Urinetown has been described as the greatest musical with the worst title. Such a name evokes unspeakable imagery of possible potty humour, frightful fringe comedy, or basic bad smells. While the show is gritty and offbeat, the musical is actually considered by many as one of the greatest, most unique cult musicals to emerge in decades. Theatre People spoke to three of the talented individuals involved in WATERDALE’s upcoming production of the show – director Daniel Cooper, musical director Ian Nisbet, and Sam Marzden, who plays the role of Officer Lockstock – to learn more about their exciting new interpretation.
Essentially, Urinetown is a story of oppression, rebellion, and public toilets. A repressive force is in control of society, forcing the downtrodden poor masses to pay for public amenities in a dystopian drought-ridden world where private bathrooms are outlawed. Even worse, if one is caught relieving themselves in public, the authorities send them to Urinetown, and they are never seen or heard of again. Amongst the array of characters, politics and killing, there’s a humble love story, too. Don’t be mistaken, though – you won’t get swept away with the romance. “It’s a very meta, self-reflective, dark musical. It’s not an escapist show. It will get people to think, and will challenge them,”claims Nisbet.
The tone of the musical is unique – it pays homage to the Brechtian style of dramatic self-awareness, going against the traditional, integrated form. Yet it is a hilarious musical comedy with many identifiable references to other shows that the audience will love picking up on. Original Broadway cast member Daniel Marcus described this tension perfectly – “I call it a love letter to the American musical in the form of a grenade.” It’s the best type of tough love. “It’s a show that is constantly breaking the fourth wall with humour, not allowing the audience to get carried away emotionally by the show,”first-time director Cooper states. “The ultimate goal, and the hardest thing to get them to do, is to think.” This is achieved by constantly pointing out to the audience that the action they are watching is a musical. Even the band is on stage, further engaging and connecting directly, transparently, with the audience.
Traditionally set in the 1930s – described in the script itself as a “Gotham-like” setting – this production has shifted focus. Cooper explains that he “thought to Tim Burton’s Batman, and the recent film Snowpiercer, which deals with similar ideas, and this influenced how I saw the show. We are giving Urinetown a more 1980s, anarchist aesthetic.” He continues, “one character constantly has an 80s phone on him, and at the same time has a modern tablet. It’s a blended weirdness… not set in any particular time or place.” However, the anachronistic change of setting and aesthetic are not the only surprises in store. “There are more surprises,” says Cooper. “Ian and I didn’t want to just copy what has been done every time before. We wanted to try to find something new to do with the show.” He won’t give anything else away just yet.
The music itself is a mixture of styles and references, resulting in a catchy and powerful score. Nisbet explains, “The thing that I am loving about the music is when you break it down, and listen to the harmonies, they sound so simple separately, but when you put it all together, it’s incredibly complex.” The group harmonies and ensemble scenes – and there are many – are the central driving force behind the entire show. “The ensemble are actually the leads in this show.” Nisbet elaborates. “Urinetown doesn’t need the leads. It needs the rebel poor fighting against the oppressive power. The ensemble are the leads! They hardly leave the stage. The leads are supporting their plight and their story.” How has the group taken to this level of prominence and responsibility? “They’ve really come through with the goods once they realised that they had that freedom. They’re sounding so brilliant, and have great energy.” Truly a liberation; a unification of like-minded, passion-filled individuals empowered by their newfound, unexpected agency.
That is not to downplay the talents of the lead performers. Nisbet states that, “they’ve been incredibly self-sufficient and musically sensitive performers in their own right.” One of these leads is Sam Marzden, who plays Officer Lockstock. As the omnipresent narrator, he allows the audience directly into the world of the Urinetown. “The narrator has to set the mood and make everyone aware that the show is serious, but also funny. As a character he is behind killing everyone as well, so not too many people will like him.” However, Marzden is not alone in this task. “Lockstock has a sidekick named Little Sally, who keeps bringing him back to Earth. She is the moral compass of the show. She ruins his evil by being sweet and innocent.” Morally ambiguous, self-aware, and bitingly funny, the characters of Urinetown are uniquely entertaining and textured, perfectly suitable vessels for the twisted, satirical text.
What should audiences expect? “I don’t think you can walk into a show called Urinetown without preconceptions,” states Marzden. “But whatever you’re thinking, you’re going to be wrong! Everyone will be very surprised that a show with such a terrible title can be so important, funny, and thought-provoking.” The ways in which the show turns the traditional form upside-down will be ultimately subversive. “Due to its style, the show doesn’t give you any answers. It leaves this big question for the audience to think about. It sets up this wonderful familiar idea and totally perverts and undoes it by the end.” Cooper proudly muses, “It’s absolutely wonderful… From the very first week, it was clear that this was going to be a very special show.”
You can book tickets to WATERDALE’s Urinetown at this link.
Photography credit to Marco Antonello.