“My grandfather went on this one time,” Rachel Bloom effused on a recent afternoon. “He thought he was going to die.”
A writer-performer best known for the cult musical comedy “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” Bloom was standing at the base of Coney Island’s Cyclone, the 96-year-old wooden thrill ride designated as a landmark by American Coaster Enthusiasts. She was in town to begin technical rehearsals for the New York leg of “Death, Let Me Do My Show,” a mostly one-woman comedy about existential dread at the Lucille Lortel Theater.
That dread is familiar to her. And personal. She first experienced it as a school-age child, after emerging from Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion attraction. “I just had this thought of, we’re all going to die someday,” she said. “And I couldn’t shake that.”
She has since learned coping mechanisms — how to stop the thoughts before they start or, if that fails, to do something that returns her to her body. Something like riding the world’s second-steepest wooden roller coaster, which boasts 60-mile-per-hour speeds and an 85-foot drop. Bloom — brisk, animated, with a mind that sometimes outraces her mouth — apparently finds a 3.75 G-force relaxing.
“When my brain is spinning about something that I cannot solve, the only way to actually fix it is to not think about it and not engage and to be present and in my body,” she said. “What’s the encapsulation of that? It’s being on a roller coaster.”
As with existential dread, Bloom came to coasters young. Having grown up in Los Angeles, within driving distance of the Disneyland, Six Flags, Knott’s Berry Farm trifecta, her favorites include the GhostRider, the Incredicoaster, the Riddler’s Revenge. Though she graduated from New York University, she had never ridden the Cyclone.
Bloom had arrived on the boardwalk frazzled from subway hassles. She wore dark pants, a printed shirt over a lacy bra, a baseball cap bought at Mel Brooks’s Vegas show, hoop earrings, Ray-Bans. A young man had hit on her on the train ride over and she had pretended to be a graphic designer named Jessica, then given him a fake Instagram handle. To prepare for the ride, she primed herself with a Nathan’s hot dog (a person should never coaster on an empty stomach), an application of sunscreen to her décolletage and a warm-up cruise on a kiddie coaster, the Sea Serpent. (This was the most intense coaster I could handle, and Bloom now owns a picture of me surrounded by children and looking absolutely terrified.) Then it was time to approach the Cyclone.
Her director, Seth Barrish, a solo show veteran, had warned against it, revealing that the last time he had ridden the Cyclone, he had popped a rib. But Bloom was undaunted.
“I trust it,” she said, as she approached the ticket booth. She was going to think about drops, thrills, camelback humps. Not injury. Not death.
For what it’s worth, Bloom didn’t set out to write a show about the fear of death. She began work on it in 2019, just as “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” was ending. (Owing to the SAG-AFTRA and WGA strikes, she could neither discuss that CW comedy nor her short-lived showbiz series “Reboot.”) At first, the stage show was resolutely silly. Its big number concerned a tree with blossoms that smelled like ejaculate. She became pregnant that year and planned to film the show a few months after her due date, then release it as a special.
But the world and the novel coronavirus had other ideas. She gave birth in late March, just as she learned that her songwriting partner, Adam Schlesinger, had been admitted to the hospital and was on a ventilator. Her daughter needed a week in the NICU and some time on a ventilator, too. And then, just as her daughter was discharged, Bloom was told that Schlesinger had died from complications of the coronavirus.
She’d been thinking about death already. (Pregnancy and maternal mortality rate statistics have a way of forcing that.) After Schlesinger died, those thoughts worsened. “It was awful,” she said. “It was just too profound.”
Months later, in the home office that has since become her daughter’s playroom, she looked up at the run order for the show. There was the song about the tree, a bit about pregnancy tests. “This is all moot,” she remembered thinking. “The world is falling apart, my friend’s dead. What is this? It just seems so absurd.” She began to ask herself if a world that felt fundamentally terrible could still support the raunchy, the frivolous. Could she still sing about ejaculate now?
As she put it, “What is the place of laughter and silliness when you’ve stared into an abyss?”
About a year after that, she felt ready to offer an answer: Onstage, with the abyss as co-star. As she kept working on the show, most of the material that didn’t concern life and death fell away. (Somehow, the tree remained.) The show that emerged and which she has since performed in a half-dozen cities still begins breezily. “Who’s ready to just have fun and pretend it’s 2019?” Bloom announces in the opening moments. Not Bloom. The transformed show becomes a way — in song, video and bits about vaginal bleeding — to work through dread and despair.
“I think it is very important to not ignore death,” she said. “And to acknowledge that it’s coming for us, but to not let it overwhelm us.” (In this, the show dovetails with the last sections of her recent essay collection, “I Want to Be Where the Normal People Are.”)
The show isn’t bleak. Or even especially raw. Bloom is a practiced comedian. Barrish is an experienced director. While she admits to having a “a lower level of embarrassment or shame” than most people, she doesn’t include anything that she hasn’t already worked through. “Anything that I’m not ready to stand behind 100 percent or any emotion that isn’t processed,” she said. The character she plays in the show is a Rachel Bloom that hasn’t yet dealt with birth and loss. But she gets there. And the show ends with a revelation that she actually had, in the ocean, on vacation, about her daughter and her dog and an acceptance of her own mortality.
“It’s almost like when I start the show I’m pretending to be myself years ago, and then by the end of the show, I’m caught up,” she said.
This mental equilibrium suggests that a ride on the Cyclone wasn’t absolutely necessary. But a lack of immediate anguish wouldn’t stop her. After buying a ticket she strode through the gate and then into a seat toward the back of the train, the lap belt tight. Then with a jerk and the sound of juddering metal she was off, hair gleaming in the sun, one arm up to wave as she hurtled down the drops.
Two minutes later she returned to the street, breathless and elated, enthusing about the speed, the dips, even the bumps. Worry, if she’d had any to begin with, had been banished.
“That was great!” she said. “That was wild. It was like the subway turned into a roller coaster.”