Why Gen Z Loves Ride The Cyclone | Playbill

Special Features Why Gen Z Loves Ride The Cyclone

The musical is 15 years old and is about teenagers who are killed on a roller coaster. And it's now gone viral on TikTok.

Gabrielle Dominique, Matthew Boyd Snyder, Shinah Hey, Nick Martinez, Eli Mayer, and Marc Geller in Ride the Cyclone at Arena Stage. Margot Schulman

In 2008, a new show about six teenagers who were killed in a roller coaster accident began in Victoria, British Columbia. The quirky, morbid musical played several other productions throughout the following decade, first coming to the U.S. with a run at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, and then arriving in New York City with a run Off-Broadway. Yet, the target audience that would one day rave about the show would not be found for over a decade...considering that during the show’s original premiere, the oldest of them were just out of elementary school. 

Then randomly, in 2022, Ride The Cyclone found viral fame on social media—particularly TikTok—and became an instant hit with the digital generation: Gen Z. 

Ride the Cyclone follows a school choir group of five on a field trip to an amusement park, where they, and another unsuspecting teen, perish on the Cyclone rollercoaster. The musical opens in a shadowy, black-box-style purgatory, where the teenagers are told by an mechanical fortune-telling machine that, à la Cats, they all must compete for one person to be saved and sent back to the mortal world. Each character performs a song exploring the lives they never fully lived. Except for one character, Jane Doe, who does not remember anything before the accident. Full of zany, vaudeville-style numbers, as each character pleads for their life, Ride the Cyclone is a gritty, screwed up comedy that has the potential to be either unsettling or thrilling. For the ideal audience, it garners both reactions, in the best of ways. 

Ride the Cyclone was created by playwright Jacob Richmond and musician Brooke Maxwell—two collaborators who, at the time of the musical's creation, had yet to fully sink their teeth into musical theatre. “It’s a good time, but it does acknowledge that darkness exists,” says Richmond of the work.

Following its original production as a cabaret show at Atomic Vaudeville in Victoria, Ride the Cyclone went on to play at the Theatre Passe Muraille in Toronto, and even launched a Canadian tour in 2013. When it played Off-Broadway in 2016, it was set to star Taylor Louderman, who parted from the production before its opening. The original NYC cast included members from its Chicago cast—Lillian Castillo, Karl Hamilton, Emily Rohm, and Kholby Wardell—as well as Deaf West’s Spring Awakening star Alex Wyse, Gus Halper, The Last Ship’s Johnny Newcomb, and Peter and the Starcatcher’s Emily Walton. The New York Times declared its Lucille Lortel run as “weird and just plain delightful.” In the 2010s, Ride the Cyclone was undoubtedly a successful musical, but had yet to find a cult following. 

For the years after, the musical lingered in a kind of theatrical purgatory, one of those oddities that you were delighted by if you encountered it regionally—but not well-loved enough to be propelled to Broadway fame. It was too quirky, too dark. And yet....

Then, in 2022, a clip of Jane Doe’s ballad began to circulate on TikTok. In the clip, the character (played by Emily Rohm, from the Off-Broadway production) is lifted into the air and spun in circles, all while performing an operatic aria. 

Songs from the cast recording quickly began trending on TikTok, which by default prompts users to select music clips to feature in their videos. Eventually, Ride the Cyclone reached the pinnacle of online acclaim nowadays, as a generation that was arguably too young to have encountered this musical during some of its earlier runs discovered it for the first time and immediately became captivated. Production videos, memes, cosplays, and other Ride The Cyclone-related videos exploded on the video app. Several posts amassed as many as 400,000 likes and millions of views.

Following its sudden viral status, fans were quick to become fully entrenched in the musical’s lore, making videos about character theories, fan art, and designing their own costumes for cosplay. “There’s now comprehensive writing about it online, like how each character represents a stage of grief. People are writing their own backstories on the characters, like, I’m talking Tolstoy-level, and it’s fun to read those,” says Richmond, with a kind of marvel. He notes that the cosplaying online has been next-level: “Some of them are totally stunning, you kind of go, ‘Wow, that’s actually looks better than the Canadian version.’”

Maxwell shares that he's been blown away by all of the artistry that's been inspired by their unlikely hit, saying: “That’s my favorite part of it, to see that our weird little show is inspiring people to their own creativity and their own world—whether it’s their own versions of the songs or writing backstories. Some of the visual art out there is incredible.” 

According to Maxwell, the buzz around Ride The Cyclone has become such a phenomenon that, despite not advertising the new Ride The Cyclone sheet music that recently became available on his website, fans have found it just through Google deep-dives. "I just want to thank all of the fans who have been wanting to express their inner Cyclone so much that they’ve been buying the sheet music off of my site and singing the songs themselves!" he exclaims.

So, why did this musical find its most enthusiastic audience over a decade later through a social media platform? Why is Gen Z the audience Ride the Cyclone didn't know it was looking for?

Shinah Hey and Marc Geller in Ride the Cyclone at Arena Stage. Margot Schulman

Chillingly dark and wittily funny, it makes sense that the tone and themes of Ride the Cyclone resonate strongly with Gen Z, who is largely known for their habit of making memes and online jokes about their own trauma…if you need an example, just watch any “put a finger down if…” Tik Tok video. 

But, Gen Z’s love for Ride the Cyclone may go deeper than just jokes. Those who belong to Gen Z (as defined by the Pew Research Center) were born between 1997 and 2012. Contemplating what, historically, has impacted this generation in their lifetime, Gen Z’s connection with the story speaks for itself, when you look closely. This is a group that has scarcely known a world without the internet, without frequent mass shootings, or a world before 9/11. Although every generation has its traumatic historic events, Gen Z is certainly the first generation to only witness horrors in real-time through the vast reach of social media, not to mention the ubiquitous 24-hour news cycle. In a world where word of school shootings originates from tweets sent by students hiding under desks, Gen Z is constantly exposed—arguably overexposed—to tragedy and terror. Not to mention that for many of them, their formative years occurred in the midst of a global pandemic, where their only interaction with the outside world was through the Internet.

“Every generation has its set of problems. But I can't imagine as a younger person, especially with the inundation of the Internet, and how much it sways you and you can’t really be protected from it,” Jacob explains. On top of that, with the internet serving as a much faster, more efficient tool to do their own research outside of school, Gen Z is known for their political and social advocacy. We're a generation who has, at a remarkably young age, figured out we have to fight for ourselves in this inequitable world (the writer of this article is a proud Gen Z-er).

Thus, the “Teenagers Against The World” trope continues to proliferate. Think of The Hunger Games, Percy Jackson, even Harry Potter. It’s a formula that notoriously scores big with Gen Z audiences. In it, you have young people who are, give or take, just normal teens, facing dystopian governments, angry gods, or nefarious magical beings—all of these omniscient higher powers that young characters have to stand up against to save themselves, or even to save the world. And Ride the Cyclone, with its teenaged characters fighting against the injustice of the world, fits that bill perfectly.

Though he is a Millennial, Jacob agrees with this assessment: “I think Gen Z’s plight is the idea of not having a chance,” he says, referring to the experience of the teenagers in Ride the Cyclone, who lost their lives before they had much time to live them. Jacob adds: “Especially with the pandemic. Some random virus shut your life down and shut the world down.”

On top of all that, the digital generation has become accustomed to a much faster world, whether that’s with online delivery services, streaming platforms, or even considering how TikTok has surpassed YouTube as Gen Z’s go-to source of video content—because videos on TikTok are typically only one to three minutes long. With this, whether it’s a shorter attention span or just a different perception of the passing of time, Gen Z tends to favor a shorter watch time. And Ride the Cyclone, a 90 minute thrill ride, fits inside that short attention span. Jacob notes that this is a clear advantage with Ride the Cyclone’s new audience: “It’s the pace, too. It’s so fast. When we did it 15 years ago, people said the pace was punishing. But for a generation that’s used to something a little quicker, it’s found its audience.”

Since its online explosion last year into Cylone fandom frenzy, Ride the Cyclone has been produced at Arena Stage in D.C. And its newest fans certainly showed up, many of them in cosplay. The show immediately extended by two weeks, through March 5.

You can see some Ride the Cyclone fans in their costumes in the video below from Arena Stage.

Some patrons even traveled from New York to see the show. Ride The Cyclone’s run at Arena Stage has been a hit, and Maxwell feels that it’s an encouraging moment not just for those involved with Ride The Cyclone, but for artists as a whole, as a sign that even if your musical is not immediately appreciated in its time, there's always hope that it will find its audience down the line. As Maxwell remarks, “Especially in this digital age, where the worst thing we fear for humanity is passivity towards culture, like, ‘just feed us and we’ll be happy.’ It’s cool to see people actively engaged with the culture you’ve thrown out there.”

See Photos of Ride The Cyclone at Arena Stage

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