“What I’ve discovered over the last year is that this story has no likable characters. Essentially, everyone’s a sellout in this show.”
That’s what director and choreographer Sergio Trujillo said to me in January about White Noise, the new rock musical he’s helming. “We’re not doing a traditional Broadway show with a love story or a hero,” he continued on the phone from New York on the day the long-in-the-works Chicago production officially announced its booking at the Royal George, with an eye toward Broadway.
Trujillo isn’t kidding with the nontraditional stuff. White Noise, which counts Whoopi Goldberg among its producers, is the behind-the-music story of a sister act quite different from the one Goldberg’s known for: Eva and Eden (played by MacKenzie Mauzy and Emily Padgett) are talented, pretty blond teens who chirp catchy tunes about the supremacy of the white race. The show follows their rise up the charts after profit-minded music industry types scrub away their rough edges but keep the hatemongering.
Penned by Ryan J. Davis and Joe Drymala, two young former staffers on Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential campaign, White Noise began life as a 2006 workshop entry in the New York Musical Theatre Festival. Davis and Drymala were inspired by the real-life “white supremacist pop act” Prussian Blue, which had become a curiosity-of-the-day in the media.
After NYMF, where White Noise was largely perceived as a curiosity itself (New York Times critic Charles Isherwood described it as “a provocative but off-putting concept, uncertainly executed”), an unlikely thing happened: The show was optioned for Broadway.
With the new creative team of playwright Matte O’Brien and songwriters Joe Shane and twin brothers Robert and Steven Morris (Davis and Drymala still get a “conceived by” credit), producer Mitchell Maxwell took the show to New Orleans for a tryout in early 2009, with the intent of a Broadway opening that fall. But Maxwell’s own erratic, violent behavior overshadowed the show; as gleefully chronicled by New York Post schadenfreudist Michael Riedel, Maxwell was eventually banned from his own theater.
With Maxwell out and the high-profile Goldberg in, Trujillo came on board early last year. “You have to commit to the tone of the show; we also have to commit to the truth of the show,” he told me in January. More recently, sitting on the stage of the Royal George’s upstairs Gallery theater while his show’s massive concert-style set went up on the mainstage below, he expanded on that thought.
“I did two workshops. In [the first], in an effort to balance the show I diluted the tone of the show,” says the first-time director, best known as the choreographer of Jersey Boys and Next to Normal. “I thought, maybe we can balance it so the audience won’t be so incredibly turned off, meet them halfway. That was the wrong way to go.”
In its current form, White Noise is what Trujillo calls “a cautionary tale” about not just racism, but paying attention to the content of the media we consume. In a hero-less show, perhaps its greatest villain is Max, the callous music exec played by Douglas Sills. Max encourages the girls not to eliminate their music’s racist rhetoric but to encode it so he can sell it. At the same time, he coarsens the image of the girls’ counterpart, a black hip-hop duo that Max pushes into gangsta-rap territory to increase its marketability. The n-word is used liberally all around.
“I always say they’re two fundamentalists,” says O’Brien of Eva and Max. “One is a white supremacist fundamentalist, which society condemns for the most part; the other is a music-business fundamentalist, which is much more socially acceptable. You’re watching these two forces come together in a powerful way.”
White Noise is in previews, opening Saturday 9.