Molly Smith explains the power of cult musicals like ride the cyclone

What’s your favorite “cult” musical? Asking that question to Reddit came up with a fun list of answers. Some notable responses include Next to Normal, Spring Awakening, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Side Show, and Heathers: The Musical. Perhaps the most well-known example would be The Rocky Horror Show, complete with audience participation. Ride the Cyclone fits on this list.

So, what makes it a “cult” musical? Cult status means it gets under your skin. It can be subject matter that pushes societal boundaries. I have often said that musicals can tackle difficult subjects in sneaky ways, because the music keeps your toes tapping while the deeper message sinks in slowly. The plot lines range into topics that are not often discussed in mainstream society and bring them to the forefront. It’s not really that these musicals are for a niche audience—one that has an identity already—but rather that their creativity enables a new audience to find its voice through the music and story. They tackle stories about the pain of losing a child, blossoming sexuality, gender identity, difference. The music is often music of a contemporary generation rather than previous ones.

Take, for example, Hedwig and the Angry Inch’s genderqueer narrative and use of 1970s-inspired rock music, or Next to Normal’s story of mourning and commentary on mental health, which also used the rock band format. New audiences discover they are not alone and are transformed. After we had planned this season, Arena’s Director of Production Robert Hand shared that he listened to the music of Ride the Cyclone over seven times. We keep hearing from people who are addicted to the music. It’s wildly popular among TikTok users, where it’s celebrated as an underrated musical masterpiece. It gets under your skin!

Ride the Cyclone starts with tragic loss and ends with us feeling alive. First produced in 2008, by 2010 the show was being recognized, and productions continued around Canada and the U.S., with a limited run off-Broadway in 2016, growing and changing along the way. A driving rock musical, we are taken on a journey through tragedy, reflection, and redemption. The combination of tragic death with the possibility of future life is intriguing. The characters provide snapshot images of aspects of youth and are forced to look at their lives to determine who might have the most to gain. That is an extremely difficult question to ask—but perhaps one that we should ask ourselves regularly as we navigate the world.

One of theater’s gifts to the world is helping people find their voice.