Making White Noise: Q&A with Ryan J. Davis and Joe Drymala

There's a song in the new musical White Noise that at first seems to have been ripped out of the latest chart-topping album by a teen pop star. Entitled "Be Strong," it features an emotion-charged melody and blandly inspirational lyrics about the importance of keeping faith in hard times.  But then the words become stronger as the music builds: "Someday the world will change and think of how happy we'll be...When it's black all around you, have courage/Have faith that there is a pure white light to guide you every step...so be strong." 

The lyrics are metaphorical in the worst sense. "Be Strong" is sung by sisters Blanche and Eva, whose pop group White Noise finds its biggest supporters not among typical iPod-toting teens but among white supremacists.  Creator/director Ryan J. Davis and composer/lyricist/bookwriter Joe Drymala have billed White Noise--which, as one of the invited shows, will play the New York Musical Theatre Festival from September 18th through September 30th--as a "cautionary musical" that explores how racism has alarmingly crept up to the edge of pop music.  Blanche and Eva, are in fact, based on 14 year-old twins Lynx and Lamb Gaede, whose Prussian Blue has released albums of poisoned-bubblegum pop, toured, and acquired enough fans to warrant much recent media attention. 

MC: Ryan, how did you first hear about Prussian Blue, and when were you hit with the inspiration to use them as the basis for a musical? 

RD: I saw the ABC Primetime special on the twins last year and I immediately thought it had to be a musical. It seemed like the kind of thing you could do in a campy way and really make fun of the idea of white supremacist pop music. That's how the show started, but it gradually become more and more serious after Joe and I started researching this movement. It's scary.  
 
MC: Just how much a fanbase do you estimate they have?


RD: By all accounts, they're one of the biggest acts in hate rock today. They have two albums, they have music videos, they tour, they even open at David Duke rallies.  
 
MC: What's so scary is the songs I've heard sound very much like what might be on an album by Britney Spears or Jessica Simpson, only they have that horrible racial twist.   Joe, what was your process in writing this score?

JD: It definitely involved putting on this alter ego, which happens whenever you're writing for another character, but is much more difficult when the character's reprehensible.  I didn't want them to sing material that made them look ignorant or obviously evil; that would have been sort of too easy.  So I would try to think in terms of how the song functioned, and write the songs that way.  For example, "Be Strong" is a fairly traditional 11 o'clock number, in which the estranged sisters come back together; the one sister convinces the prodigal sister to be true to herself. So I tried to treat them and their musical arc the way I would treat any other character. 
 
MC: Production notes state that "Blanche and Eva prove themselves to be masters of the most terrifying and unstoppable form of Fascism in today's culture: Top Forty pop."  I think that's a fascinating analogy.  Could you please elaborate a little?

JD: Pop music is totally Fascist! It's mundane, it's manipulative, it taps into our most base instincts, and there's no escape from it.  In all seriousness, though, Top 40 Pop is the perfect vehicle for something like Fascism.  Hitler used mass media like music and film to spread his doctrine. Pop music has a nakedly emotional appeal, just like the most effective propaganda. That's what interested me—and scared me—about Prussian Blue.

MC: I was impressed by the song "Good Man Trying," in which Blanche and Eva sing about a father, a blue collar man who feels that the better jobs and opportunities have been taken by minorities.  Because as reprehensible as Blanche and Eva's philosophies are, it seems like you have tried to locate the rationale behind them.  These men (and women, and even children) turn to racial hatred because they feel disenfranchised and hopeless.  Please discuss. 

JD: We didn't want to simplify these characters. People are attracted to extremism for very everyday reasons; nobody is born a monster.  We want Blanche and Eva to be complex, nuanced human beings who came to their beliefs not just because they were indoctrinated (that's boring) but because of perceived injustice on their part.

MC: I know that Joe primarily wrote the book, music and lyrics, but that other songwriters--such as Laurence O'Keefe, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul and Eric Svejcar--also had a hand in writing the show.  What songs did they contribute? 

RD: I thought that since real pop groups have lots of writers, we could get away with doing just that. I had lots of composer friends contribute their own songs. Joe and I would give them a style or an idea to get started and gave them freedom to create. I wanted all the music to have a similar feel though, which is why we brought the amazing Ben Cohn on board to do orchestrations and arrangements.  

JD: We don't want to let the cat out of the bag as far as who wrote what. We want people to come to the show, enjoy a song (or be offended by it, or both), and look at the program later and be shocked at which songwriters are attached to which songs.

MC: A fascinating segment on Prussian Blue and White Noise recently aired on ABC Primetime.  Have you had to deal with any kind of backlash from people with white supremacist sympathies? 

RD: Sure. We get hate mail. We get talked about on the hate message boards. I feel like I'm doing something right in life if white supremacists hate me; I'd be doing something wrong if they were fans.  

JD: You should see some of the things we've been called. I hope those guys never decide to take a field trip up to see us one day.

MC: (If so), how has this affected the morale of the cast and creative team? 

RD: It just makes me want to make the show more critical of their groups. As far as the attention we're getting, it's largely positive and coming from people who aren't racists, so the morale is good.  

JD: The cast and creative team couldn't be more on board with what we're trying to do. Everyone involved with the show is passionate about presenting this as a real "cautionary musical," outlining the consequences of extremism going mainstream. It's funny; the hate mail has only made the team that much more committed to White Noise.

MC: Most of us are aware of the recent scandals with Senator George Allen and Mel Gibson. Just how prevalent do you think racism is in America right now? 

RD: think it's extremely prevalent. Look at the Florida/Ohio voting scandals or the federal government's response to Hurricane Katrina. It's hard not to look at those as racial issues.  

JD: Lots of Americans believe that extremists like Prussian Blue are on the decline; in fact, membership in white power groups has increased by over 30% since 2000, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. It's very real, and it's on the rise.  

RD: Since 2000. Makes you wonder, what change our country's leadership led to that increase?

MC: What do you hope to accomplish with White Noise? 

JD: We want to shine a spotlight on the white power movement, and on extremism in general. We also want to show how effective propaganda can be, when it's presented in an appealing package with attractive messengers. We want the audience to actually be seduced a little by the characters, and especially by their music, so audience members themselves feel the propaganda working on their emotions. 

RD: Mel Brooks says that the best way to take away the power of prejudiced people is to make them look ridiculous. The show, as a whole, is darker – but we have elements that Mel Brooks would approve of (please come, Mel; I'll even buy your ticket).

MC: How did you go about casting the show? 

RD: Well, early on Andrew Keenan-Bolger was like our de facto casting director, getting us in with the University Of Michigan crowd. I cast AKB through Myspace, which I think is the future of casting, by the way. The NYMF auditions were more traditional, mostly EPAs & Backstage, with just a few via MySpace.  

JD: Every actor should be on MySpace! We seriously did a lot of looking on Myspace. It's a great way to get yourself out there. 

MC: I've noticed that in White Noise, Blanche and Eva are a few years older than Lynx and Lamb Gaede, the real-life sisters of Prussian Blue.  Why did you decide to make this change?  

Joe: Two main reasons. The most important was, we wanted the characters to be accountable for their actions, especially Eva, who's the older of the two. With Prussian Blue, there's a sense that the girls are too young to be held responsible for their songs, that they're being put up to it by their mother and their grandfather. That's an interesting psychological story, but it's not the story we wanted to tell. We wanted our girls to be old enough to have decided to adopt these beliefs as their own. The story about how they came to be racists is a whole other show.

Ryan: And, the second reason was more practical: it's much easier to find actors who can play late teens/early twenties than it is to find actors to play early teenager (castability is why we chose not to make them twins, also). We wanted to have a very large talent pool to choose from, and based on watching Libby (Winters) and Christina (Calph) in auditions and rehearsals, I think we got the best of the bunch. They're really fantastic.

MC: Do you foresee any kind of commercial future for the show after NYMF?

RD: I'd like to think we could continue on with the show in some way. Lots of people have worked long and hard to make this happen. A commercial run would be very rewarding.

MC: De
scribe the process getting into the NYMF.

RD: We actually applied to the Fringe, but the NYMF invited us and made it worth our while. We're really glad to be at NYMF, it's a really exciting lineup this year! 

JD: We're so grateful to NYMF for accommodating us. We've had a number of unusual requests (sound, lights, etc.; it's a rock show, after all), and they couldn't have been more helpful. No one once told us "no."  They really believe in shepherding young artists like Ryan and myself.

MC: What's next for you two?

JD: We're developing a show that couldn't be more different from White Noise. It's a new musical called Street Lights, that follows several teenagers in an inner city high school who are trying to escape their troubled neighborhood and make their dreams come true.  It's got a legitimately contemporary R&B score, incorporating some elements of hip hop. Think Lauryn Hill, Alicia Keys, Kanye West. We wanted to do a show on a completely different theme than White Noise, and we also wanted to do a show with a score that could actually be played on the radio. Musicals don't even make an attempt to do that anymore, and I think that's crazy. So the vacuum gets filled when something like "High School Musical" comes along, and lo and behold, it sells 12 zillion DVDs. Young people are our best hope for a new theater audience, and they're ready to be spoken to. We think Street Lights might just be the show that can do it.

RD: We're also continuing to develop Joe's new musical The Golden City, about a theater company caught in the middle of a war; look for that sometime next year. In addition to my projects with Joe, I'm directing a terrific new play, Lessons Of The Trash Gang, by a great young playwright named Kelley Girod, and working with Eric Svejcar on a film version of his musical Prince Hal of Soho.

White Noise tickets go on sale September 1st.  Visit www.nymf.org or www.whitenoisethemusical.com for tickets and more information.

Photos by Elisha Schaefer
1) and 2) Joe Drymala and Ryan J. Davis
3) Partial creative team--Todd L. Underwood, Joe Drymala, Ryan J. Davis, Matte O'Brien, and Matthew Nasser

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Maya Cantu Maya Cantu recently graduated from Virginia's James Madison University, where she majored in theatre. She is very excited about starting her MFA in Dramaturgy and Dramatic Criticism at Yale School of Drama this fall. Maya was once a performer, and played roles ranging from eccentric mediums (Blithe Spirit) to slain noblewomen (Macbeth) to founding fathers (1776). While she hasn't been to an audition in ages, Maya still delights in belting showtunes - sometimes on key - at piano bars.