wanted to do something more committed, but because we had a bit of that following and that scene existed, I don’t think we expected too much more than a couple of weeks of a run. We were so used to making things and throwing them away without long term thinking. Would you say that, Jacob?
Jacob: Yeah. It’s a very satirical show and it always follow a particular structure. One was hosted by Ronald McDonald, one was hosted by Death, just different kooky hosts and then we’d tie the themes together. Right. But the thing about political and pop culture satire is that usually it’s just like a banana in August. So we wanted to write something that was just a little more permanent than, “Do you remember whatever scandal was last week?” But we didn’t expect it to have any legs beyond Victoria. And then we went to one festival in Toronto, and it all snowballed from there.
Kat: So with the snowballing, what went into making a cast album for Ride the Cyclone?
Brooke: That’s a huge gap in time! The original impetus, that’s about 2008, 2009.
Kat: Ah, okay!
Brooke: It’s produced locally – Canada’s theatre scene is absolutely amazing and supportive, but a little limited in terms of resources. So we did get to go to Toronto, which is Canada’s New York, and we did get some great response from the theatre community there. Eventually, it got the notice of a couple of different producers, some Toronto-based ones as well as New York-based ones. The move then was to gradually shift it into the States with a little bit more focus on getting a show that had a larger scale. So we spent a lot of time with the Chicago Shakespeare Theater developing the show, and then got great reviews there. Ended up going to New York Off-Broadway and got . . . okay reviews there. But it was a very challenging time.
Jacob: Donald Trump had just won on our first preview. We were like, “Oh, great. People are gonna really be in the mood for dark satire. We got Donald Trump as president and we were like, “Oh, oh no.” So then we went to Seattle, then Atlanta after that. It did really well in Atlanta. It just went down to New Jersey and now it’s going to Washington this year.
Brooke: We were in a constant state of reworking. First of all, it’s not something that we’re supposed to brag about, I’m not bragging about it, but the truth is we’d never written a musical before. Neither of us really liked or listened to a lot of musical theater before that. We’re more like David Bowie and Tom Waits fans and Radiohead. We love music. Jacob has a very deep theatre background as well and I’ve got a Lit degree so I’ve studied a bit of it, trying to keep up. We were rewriting because the hardest part about writing a musical, as we learned, is obviously the opening and the ending. There are things that have to be done that we were sort of gradually learning on the fly. But nobody was really teaching us other than going, “Huh, I don’t think that’s quite it.” And so we kept trying.
Jacob: Initially, when we did it, the songs just kind of faded out, like on a radio. And then we go, “Why are they clapping five minutes after the song is over?” And then we were like “Oh, we gotta, tell them it’s time to clap – The button.” When we started, we didn’t know a lot about musicals, but we were kind of sent to musical boot camp over the years.
Brooke: We took some of those lessons – Some of them we ignored because it is its own show. Eeverybody was doing their best to try and help us, give us some suggestions and we’re like, “That’s not really our thing.” So we did a fair bit of rewriting. There are not as many songs not in the show, as are in the show, but we did a lot of rewriting. So to answer your question about the album, for me, it was a case of like, “Okay, we’re gonna laminate it! These are the songs, this is how they go.” Thankfully, our producers were super supportive. It was in the early part of the pandemic that we had the idea that we really wanted to do this. There were no productions going on. We’re in Canada on the west coast of Vancouver Island. The cast is in Chicago, Nashville, New York – They’re all spread everywhere. I pushed to have the local musicians, my buddies, track the beds. So we got the funding to do that and then we could remotely record a lot of the cast. It’s quite a strange phenomenon – Nobody’s really talked about how weird that is, But it was really weird! It involved a lot of organization – What a theatre production is like, but in five cities at the same time.
Kat: You can’t even tell when you’re listening to it! It sounds like everyone’s in the same room together.
Brooke: Yeah, exactly. And that’s a tribute to our main engineer, Joby Baker at Baker Studios. He’s a guy I’d wanted to work with forever, so that was a real treat. We really pushed and got the local talents. And one of the real pluses of that is Kholby Wardell, who had played Noel in all of our productions since the very beginning from Victoria, and had since relocated, moved back to Victoria for the recording of the album.
Jacob: Now he lives here! You never leave Victoria.
Jacob: Yeah. I call it “Hotel California.” You can check out anytime you want, but you’ll never leave.
Kat: What is it been like seeing the show go viral over the past few months?
Jacob: Well, because I didn’t have a TikTok account, I didn’t even know about it! I knew that I was too old to be on it.
Jacob: And then around October, Kholby said, “You should really get one.” So I got a TikTok to look at the videos. It was like a small, modest fandom. I don’t know what happened in the last month, where all of a sudden, there are like hundreds of videos a day. It’s really touching! It’s amazing to finally have people see what we did in the show and go, “Yeah, it’s a weird show. But I like it.” It’s been great.
Brooke: I have a landline. I don’t have a cell phone, but I have a wife with a cell phone, and she’s awesome. And my friends Jacob and Kholby are telling me to google TikTok and Ride the Cyclone to understand what’s going on there. It’s really so inspiring to see all the people’s responses to it in terms of inspiring their own creative output like the visual art, the cosplay stuff, people doing their own singing of the tunes . . . It’s so cool! I was an elementary music teacher. Theater and theater auditions have always been so hard because everybody’s obviously just doing their best. So it’s so cool to see theater that actually makes people want to be creative and do stuff that’s kind of . . . It’s not a middle finger to the mainstream, but it’s weird! It’s odd and unique stuff. So that’s really, really inspiring.
Jacob: It’s really great that it happened. No one orchestrated it – It wasn’t like a marketing campaign or anything like that. It literally just happened out of the volition of those communities making this stuff which I think is really great. You can certainly go to a fancy marketing team and try to create something like that, but it’s great that it happened totally organically.
Brooke: We’d always wanted it to be a cult thing. It always was a weird thing and we’d always wondered how it would translate to a more mainstream thing. There have been pushes from certain parties to go for Broadway. Obviously, that’s, that’s always a goal. But we like the ones that are in the cracks, you know, like Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Rocky. Those are the ones we like, because they shouldn’t be. [Laughs] They’re so quirky! And that’s where we came from. When we put it on locally, it sometimes inspired people to walk out.
Jacob: Oh yeah! We had someone say, “If you’d love Forever Plaid you’ll love Ride the Cyclone,” so we have all these church groups. And then as soon as Noel started singing . . .
Kat: Oh, no . . .
Jacob: “Let’s get the hell out of here!” [Laughs] I was like, “That was some irresponsible marketing right there.
Brooke: It’s just been really great to see. And on many levels, completely unexpected, but also reaffirming because that is where it came from. It came from the weirdos, so to have the weirdos find it again, it’s like, “Oh, thank goodness.” One of the curses of theater in its modern incarnation is that it’s a tough sell because it’s expensive. You want to pay actors and all the behind-the-scenes people what they’re worth, and you want to rent a beautiful theater and do marketing. That just adds up so quickly. So consequently, ticket prices, especially in Canada, can go really high. And so the only people who can afford to go to that are the subscription theater crowd. How do we get it to the weirdos, to the creatives, to the people who get inspired by things that aren’t normal?
Kat: One show that Ride the Cyclone is being compared to is Be More Chill with how it started in New Jersey, then later it got hype on social media, and then went to Broadway. Is that something you see in the future? Would you want to see it there?
Jacob: It’s just been such a roller coaster ride. [Groans].
Jacob: But Brooke, and I are just content. We’ll be pleasantly surprised if it goes anywhere. Quite frankly, every timee it gets a production, I’m always surprised. Like, all of a sudden some high school’s putting it on and I go, “Wow, that’s a cool high school!” I wouldn’t think that this was totally in the strike zone for a great high school play, but that’s great. For us, we’ve learned better than to never speculate where the show will go [Laughs].
Brooke: It’s an interesting one because the human network that has made it popular currently is a little like a spider web. It’s something that is very delicate and only nature knows how it works. If you try to make it then it just looks like a terrible dream catcher or something like that. Can you pick up and transfer that spiderweb into something that’s more popular without wrecking it? I would hate for it to be too slick and smooth for the people that we want to connect to. But we want to speak to people too, because it’s not just a weird play – It actually has a lot of meaning for us about mortality. Through the course of creating it, we came face to face as you do through time with a lot of that, including the passing of our director, Rachel Rockwell. It’s kind of cool to see the legacy of her work continuing out there.
Kat: Have the two of you interacted much with fans as the show’s gone viral?
Brooke: I actually have! Not to be cynical, but there has been a bit of demand for the sheet music for some of the songs for a while. I have a website, brookemaxwell.com. I’ve had that for a while so people if they’re really interested often find my website and they’ll send an inquiry. So I’ve been keeping those inquiries in a folder on my computer, but not had my shit together enough to have the charts ready and up. So as I realized that this demand is here, and I’m starting to get two requests a day, I’m like, “Okay, I gotta get it going!” So just go to my website and you’ll find the charts! But I got to write all those people back and it was just really cool necause their letters were very particular about doing an audition or a mom writing on behalf of her kid who wants to do it at the school play and make sure they have permission to do it, or somebody else who’s actually downloaded it from another site that was illegally selling the music. That was good to find out about! So it’s pretty cool to hear the way different people are excited about interacting with the music.
Jacob: For me, I usually get questions like, “Is Talia a catfish?” [Laughs] Just questions I never want to answer! What I’m really loving about the fandom is that they’re finding their own little angles on it. And I’ll never tell because I like those mysteries. I don’t want to give them [fans] conclusive answers because I think that all of the interpretations are totally valid. I think that that’s why the piece is resonating with people because we didn’t answer every single question. I know I know the answer, but I’m not gonna tell anyone!
Kat: If you had to describe your journey with Ride the Cyclone in one word, what would it be?
Jacob: Are we allowed to do emojis?
Kat: Sure, why not?
Brooke: I think I would do the yin and yang emojis.
Jacob: The Edvard Munch “Scream” emoji? I’m not sure.
Brooke: I think that’s Macaulay Culkin!
Jacob: It’s been really awesome and it’s been really hard sometimes. It’s the hardest I’ve ever worked in my life. The funny thing is, I came in as a playwright at the beginning and I thought,
“Oh, musicals are so much easier than plays!” And boy, I was so off! You go, “Oh, they all have to sing and the songs actually have to be good?” But it’s been amazing on those fronts.
Kat: Alright! And now a couple of rapid-fire questions that I like to ask. Favorite character versus favorite character to write?
Jacob: Ocean is definitely my favorite character to write because it’s based on certain people I’ve met and certain aspects of myself too. It’s hard to pick any of my favorite characters, but I really do love Constance quite a bit. And Jane Doe rocks! Do I love them all? Yeah, even Virgil the rat.
Brooke: I’m a Ricky Potts guy, for both actually! I really enjoyed Jane Doe and Noel Gruber . . . Actually, all of it because those songs are all such a gear-shifting challenge for me – Trying to get inside what that character would want to sing and then being able to decorate that cake. I hadn’t been a fan of like Taylor Swift’s “mall pop,” and we were in Chicago trying to write Ocean’s song because we’ve gone through about four different versions of it. We decided that the flavor was mainstream, and we haven’t listened to that a lot, but we did start to listen to it. The more you listen to anything that’s out there, especially if you’ve got enough skills to break it down and you’re looking at it like, “How did they make that? What is going on there with the attitude? With the instrumentation? With the lyric structure?” There’s so much you can learn. You don’t need to go to school – Just pick something and dissect it. So I really enjoyed that. My background is acoustic jazz – I play piano and saxophone. But I also am programming a laptop and learning how pop music works. So for me, that was a real education to try and really hit that style as hard as possible without being cynical, because I did like it, but also to try and learn as much from it as possible. Every style was like that, but that was the most recent and really rewarding one.
Jacob: And it was interesting that that [“What the World Needs”] was the first song to get popular because the lyrics are so specific to the show. I was like, doesn’t somebody want to go, “What the hell is she singing about?” [Laughs]
Kat: That song was actually my first introduction to the show! I was like, “What did she say?”
Brooke: But it’s so infectious!
Kat: Right? It’s like, “Social Darwinism, woo!”
Brooke: We’re both coming from fairly literate backgrounds. Like Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill when they wrote “Mack the Knife” – That’s exactly what they were trying to do. We were talking about this, like, “What are the darkest words you can say with the happiest melody? And what’s the effect of that?” People go out there going? He’s like, [Sings] “Oh, the shark, has pearly teeth . . .”
Kat: What’s your favorite song from Ride the Cyclone?
Jacob: I love all of them [Laughs]. But if I had to choose one . . . I really love the second part of [The Ballad of] Jane Doe, because I really do think that that’s Brooke infusing his love of jazz. There are a couple of counter lines, that kind of New Orleans swing, that are so cool. And also to get a coloratura soprano singing jazz is really cool – It works, and you wouldn’t think it would work! You go, “Oh, she’ll be too verbato” with the style of that music, but she’s usually singing with the backbeat. Of all the experiments, that one’s the most unique to the show and really cool.
Brooke: Yeah, I’m similar.
Jacob: But I love all of the babies – I have to emphasize that! We love all the babies. I even love “This Song is Awesome” because it’s not the same. You have to see it live because somebody doing that amount of auotune live is just hysterical to me. Especially when you’ve got a guy who can totally sing, as does with “Talia,” but all of a sudden he has like 18 pounds of auto-tune on his voice. So yeah, that one always makes me laugh.
Kat: Do you have a favorite line from the show? Can be a song lyric, dialogue, anything.
Brooke: I love the closing “Your lucky number is seven. You’ll soar to great heights. Be sure to ride the Cyclone.” It feels right. It feels like it could be the subtitle.
Jacob: I love all the funny lines and stuff like that, but I do like Constance’s line, “It took a horrible accident for me to realize how goddamn wonderful everything is,” becauseI really do think that that’s what we were going for. Right? With all the crazy space cats and all those kinds of things because we wanted to make an important thing as entertaining as possible. The elevator pitch for the show is always difficult – It’s about six kids who die on a roller coaster. And they go, “Nope, no, no” and you go “No, but it’s fun. I swear to God, it’s not as bad as it sounds!”
Jacob: But we wanted to have a kind of a party around a taboo subject, which is early loss. But I love all of my babies the same, there are a lot of really great lines. It’s funny because a lot of people are quoting lines that are now cut. And then those poor fans are gonna come and find out that these things have been cut! [Laughs]
Brooke: And that was part of the joy for me in the rewriting process, which was not always joyful. It’s a lot of work, having to rewrite some of those characters or monologues. Jacob would be up all night talking to himself –
Jacob: As the characters!
Brooke: trying to get it. It wasn’t always, but the new material that he did bring in was always my favorite line at that point. Then it would get cut and there’d be a new one. You think you couldn’t make something better than that because we’re trying to shape the show and keep as much of the goals as we can, but to keep the storyline moving . . . There are so many factors involved with keeping things. Jake was very consistently good at bringing some delightful lines in. one of the ones that I still can’t stop laughing at but nobody in a live performance seems to laugh at it is Noel Gruber’s Waiting for Godot stuff, all those lines in there, like “Should we hang ourselves?” It’s just so uncomfortable and so unexpected. It makes this nervous giggle bubble up in me every time it happens, partially because the audience is like uncomfortable, and I like that.
Jacob: [Laughs] I’d actually directed a production of Waiting for Godot, and that’s actual lines from the script.
Kat: It is a great image, the nativity scene, and then just, “Shall we hang ourselves?”
Brooke: So great.
Kat: And finally, which one Karnak’s prizes would you choose?
Jacob: Well, because I’m alive, I don’t need the coming back to life card, I guess. I’m trying to quit, but probably the cigarette. But I feel bad about that. I’d probably go with that vintage Iron Maiden t-shirt, but I’d wash it first because I wouldn’t want to smell like the carnie’s BO.
Brooke: I mean, we could trade the t-shirt on odd days. I think I’d go for the t-shirt. I like cupcakes! I’d take the cupcake.
After my interview with Jacob and Brooke, I was inspired to reach out to Kholby and ask about his involvement with the show, especially with social media. Here’s what he had to say:
Kat: When did you first realize Ride the Cyclone was becoming popular on social media?
Kholby: Back when we were touring the show across Canada – as social media was just beginning to fully take hold – I was always very active and engaged with the social media. I created the original Ride the Cyclone Twitter and Facebook pages. However, it was local and never anything quite like the excitement of seeing millions of views like right now over TikTok.
Kat: What has it been like seeing the show go viral online?
Kholby: It’s been really exciting to see this show we all worked so hard on for so long get a cult following! We always knew it could, but to see it happen with a slime tutorial is hilarious and the best kind of “word of mouth” I’ve ever personally witnessed.
Kat: How have you interacted with new fans of Ride the Cyclone on apps like TikTok and Twitter?
Kholby: Fans have been really devoted! Many following the journey of the show for years and years eventually leading to friendships and even repeated visits in different cities! It’s been really cool (and slightly overwhelming!) to have the fan following grow so quickly, and I’ve been making TikTok videos to respond to the many questions. Though I have to say – I think some mysteries are best left unsolved and some magic best left unspoiled.
Kat: What do you hope that people take away from the show, regardless of where they find it?
Kholby: For me, the greatest takeaway from the entire show is timeless; carpe diem. Be who you are not who others think you are. Be who you want to be not who others say you should be. Soar to great heights!
The Ride the Cyclone cast album is available on streaming services like Spotify. Sheet music for “The Ballad of Jane Doe,” “What the World Need,” and “Noel’s Lament” can now be purchased on Brooke’s website, with others coming soon! If you’re interested in learning more about Jane Doe and her mysterious life, you should check out Jacob’s play, Legoland.