In the beginning…
Waterwell was founded by Arian Moayed and Tom Ridgely in a Hell’s Kitchen walk-up in 2002. Their first play, Lost in Yemen, or The Bizarre Bazaar, played for a single night that November at the old Collective:Unconscious space on New York’s Lower East Side. Video survives.
For their next effort they recruited some college friends, including Lauren Cregor and Nicole Parker, to devise a condensed, cabaret version of Lope de Vega’s Fuenteovejuna which ran for two months at the Duplex Cabaret Theatre and was hailed as:
“An unpretentious and unrelentingly entertaining ride!”
by the Gay City News. Nicole’s friend Hanna Cheek had been meant to play the part of Pasquale, but a Pumpkin Pie Show conflicted so they replaced her with a puppet. [Note to Hanna: this can happen again at any time.]
Its third “drop” (as they came to call them), a largely improvised play called Stuck, was directed by Nicole and lost a performance to the great blackout of 2003 – though in all likelihood that was sheer coincidence.
Still by November Waterwell had presented its fourth new show in less than twelve months: Chill & Serve, a double bill of original one-acts. The first, “Life in Pink”, was written & performed by Hanna and directed by Tom; the second, “Episodes in Blue”, was written & performed by Rodney Gardiner and directed Arian. With the full arrival of Hanna and Rodney the core of the ensemble was complete.
The Golden Age
Over the next five years, that core of Arian, Tom, Lauren, Rodney and Hanna, would go on to collaboratively create five distinct and imaginative pieces of musical theater, which taken together came to define Waterwell’s unique aesthetic.
The first was a vibrant country and folk musical called Sweetness & Light. Co-directed by Arian and Tom, the piece wove together two independent tales – one set in 20th century Pittsburgh and the other in 18th century Paris – to explore through pathos and comedy America’s lifelong love affair with business, technology and its own founding myths. It ran for two weeks at Altered Stages in October and November 2004 and nytheatre.com called it:
“Terrific . . . hilarious . . . enormous fun!”
The second, a nightclub adaptation of Aeschylus’ The Persians, was an artistic and critical breakthrough. Returning to the four-person lineup of Fuentevejuna as well as to the musicalization of a rarely produced classic, The Persians…a comedy about war with five songs investigated the imperial impulse and costs of martial adventure through slapstick, song and dance. Directed by Tom and featuring additional material by Nicole, it opened at UNDER St. Marks in May 2005. Thanks to enthusiastic reviews and strong word of mouth it transferred to the Perry Street Theatre and ran for six more weeks where the New York Times made it a Critic’s Pick and called it:
“Brilliant . . . original . . . inspired!”
The third piece saw the addition of Kevin Townley to the ensemble and with that the solidification of the company in its present form. The Townley Era began with a vaudevillian adaptation of Eugene O’Neill’s largely forgotten 1928 play, Marco Millions. Waterwell’s version, Marco Millions (based on lies) looked at America’s cultural and economic expansionism through a music hall lens and played the month of August 2006 at the Lion on Theatre Row. It earned Tom a Drama Desk nomination for Outstanding Direction of a Play, and the New York Sun hailed it as:
“One of the brightest notes in the theatrical season!”
The fourth marked a return to original source material and a deepening musical experimentation. The Last Year in the Life of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. As Devised by Waterwell: A Rock Operetta was pretty much what it said it was: a blues/funk/folk examination of King’s lesser known struggles for peace and economic justice in 1967 and ’68. It ran from June to August 2007 at the Barrow Street Theatre and was nominated for a New York Magazine Culture Award for Best New Musical. It was, according to the Associated Press:
“An affecting, wholly original new musical!”
The fifth piece, #9, brought the age to a close with a look toward the future. Using the writings of Marshall McLuhan to explore our relationship to technological tools, particularly social media, the show swirled sunny balladry and bleak electronics into dense, bewildering world where the virtual was becoming more real than reality. Incorporating outside actors for the first time (Rodney was in Culture Clash’s American Night at OSF; Arian was doing Rajiv Joseph’s Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo at CTG), #9 played the month of June 2009 at 59E59 where it was a Metromix Pick of the Week and Theatermania called it:
“A highly amusing and extremely ambitious chamber musical!”
Divide et impera
Spurred by two separate commissions, one from the City Parks Foundation and one from Indiana University – both to premiere in August 2010 – the ensemble began experimenting with smaller creative teams and working with outside collaborators. At the same time, after self-producing nine new shows in seven years Waterwell decided to start partnering with other arts organizations to develop and present their work. Thus began the third phase in the company’s development.
For the first piece Arian, Hanna and Kevin collaborated with Kevin and Hanna’s glam-punk band Bambï to create a “live concept album” based on the book film Looking for Mr. Goodbar. A sung-through suite of hard-driving rockers and dark ballads set to a nonstop video score, GOODBAR blurred the boundaries between music and theater and took a jackhammer to modern myths about sex, independence and persona. It premiered on August 20, 2010 at the amphitheater in East River Park.
For the second, Tom and Lauren collaborated with playwright Jonathan A. Goldberg to create a sprawling three-act musical about the life and times of railroad executive/financier Jay Gould. Spanning almost the entirety of what came to be known as the Gilded Age, The Wizard of Wall Street looked at one of the most spectacular and controversial careers in American business, making its debut on August 26, 2010 in the Wells-Metz Theatre at Indiana University.
Work on both pieces continued in 2011, with a reading of a revised Wizard that summer at Collapsable Hole and a monthly series of GOODBAR presentations at Ideal Glass. The latter led to a headlining slot in the Public Theater’s Under the Radar festival in January 2012. That version, starring Hanna and Kevin and co-directed by Arian and Tom, sold out before it opened, and nytheatre.com called it:
“Stunningly theatrical . . . a fascinating experience!”
Also in 2012, Arian and Tom began development of a dual-language Hamlet via workshops at Abrons Arts Center, 440 Studios and the Shakespeare Society; and Tom, Lauren and Rodney started an overhaul of The|King|Operetta – now simply The Last Year in the Life of Martin Luther King – in the Black Swan Lab at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, presenting it at Joe’s Pub at the Public Theater that October.
A time to plant
2013 brought about a synthesis in Waterwell’s several ways of working: a new playwright-driven farce project with an outside collaborator, and a return to collaborative playmaking with the full ensemble reconvening to start work on a “live movie musical” adaptation of Sophocles’ Ajax. Arian and Tom also began converting the Wizard musical into a treatment for a television series and continued developing Hamlet in a workshop at the Old Globe that December.
2014 saw a flurry of activity around all these projects: both a concert reading of the new Last Year in the Life and a staged reading of Ajax at OSF; the first public reading of the farce project – now titled Turning Texas Blue – created in collaboration with playwright Jennifer Thompson; and finally a sneak peek of the Ajax project at Gowanus Art + Production – produced by Arian, directed by Tom, starring Hanna and written by Kevin.
Turning Texas Blue went on to be a finalist for the 2015 O’Neill Playwrights Conference and had a reading in New York starring Tony winners Kelli O’Hara and Gabriel Ebert alongside NewsRadio‘s Stephen Root; and Arian, Tom, Hanna and Kevin traveled to St. Lawrence University for a workshop and initial presentation of A.Jax.
By 2016 Waterwell was laying the groundwork for its biggest season yet, starting with a reading of Hamlet at the Lucille Lortel Theater as part of Red Bull’s Revelation Reading series in May.
In January 2017, Waterwell partnered with Under the Radar and the Intrepid Museum to present Blueprint Specials, a series of lost WW-era musicals commissioned by the Army with music and lyrics principally by Frank Loesser (Guys and Dolls, How to Succeed…). Starring Tony nominees Laura Osnes and Will Swenson and featuring a company of both civilian and military/veteran performers, it was staged in a converted airplane hangar of the former USS Intrepid and was the Blueprints’ first staging since 1945 – and their first ever for the American public. Talkin’ Broadway praised it as:
“Absolutely, gloriously priceless and irreplaceable . . . It reminds us more than any show in recent memory just how stirring, important, and even transformative musical theatre can be at its most honest and most uplifting best.”
Then in May, Waterwell’s dual-language (English/Farsi) adaptation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet opened at the Sheen Center. Set in what was then Persia on the eve of WWI, it featured on original score played live by acclaimed Iranian singer-songwriter Mohsen Namjoo and was directed by Artistic Director Tom Ridgely. The cast was led by co-founder Arian Moayed along with fellow Tony nominees Sherie Rene Scott and Micah Stock and was composed predominantly of Middle Eastern and South Asian actors. Ben Brantley for the New York Times called it:
“Conceptually bracing . . . A magnetic reminder of where Hamlet came from and what he has lost.”