Pangdemonium’s Urinetown: An Interview with the Cast and their Pee-rs
Urinetown may be a work of fiction, but with issues such as a “cross-border water crisis” and being set in “the most expensive city in the world”, it bears more than a
pissing passing resemblance to a certain place far closer to home. As Pangdemonium gets ready to present this raucous, campy musical satire (which won Best Book and Best Original Score at the 2002 Tony Awards), we spoke to cast members Adrian Pang, Joash Tang, Mae Elliessa, Mina Ellen Kaye, Muhammad Shafiq Haziq and Sean Ghazi to get the low down on this show set to end Pangdemonium’s season with a splash. Read the interview in full below, and hear from this great mix of theatre vets and younger performers:
Bakchormeeboy: Tell us a little more about the character you’re playing. Who or what did you look to for inspiration?
Sean Ghazi: Well, I’m playing Caldwell B. Cladwell, the megalomaniacal CEO type owner of the company that controls the wheres, hows and how-not-tos of everything connected to pee-ing. I haven’t yet found my inspiration because I’m waiting to learn of the approach that Tracie is taking with the show. I look forward to exploring the character in the rehearsal process.
Mina Kaye: I play Hope Cladwell, daughter of Caldwell. She’s a young college grad, naive, full of hope, and a little peculiar. I’m actually taking some character inspiration off a girl I once knew in college!
Adrian Pang: I play Officer Lockstock, the narrator of the musical Urinetown. Lockstock is the Chief of Police of a town that’s proud to have been voted “most expensive city in the world” for the third year running. He is a hard-nosed, worldly-wise survivor who holds the key to the secret of Urinetown. He is the unofficial “enforcer” for the megalomaniac Caldwell B. Cladwell, billionaire owner of all the public toilets in town; and he is also the audience’s best friend. For inspiration, I am looking to some of history’s most prominent politicians.
Joash Tang: I play the roles of Old Man Strong and Hot Blades Harry and seeing as how Urinetown satirises the Broadway musical, I figured I’d borrow some inspiration from characters like Ernest P. Worrell and Louie de Palma. These characters were part of the fabric of 1980s American television, iconic in a funny, half-remembered, way. It isn’t too difficult to recognise, even in Singapore, the older gentleman whose concern may be misread as condescension or the misanthrope who might be morally and emotionally challenged.
Muhammad Shafiq Haziq: I am playing ‘Billy Boy Bill’, the poor rebel. I was inspired by the character ‘Chip Tolentino’ of “25th Annual Putnam Spelling Bee” played by the original Broadway cast but also with a little dumb evil traits from the 2 villains of “Home Alone” the movie.
Mae Elliessa: I play street urchin Little Sally who is also quasi-narrator in the play. She is intelligent and inquisitive, and while earnest, her inquisitions lend a sceptic prod to the narrative. Currently I am observing Aileen Quinn as Annie, Steven Wright’s deadpan humour, and Sally Brown.
Bakchormeeboy: Joash, interestingly, this isn’t the first time you’re performing in a production of Urinetown. Was your role different, and how different has the process been working with a professional company as compared to being a student?
Joash: I played the role of Bobby Strong as a student but I enjoy the freedom of playing characters that are just a little broken on the surface. I like to think of productions or any collaborative endeavour like big, round table, meals. When I find myself craving Teochew Porridge, I might go out of my way to Soon Kee Teochew Porridge for my spicy lala (clam) fix even though Heng Long Teochew Porridge is the venue of many a midnight supper. But at the end of the day a meal is a meal, and it’s the memories of the people I shared it with that really stick.
Bakchormeeboy: Where do you hope to see yourself as an artist in the next 5 years?
Joash: As an artist, I am working towards being in a position where I am able to connect with and benefit the people that a rapidly expanding society might overlook and leave behind. It’s easy to look at success as a symptom of opportunity and a little elbow grease, but I’ve come to realise more and more that I’ve been nothing but all kinds of lucky.
Bakchormeeboy: Sean, what’s the best thing about playing a quintessentially evil, white-cat stroking villain, compared to playing a hero?
Sean: I don’t often play the villain on the musical theatre stage – I’ve always occupied the love interest territory. I guess those days might be behind me, unless it’s a middle- aged love story! Lol. My previous ‘baddy’ was Thuy in Miss Saigon, and I loved making him as human and as in love with the heroine as the hero was. It’s too easy to make the audience dislike you. However, in Urinetown, I might just have to succumb to pressure and play the evil guy with his own brand of evil laugh. (I’ve been practicing in the shower!)
Bakchormeeboy: This marks the first time you’re working with Pangdemonium, Sean – what made you decide to take on the project, and how different is this production from others you’ve worked on before?
Sean: I met Adrian in London a good two decades ago, in the West End but this is the first show we are actually working on together. Pangdemonium have an awesome track record, I loved Peter and the Starcatcher last year and truth be told, they wouldn’t take no for an answer. So how lidat? Must do lor!
Bakchormeeboy: Mae, the last time we saw you onstage was also in a production with Sean Ghazi, in Wild Rice’s La Cage. How does it feel to be reunited once again in another musical?
Mae: Best lah! Syok ada kaki KL.
Bakchormeeboy: As a cross Causeway performer, how are you dividing your time between Singapore and Malaysia as a performer? Within the region, are there enough opportunities for performers such as yourself to go full-time, or is there a need to eventually break out and go elsewhere?
Mae: It doesn’t necessarily feel like I split my time work-wise as any time invested goes into the same tool. What I find difficult is time lost making and maintaining connections, especially losing time with family and friends. But I am grateful work takes me out of familiarity and into opportunities for growth- with new people, in new environments. I have only recently decided to do theatre full-time so the glass is only just filling up.
Bakchormeeboy: Mina, it’s been a while since we last saw you onstage, and it might have even been with Pangdemonium in the Rise and Fall of Little Voice. Now that you’re based in Boston, what can we expect to see from you in the near future, post Urinetown? Do you plan on ever coming back on a long term basis, or return on a project basis?
Mina: I actually flew back to Singapore to play Maureen in RENT for Pangdemonium, it was a blast! Then I took a three year hiatus and had a baby. Then my husband, my baby and I decided to move back to Singapore so we’ll be here for a while. I’ll be in Sing’Theatre’s Spoonful of Sherman right after Urinetown together with fellow cast member. Vanessa Kee!
Bakchormeeboy: Mina, you’re one of the Singaporean talents whose voice has always been incredibly powerful and distinct. How has working on Urinetown challenged you as a performer and pushed you in new ways?
Mina: Thank you! I’m very flattered that you think that! Honestly after childbirth, my vocal quality (not to mention my body type) has definitely changed- due to hormones, posture, and a whole bunch of other fun post-pregnancy stuff…yay! So it’s a bit of a challenge navigating my way back to the theatre with this new identity. The show is vocally demanding as a lot of what I sing sits on my top register, and I’m more of a belter- so it’s been a vocal workout!
Bakchormeeboy: Shafiq, why did you decide to audition for Pangdemonium? Do you see yourself working in similar productions in future, or expand your range?
Shafiq: Pangdemonium has always been putting out shows that inspires me as not only a person but also a performer. I do see myself being involved with the kind of shows they put out, whether it’s shows like Tribes or Next to Normal. I love musical theatre and would love to be involved with more epic musicals such as Urinetown or maybe an original musical with a role written for me. One of the biggest challenges for a young artist is getting opportunities to audition for major theatre/film companies in Singapore, since so many of them are closed auditions. Hopefully, I get more chances to do so in future!
Bakchormeeboy: Adrian, Urinetown is one of those musicals that, while satirical and parodic, also ends up satirising itself by its end. How deeply should we read into the message that Urinetown espouses, or should we all just sit back and let go?
Adrian: Urinetown is a totally self-aware and socially resonant satire of our times, and we will all recognise ourselves in many of the larger-than-life characters, and also in the situation of the town’s “cross-border water crisis”. At the same time, it is also gleefully embraces the extreme absurdity and the whole premise, and knowingly makes fun of the entire genre of musical theatre itself. As a musical comedy, it is a hugely entertaining and fun night at the theatre, packed with big silly laughs, outrageous song and dance routines, and a good ol’ fashioned, big-hearted love story thrown in. But you might also leave the theatre thinking a little more about the world that we’re living in.
Bakchormeeboy: Looking forward to 2020 and beyond, what are some of the lessons and takeaways Pangdemonium has had this year that the company will take into planning future seasons?
Adrian: 2020 is Pangdemonium’s 10th year of taking people on our “ass-kicking adventures in theatre”. So we are looking back with gratitude, and looking ahead with a determination to keep challenging ourselves to create higher levels of ass-kicking with every production. Any more details and we’d have to kill you.
Bakchormeeboy: What’s the strangest place you’ve ever had to take a leak?/Most embarrassing pee memory?
Adrian: Several years ago, I was driving along the PIE in a hurry and really needed to pee. In desperation I opened the plastic bag that contained the latest issue of 8Days, and (very carefully) took a leak in it. While driving. Yes, I can multi-task.
Several more years ago, I was at taking a piss at a urinal at a VivoCity public loo, when this guy at the urinal beside looks at me and goes: “Hey, it’s you! How’re you doing? I politely reply: “I’m fine, thank you.” And then he says: “How come you never do Phua Chu Kang any more, hah?” I wanted to direct my stream at him.
Sean: I think it was on a tour bus involving an Evian bottle. If you gotta go you gotta go, kan? Haha – on stage in kindergarten. I was one of 5 ugly ducklings in some fantasy sequence being shepherded by Mother Duck, and I didn’t go chee-chee before the show like a good little boy, and so this little duckling had some major leakage. I actually have a picture of me on stage with my duck-sib-lings with signs of said leakage down my baju. #theshowmustgoon
Mina: Well… after you have a baby, let’s just say you kinda lose your “pee muscles” a little… so with any little jump, bump, or sneeze, a slight catastrophe happens in your underwear. So to answer the first part of the question: Everywhere.
Shafiq: I am the kind of person who wishes that I have a portable toilet with me because I always need to pee! My most embarrassing pee memory was during my PSLE MALAY ORAL. As I was describing the picture, I suddenly peed full out in-front of examiner. She didn’t realize it yet so i just quickly ended it without caring if I would fail or not and ran out of school hall! Thank god I was near the exit of the hall so escape was the easy part but I saw a puddle on the chair and floor as I left. Oops!
Joash: There was a time when anecdotal advice was law. Before the era of “why don’t you WebMD/Google it” had been upon us. Cue being a teenager and going to holiday on a beach. Now, a bunch of teenagers decided to waddle into the water that was neck high, but guess which one had the fortune of getting a jellyfish wrapped around his neck? That’s right, me. So then, so-and-so told us that such-and-such had told them that urine would help get the jellyfish off and stop the pain. The following is public service announcement: it doesn’t.
Urinetown: The Musical runs from 27th September to 13th October 2019 at the Drama Centre Theatre. Tickets available from SISTIC