The stage has long been a place where important stories from history come alive again, and that’s what Taran Gray and Richard Allen have done with Freedom Riders: The Civil Rights Musical. The duo have told the story of the Freedom Riders in a musical format, and audiences can enjoy the full cast recording now. But it’s more than a new album—it’s bringing greater awareness to critical figures in our nation’s history.
I spoke with Richard and Taran ahead of the album’s release to learn how they conceived the project, their way of merging historical accuracy with the creative demands of a musical, and other interesting facts from behind the scenes of Freedom Riders. Get to know them and their newest project before you stream the album wherever you get your digital music.
Brittany Frederick: What was the genesis of Freedom Riders? How did you decide upon this as your next project together?
Richard Allen: I had called a friend up and said, “Hey, let’s work on a project together. What do you got? Any ideas?” After some arm twisting, he told me about the Freedom Riders and that I should look into that. I did, and I started writing a synopsis for the show and what I thought it could be, after watching everything and reading everything that I could about it.
Taran and I had written other things together. We had a Disney project that we worked on called Second Star. I already knew that he could do the music, so I went to him asking for him to play the piano for me while I write the music, basically be my accompanist. I think we write so well together that he just realized in the process that it was going to be easier and probably a lot more fun for us to write it together.
Taran Gray: That’s exactly it. We started working on it together and I didn’t even know yet who the Freedom Riders were, what their story was. It wasn’t until after our first or second writing session that I started doing research and was blown away by it all. For a long time by that point already, I was trying to understand my place as a white person in the Movement. The story of the Freedom Riders is such a beautiful depiction of how everyone is welcomed and has a place in that. So it was an immediate click on both accounts, not only working with my best friend, but also a story that really helped shape me in a lot of ways as an ally.
BF: You’ve been publicly praised for the historical accuracy of the album, which is an accomplishment given that most true stories end up having to take some dramatic license. How were you able to be as accurate as you were?
TG: Richard did a ton of research before we started together, and Richard sort of has an encyclopedia brain. He was able to fact-check on the spot when we were writing. But then on top of that, early on, we got connected to a couple of the living Freedom Riders. In 2016 we were introduced to Diane Nash; we spoke to her on the phone. And then from there, we got to interact a few times with John Lewis, Bernard Lafayette, Jim Zwerg, Charles Person—all these people who are huge pillars of this moment in history. The accuracy came from just talking with them, showing them the project, getting feedback from them on the project. Leaving us with something that we’ve been told by them is accurate.
RA: We were really trying to be accurate when it came to what they did, how many people did it, at what point in time did they do it? We were trying to hold to that type of accuracy. When it comes to their personal conversations we knew there was no way for us to capture that accurately, ultimately, so we tried to just embody what would 18-year-olds be talking about if they were on the road trying to fight against injustice? What would that feel like? We just did our best with those kind of conversations, because we knew that was important for people to be able to get to know these characters or these real-life people.
BF: Some of the folks we’re going to hear on this album have been with the project for a long time, which is also uncommon. Talk about bringing this cast together and having that consistency in the ranks.
RA: It’s crazy now that I think about it. We’ve had Brynn [Williams] almost the whole time. Her and Meagan. I think we came to a place where we realized we didn’t want to be like other shows, in the sense that you constantly are changing people out based upon your schedule only. We wanted people to go on this journey and have a real understanding, because you’re going to meet the real Freedom Riders. You’re going to talk with them. And it takes a lot of time to build this kind of character background with research and all of that, so having actors come in and out is not beneficial to the show or the characters themselves.
[Consistency] was really important. We realized that we needed to really establish friendships with those actors, in a way where we cared about all the other stuff they were doing, that we were cheerleaders of their other work and their personal lives and what was going on. I think we’re good friends with almost everybody that has come through our cast, and I think because of that, they love the work. Because of that strong friendship, it’s allowed us to do many things and keep the same cast in the process. I think they also enjoy it. I would hate to spend three or four years on a character, and then someone else come through and play it on Broadway after I spent all that time. I’d be like, “What?”
BF: Ideally this album will inspire theater fans to do their own research and learn more about the Freedom Riders. Based on your experience, are there specific resources you would point them toward?
RA: There are so many great things. PBS has a really great special, which is based upon the book Freedom Riders. For our show, I didn’t read the book because it would’ve crossed into taking from intellectual property, but it is a comprehensive book that gives you everything about the Freedom Riders. If you go to the back of that book and use the bibliography, you’re able to get all of the books that [author Raymond Arsenault] used, which is every book on the subject itself. And that’s just a great place to start, those two places.
Oprah has a great special, of course. John Lewis’ book Walking With The Wind is a fantastic book. It not only goes through the Freedom Rides, but also the other major milestones in the civil rights movement that he was part of.
BF: Do you have favorite tracks on the Freedom Riders album that really resonated with you during the recording process?
TG: This is the show that really kind of put us on the map in musical theater, so everything in it is precious to us, and we’ve spent a lot of time curating that. So it comes down more to “What’s the mood of the day?” I will say one of the songs that is extremely precious to us is “Come Down to the River,” which is the opening of our second act. That’s sung by Deon’te Goodman, who’s currently in Hamilton, and the cast. That was the song that when we finished recording the demo back in 2016, Richard and I really knew that something special was given to us to create and to share.
RA: My favorite song has been for a bit now “Dream,” our closing number. The whole point was for it to be a look at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech “I Have a Dream,” and this idea that he never saw the dream realized. A lot of these civil rights folks, a lot of these people who are abolitionists, who have fought against injustice, inequalities, rarely ever got to see any of those equalities that they fought for come to fruition. And yet they still had to have a dream and a passion to pursue it, even though they knew that they would never in their lifetime be able to really benefit from it.
To me, it’s the ancestor song for all of us—ancestors who fought for us and had a dream for us. And we all get to, in a way, realize it and be a picture of that. That’s what that song is talking about, so it’s one of my favorites.
Freedom Riders: The Civil Rights Musical is available now on streaming music platforms. For more on Richard Allen and Taran Gray, and all of their projects, visit their website.
Article content is (c)2020-2022 Brittany Frederick and may not be excerpted or reproduced without express written permission by the author. Follow me on Twitter at @BFTVTwtr, on Instagram at @BFTVGram.