Interview: Ride - A New Musical
Director Sarah Meadows discusses the two-wheeled musical's latest outing
Arriving back on the scene after its award-winning run at the Charing Cross Theatre last year, the marvellous new musical Ride from Freya Catrin Smith and Jack Williams is gearing up for another London stint after spending a week at the Curve in Leicester. On the last day of rehearsals, I sat down with the musical’s director Sarah Meadows to hear more about the two-wheeled triumph and what audiences can expect from its latest outing.
Sarah sits across from me in the soon to be refurbished Jerwood Space, down the corridor from the rehearsal room where she, along with her cast and collaborators, have spent the last four weeks reshaping and re-staging the musical that tells the story of Annie Londonderry, the first woman to cycle around the world. “That’s the premise of it, but then to the side of that, it's an amazing story about how in the intersections of race, gender, and sexuality, people have to master their identities to succeed - the idea of taking ownership of all that as much as it being something to expose,” she begins. “It’s also about friendship, romance and surprise feelings. [Annie] is this incredible figure to have this interesting conversation around like what progression looks like and what we have to potentially do politically to move something forward. There's a really interesting contradiction in her politics because she sort of does the things she disagrees with to achieve the things she wants, which I think is fascinating.”
In the June of 1894, Annie Londonderry accepted a wager from two Bostonian businessmen who challenged her to cycle around the world in 15 months and raise $5,000 in the process, a feat so unlikely to be accomplished considering she had only ridden a bicycle twice before. Despite her background, she defied the odds and journeyed across continents often sharing the roads with varied and eclectic characters. Annie in a bid to fulfil the financial portion of the bet rented out advertising space on her bike and body, going so far as accepting $100 from the Londonderry Lithia Spring Water Company in exchange for changing her last name - her real name being Annie Cohen Kopchovsky.
I ask Sarah how she has found working on a story about a real person, “It's great, it feels really, really interesting because there is so much material. We’ve been in touch with a family member and they're really happy with the way we're presenting it and actually have endorsed us to go further with some of the little pockets of stuff that we thought were there in terms of her personality, and how tricky she is as well as her sexuality. She was a sort of queer icon in her time but also was kind of undefinable in lots of ways, quite the chameleon.” Annie’s family are based in the United States so have not been able to see the production yet though have watched the recording available online. “They love what Liv is doing with the character and it's meant that we can go even further with her this time."
Liv Andrusier is reprising her Off West End Award-winning performance of Annie, and her vocal prowess can be heard on the recently released cast album - well worth a listen. Talk turns to how Sarah and Liv approached the character of Annie, “a huge initial part of it is about casting the right person and finding someone who has levels of connection with who she is. On face value, Liv is a physical cutout of Annie. Annie was five foot two, Liv is five foot two and there’s something truly similar about their energies and presences - Annie is a small woman of huge scale. Another part that Liv connects with is her Jewish faith and heritage, who she is and who she was supposed to culturally be and Liv has brought a huge amount of that to the conversation, including her own relationship with Jewishness and the politics associated with that.”
“I could tell as soon as she started reading the character that Liv, as a human being, understood Annie’s coping mechanism and her bravado but something we’ve talked about a lot is Liv finding confidence through Annie. It sounds really, you know, but when you spend time with a character it’s like Annie needs you to be there. There’s something amazing about having this real woman with all these things you couldn’t make up, and I think that anchors Liv and enables her to thrive. She feels so different on stage compared to when you meet her. It sounds a little bit mystical but when you work on these plays based on real people, and there is all this material and images of them, Liv can sort of conjure her so that she’s almost with us - I know that sounds silly! She just suddenly appears and then Liv feels like a different person and there's a confidence in her voice, an energy and lift that is transformative.”
I ask about the supporting character in the musical, Martha, initially performed by Yuki Sutton but now in the capable hands of Katy Ellis. Martha is enveloped by Annie’s storytelling and forms the audience’s route into the show. “Martha helps us to navigate what we're experiencing. I'm loving having more time with the character, and this time we're able to tell the story of their relationship, what happens and what that means. We learn so much about who they are through the responses they have to what happens between them. Martha surprises us as well, which is what’s fun about her, she becomes symbolic of the Annie in everybody.”
I ask about the experience of bringing in a new cast member for the part, “it was really sad that it clashed with Yuki’s filming but you have to see the benefits and hopefully the longer life of Ride results in these different pairings that suddenly create a whole new show and a new take on things. Katie’s acting background is very much coming more from my world of theatre rather than musical theatre, which is something I thought was useful for that role. We’ve got an acting head rather than an MT head which is quite different, so that’s been great - she is just super talented.”
The team have had the chance to rework elements of the show ahead of its new run, having only had a mere three weeks of rehearsal before its debut outing. “None of us knew the show. We had three weeks to make a musical with twelve songs and it was insane, as you can imagine. So what went up was the beginnings of what we all wanted it to do but we had to let it live. So it's been wonderful because we've been able to tick off everything on the to do list, but we were so amazed at how well it was received.” Sarah is referring to the multitude of four and five star reviews, the two Off West End award wins (plus multiple nominations) as well as a WhatsOnStage award nomination to top it all off - not too shabby at all!
“Honestly, I remember vividly walking with my movement director, and at the time my son was just under one and my daughter was three, so I was absolutely on my arse, knackered, and I was like, oh god what do you think we're gonna get? It still feels early days, so maybe we'll get hopefully solid three for the show because the music's so brilliant and I was just so surprised. There’s something about the essence and the concept of it plus the design that Amy created that I was really happy with, it was only the execution that we didn't have time to fully develop. But hopefully, this time it's like every moment is rich with stuff for the audience, and the songs such as, Everyone Loves a Lie, are just jam-packed with treats.
New musicals can take years of development before they arrive in a rehearsal room and often form unruly beasts for directors and creatives to tame. For Sarah, the hardest part is that “all the moving parts are so interlinked. It is such a huge job to find and create one moment. You have to R&D the whole time and you have to be okay with that. It might mean you have to suddenly rewrite the whole thing musically because you want action to hit beats but then if that doesn’t work something else has to change. It’s this kind of constant collaboration, which is amazing, but it takes so much time to figure out a moment. That is of course expensive and time-consuming, which is where last time I felt frustrated from my end - all we could do was broad brushstrokes.
Bringing the conversation back around to Annie, I ask what Annie Londonderry can teach modern audiences. “There is something that’s always struck me about the end of the show, her line where she says, I’m going to have to do something radical. This idea of radical action is really interesting to me. Her radical action was to cycle around the world, dealing with the consequences of that, and the sacrifices. It’s maybe asking people to think about what is the radical action we might need to take to actually alter things, whilst understanding there is a fallout to elicit change in our world. We’re being asked to remember this object, this bike that became a symbol of the emancipation of women, the action of it, the freedom of it and the physicality of it and wondering what’s next.
Now, if you see the show (you really should), you’ll understand that Annie has a cavalier relationship with the truth, confidently traipsing the fine line between fact and fiction. To her, the story is far more important than the truth. So to wrap up our chat I put it to Sarah, what is more important the story or the truth? “My whole brand is about truth. I am truth, truth, truth. I feel like that’s my sort of super objective in life. In my job, I’m always seeking honesty and truth in interactions and in storytelling on stage.”
Ride runs at Leicester’s Curve until 15th July before opening at the Southwark Playhouse Elephant on 19th July till 12th August. This is a wonderful, uniquely charming show and I urge even the most casual theatregoers to support some of the best new musical theatre going and risk a trip with Annie Londonderry - you won’t regret it.