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.