A title like Urinetown is sure to attract attention, no matter what it's attached to. Those who like to be peed on may raise an interested eyebrow, wondering where they could find such an Oz-like locale. Stodgy old people may react similarly, wondering instead what the damned liberal media has cooked up this time. With the posters going up all over the city to promote Ground Zero's production of the fringe-piece-cum-Broadway musical, it looks like it's the season for confusion.
"I've always been looking for a musical to present," says producer Ryan Luhning. "The concept of doing a big musical seems a little unorthodox for our company, but I love musicals and I've always tried to find something that meets that Ground Zero mandate". Winner of three Tony Awards, Urinetown is the story of a Gotham-esque city in the middle of a terrible drought. As such, the use of private toilets has been outlawed, and all public facilities are controlled by the Urine Good Company. With its sweeping musical numbers and large cast, it's easily the biggest production Ground Zero has undertaken in its ten-year history. Luhning is pleased with the investment, and with the inherent prestige the production carries, his decision stands to reason.
"It's really one of a kind," he glows. "From its title, to its content, to being a musical that kind of sends up musicals."
Free of scatological humour, Urinetown's laughs come from poking-fun at musical conventions and drought-dry self-parody. Though it's most certainly a comedy, the script shows its darker side with themes of police incompetence and brutality, kidnapping and the absurdity of the corporate world. While Urinetown does concern itself with some very real sociological issues, it never takes itself too seriously.
"You're going to musical theatre" says Luhning. "So the object is to have fun. It doesn't hit you over the head with the message."
Luhning believes that the themes explored in the play will resonate with a Calgary audience, given the city's breakneck expansion and the resulting uneven benefits. The parallels to the housing crisis are apparent, with stakeholders in the Urine Good Company profiting at the expense of Urinetown's citizens due to the corporation's monopoly on toilets. With the City of Calgary's recent crackdown on public urination, the irony is almost bitter.
"We see how there's a huge difference between the haves and have-nots in Calgary, and how that gap can be extraordinary if we don't have an economic and cultural system in place to deal with it," he says. "I feel like there's a glass ceiling and it's going to break, and it's going to shatter."
The scenario in Urinetown is far-fetched, but it's no less ridiculous than the amount of water being consumed by the oil-sands projects and the provincial government's fetish for privatization. If Urinetown can strike a thematic chord with Calgarians anxious about the city's future, it's sure to make up for the prudes put off by the title.
"We've already succeeded with it," says Luhning, confidently. "We're sparing no expense to bring the best to a Calgary audience. When people see it, their jaws are gonna drop, and that--to me--is success."
Political agendas and parallels aside, Urinetown's spectacle is what will make it successful. Ultimately, that's what Urinetown--and musical theatre--is all about: flamboyant songs, charming characters and urine flowing in the streets.