A new SoCal show hopes to tap the surprisingly big business of two-actor musicals

Livvy Marcus and Alex Finke in "Ride" at the Old Globe.
(Jim Cox)
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“Ride” recounts the epic journey of Annie Londonderry, the first woman to bicycle around the world. Opening Friday at the Old Globe in San Diego, the ambitious musical features six characters, spans numerous years and traverses multiple countries — all with just two actors.

It might seem a surprising choice to stage a globe-trotting, 19th-century-set bio-musical with just a pair of performers. But for “Ride,” as for an increasing number of regional stage productions across the country, necessity is the mother of invention — and for most theater companies, already strained by the COVID-19 pandemic and facing tightened budgets, the main necessities are “sell more tickets” and “lower costs.”

“We’ve always been resolute that this is how it has to be,” Freya Catrin Smith, who co-created “Ride” with Jack Williams, tells The Times. “As newer writers, you want to serve the work and the idea, but at the same time, you now have to have this awareness about what producers might want to take a risk on. And the reality is, they’re going to be way more likely to take a risk on something with fewer actors and fewer costs.”


Musicals with such small casts are potentially big business, in part because it can be easier to recoup their streamlined production costs compared with a traditional stage extravaganza, with savings on actors’ salaries, costumes, sets, makeup and more. “Hit musicals can come in all different sizes,” says theater historian and producer Jennifer Ashley Tepper. “And generally, you might be able to make their capitalizations lower with smaller musicals — a number of which do well for years in licensing for regional theaters and school performances.”

Producers are prioritizing these considerations since the pandemic shutdowns, as theaters grapple with unstable audience attendance and soaring costs due to inflation. For example, “The Last Five Years” has remained “perennially popular” over the 20-plus years that Music Theatre International has licensed the Jason Robert Brown musical, but requests notably increased in 2021, according to MTI director of marketing Jason Cocovinis, as “the show was a great, safe option for theaters to produce because of its small cast size and minimal set requirements.”

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"Ride" book writer and composer-lyricist Freya Catrin Smith, composer-lyricist Jack Williams and director Sarah Meadows.
(Jim Cox)

That “Ride” is a two-actor musical is actually a strategic expansion. Smith and Williams, who met as preteens and began writing musicals together after college, first conceived “Ride” in 2019 as a solo show, since Londonderry’s cycling was mostly a solitary endeavor. But extensive research provided by her great-grandnephew, author and journalist Peter Zheutlin, shifted their storytelling needs.

“The more we learned about Annie, the more we realized she’s quite a tricky, knotty and flawed character, with this interesting backstory that she tried to hide a lot of the time by entertaining and deflecting,” Smith says of Londonderry, a Jewish Latvian immigrant in Boston who learned to ride a bicycle only days before departing on her journey and changed her last name for a cycling sponsorship. “She would never reveal the other sides of herself voluntarily, so we needed somebody else to push her buttons, and lean into that tension of who she was versus who she said she was.”


“Ride” largely takes place in the meeting room of a major newspaper, to which Londonderry, now an international sports star and feminist icon, is pitching herself as their next must-read columnist. Throughout the presentation to the unseen executives, Londonderry vividly recalls her record-breaking trek with the help of Martha Smith, the paper’s sheepish (and fictional) secretary, who plays key figures in Londonderry’s anecdotes: the men betting against her endeavor, the French customs agent who becomes a friend, the intriguing man who forces her to face her past.

“We could’ve had different actors playing each of these characters, but by having Martha play all of them and say things as other people that she wouldn’t be able to say to Annie herself, she experiences her own growth,” Williams explains. “I think most producers can tell when you’re sacrificing the story for [cost-saving] reasons, but we feel this is the best vehicle to tell Annie’s story.”

Livvy Marcus and Alex Finke in 'Ride' at The Old Globe.
(Jim Cox)

Beyond the creative challenges, such productions can also be a tougher ticket to sell, undermining the cost savings on the production end. But it doesn’t help to run away from the form, says Tepper: “Sometimes marketing tries to hide it a little bit because some audiences have preconceived notions about two-person musicals, that it’s not going to be as dynamic of an evening.”

For the musical’s U.S. debut, “Ride’s” creative team is set on presenting a spectacle — whimsical bicycle sequences, intricate harmonies, lush orchestrations, fantastical location changes — alongside the piece’s intimacy.


“It’s a two-actor musical, but it’s massive, so yeah, the money’s gone elsewhere,” says director Sarah Meadows, who also helmed the U.K. runs. “But any theater that’s good is really based on the strength of the characters and their relationships. Musicals can have as many ensembles kicking their legs and doing amazing dancing [as they like], and that’s impressive, but do we leave feeling like we’ve learned anything? Do those characters stay in our minds forever because we were so moved?

“The most surprising thing about this show is the fact that both of these women are written with such detail and depth,” she continues. “And because we don’t have to give attention to choreographing huge numbers or the other to-dos of bigger musicals, we can really focus on these two characters and build that strong emotional connection with the audience.”

This two-actor musical can be strenuous to execute too: In “Ride’s” case, each performer only leaves the stage for about a minute total in the 90-minute piece.

“You’re hyper-aware of the entire stage, you’re problem-solving in real time when things go wrong,” says Alex Finke, who portrays Londonderry opposite Livvy Marcus as Martha. “You have to be consistent not only for yourself, but for your scene partner, because their show depends on you in every aspect. It’s simultaneously challenging and fulfilling to be so dependent on only one other person.”

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Alex Finke and Livvy Marcus in "Ride" at the Old Globe.
(Jim Cox)


Smith and Williams are certainly devotees of the small musical’s artistic possibilities: The 2021 winners of Adam Lenson and Katy Lipson’s chamber musical prize for pieces featuring five actors or less, the pair are writing another two-actor musical, as well as a five-actor musical about self-taught mathematician Sophie Germain and a four-actor musical about “Little Women” author Louisa May Alcott. But they’re far from alone in the warm embrace.

When “Gutenberg! The Musical!” reunited “Book of Mormon” breakouts Andrew Rannells and Josh Gad on Broadway last fall, ticket sales were initially soft, despite a marketing campaign that featured clever merchandise and photo shoots. But “word of mouth was so strong, because everyone was in awe of what Josh and Andrew were doing, playing thousands of characters without leaving the stage,” says producer Bee Carrozzini. “It felt like a premium Broadway experience while also being so completely unlike anything else that was out there.”

The result — a 20-week run that broke box office records before ending in January — didn’t just recoup its initial investment. According to producer Kristin Caskey, it also sparked a resurgence of licensing requests to writers Scott Brown and Anthony King, despite the fact that “Gutenberg!” was initially developed nearly 20 years ago.

Two-actor musicals are still relatively rare, and only a fraction of those are penned for both roles to be played by women. But an indisputable Broadway hit has a way of changing perceptions, and newer shows like “Ride,” which runs through April 28, can only help cement the form’s post-COVID rise.

“I think it’s a testament to those two people,” says Aubrey Matalon, who understudies both “Ride” roles. “And as an audience member, it’s really exciting — like, holy s—, these people must be so talented to be doing so much. We’re witnessing some masterful work.”



Where: Donald and Darlene Shiley Stage, The Old Globe, 1363 Old Globe Way, Balboa Park, San Diego

When: 7 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Through April 28 (subject to change)

Tickets: Starting at $39

Contact: (619) 234-5623 or