Having a dark, depressing week? So are we! I sent one of the clips below to non-fiction editor Bridget McGovern to brighten up her Dystopia Week, and she thought it was an excellent way to recover from an extended battery of hopeless futures, so I figured I should pass the favor on to our readers. Turns out that one’s passion for dystopias can even find expression in the usually glamour-oriented world of musical theatre. To prove it, here’s a rundown of my three favorite musicals set in dystopic futures.
(Or possibly the only three I’ve seen staged. But who’s counting?!)
Urinetown: the Musical
This little-musical-that-could, which originated at the New York International Fringe Festival in 1999, gained such a fervent, immediate following that it was quickly moved to Off-Broadway, and eventually went on to win three Tony awards and sully up the Great White Way for nearly a thousand performances. Urinetown is beloved as much for its dystopic premise as for its genuinely brilliant, subversively metafictional ability to lovingly mock boatloads of musical theatre clichés while working through its deliberately absurd premise. What kind of musical is this?
The conceit: From the publisher: “Urinetown depicts a world wracked by ecological disaster, caught in the throes of corporate greed, and ultimately felled by the best intentions. In a Gotham-like city, a depletion of the earth’s water supply has led to a government-enforced ban on private toilets. The privilege to pee is regulated by a single malevvolent company that profits by charging admission for one of humanity’s most basic needs. Amid the people, a hero has risen who will lead them to freedom.”
Fashion landscape: Grungy and run-down, including—in the Broadway version—deliberate dishievelment of the entire theatre plant, which was scheduled for demolition after the show’s run.
Best Motto Ever: An Apalling Notion, Fully Realized
Sample number: From the opener, “Too Much Exposition”:
Little Sally: Say, Officer Lockstock, is this where you tell the audience about the water shortage?
Lockstock: What’s that, Little Sally?
Little Sally: You know, the water shortage. The hard times. The drought. A shortage so awful that private toilets eventually became unthinkable. A premise so absurd that—
Lockstock: Woah there, Little Sally. Not all at once. They’ll hear more about the water shortage in the next scene.
Little Sally: Oh. I guess you don’t want to overload them with too much exposition, huh?
Lockstock: Everything in its time, Little Sally. You’re too young to understand it now, but nothing can kill a show like too much exposition.
Little Sally: How about bad subject matter?
Little Sally: Or a bad title, even? That could kill a show pretty good.
Roll the clip: There’s not much theatrical footage online from the pre-history early aughts, but this clip from the 2002 Tony Awards starts with the interchange above, then transitions to the song “Run Freedom Run”:
Stunning conclusion: Not to spoil your hope for our intrepid freedom fighters’ chances for survival, but possibly the single best (and geekiest) selling point for this show is the fact that its third-from-last line is “Hail, Malthus!” Yup.
We Will Rock You
We Will Rock You, the jukebox musical based on the work of British rock band Queen, has been running on London’s West End for nearly ten years now, but I saw it with my fellow editorial fashion plate and Night at the Hip-Hopera fan Jeremy Lassen when we were in Toronto for the World Horror Convention. Why did I have to go to Toronto to see this show? Some have opined that it’s simply “too bad” to be produced in New York, a city that’s often quite precocious in this arena (witness our trio of increasingly terrible vampire musicals and, well, Spiderman). But I am here to tell you that We Will Rock You is the best bad show I’ve seen in my entire life. And I’m not even sure how much of it was intentional: given that it comes from the mind of cult-ish British comedy writer Ben Elton, previously known for his work on Blackadder and the Young Ones, anything is possible.
The conceit: From the show’s oddly chipper website: “The time is the future, in a place that was once called Earth. Globalisation is complete. Everywhere, the kids watch the same movies, wear the same fashions and think the same thoughts. It’s a safe, happy, Ga Ga world. Unless you’re a rebel. Unless you want to Rock. On Planet Mall all the musical instruments are banned. The Company Computers generate tunes and everybody downloads them. It is an age of Boy Bands and of Girl Bands. Of Boy and Girl Bands. Of Girl Bands with a couple of boys in them that look like girls anyway. Nothing is left to chance, hits are scheduled years in advance. But Resistance is growing. Underneath the gleaming cities, down in the lower depths live the Bohemians. Rebels who believe that there was once a Golden Age when the kids formed their own bands and write their own songs. They call that time, The Rhapsody.”
Fashion landscape: Retrofuturistic space-age chic. You know, a little like Queen circa 1975, with the Evil Government Opressers and their sheep-like subjects on the stark-identical-lines side of the equation, and the Exciting Rebels in riotous colors, corsets, and crazy hairstyles.
And everything we want to get, we download from the internet.
No need to think, no need to feel, when only cyberspace is real.
It makes us laugh. It makes us cry. It makes us feel like we can fly....
All we hear is radio Ga Ga. Video Goo Goo. Internet Ga Ga.
All we hear is cyberspace Ga Ga. Marketing Blah Blah.
(No, really, this actually happens.)
Sample number: No mere moment could sum this up. Start with the opening montage from this We Will Rock You documentary (someone made a documentary!):
Dance Dance Revolution
By now, many of you know the work of Alex Timbers and his rowdy band of theatrical miscreants Les Freres Corbusier from their charming politicomusical Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson. But while they were in the process of making history all sexypants, the last project these off-off-Broadway indie art darlings finished was Dance Dance Revolution, a musical based on...well, exactly. The show ran for twelve performances in another grunged-out theatre that was due to be demolished shortly after the run (sense a theme?).
I’ve already written about this show for Tor.com in far too much length, but here’s the bullet-points version.
The conceit: Via Kotaku: “It’s set in an Orwellian society where a dance prophet named Moonbeam Funk helps dancing youth gangs rebel against a fascist government. The company working on the show describes it as ‘like Footloose set in the future—but kind of scarier, and with 40 really attractive, barely-clothed young actors and buckets of free beer.’”
Fashion landscape: Per one of the costume designers: “In our Orwellian society of dance renegades, we wear lots of headbands.” Also, there are trampolines.
What is this world we live in? Was it so repressed and still?
We’re scared to never change it. But you can start right now.
’Cause in your heart and in your thighs, you already know how.
You’ve got to shake your ass for freedom. The sky is dark and grey.
You’ve got to show your love for liberty, with a bitchin’ tour jeté.
The transcription may be a bit shaky, but you can hear it sung here. If you dare.
And there you have it: not one, but three dystopic musicals, and there’s a pretty good chance you haven’t seen any of them! But at least you can rest assured that—even if you do get stuck in a dystopia someday—there may still be a spotlight for the song in your heart.
Liz Gorinsky is an editor at Tor Books. She really did love Urinetown enough to steal her internet alias from it.