- AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY
- PLOT SUMMARY
- HISTORICAL CONTEXT
- CRITICAL OVERVIEW
- FURTHER READING
Urinetown by Greg Kotis, who wrote the book and lyrics, and Mark Hollmann, who wrote the music and lyrics, is a modern classic of the American musical stage, rising quickly from off-off-Broadway (it was performed by Theater of the Apes at the New York International Fringe Festival in 1999) to off-Broadway (American Theater for Actors opened it on May 6, 2001) to the Henry Miller's Theater on Broadway. It was scheduled to open on September 13, 2001, but the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center two days earlier postponed the opening. It did open on September 20, with some lines that would have been considered in poor taste after the attacks removed, and went on to be nominated for ten Tony awards. It played on Broadway for 965 performances.
The plot of the play concerns a nightmarish town of the future that has coped with a twenty-year drought by outlawing private toilets. People are forced to pay whatever fee Urine Good Company, the company that runs the public amenities, wants to charge. A love affair develops between the daughter of the company's owner and the son of a poor man who cannot pay the fee and is taken away for punishment to the mysterious "Urinetown." What ensues is a parody that pokes fun at all involved: greedy capitalists and angry rabble-rousers, insipid lovers and hard-boiled survivors, dishonest labor leaders and corrupt politicians. With songs mimicking genres from Broadway romances to spirituals to labor
anthems, Urinetown is filled with insights about modern society, packaged in what one character acknowledges is an awful title. The off-Broadway run won a Lortel Award for Outstanding Musical and Choreography, and the Broadway production won three Tony Awards (Best Director, Best Original Score, Best Book of a Musical).
The book for Urinetown and some of the song lyrics were written by Kotis, who attended the University of Chicago, earning a bachelor of arts degree in political science. He graduated from University of Chicago in 1985. While there, he became involved in the improvisation group, Cardiff Giant Theatre Company, where he coauthored six plays. He was also involved with the Neo-Futurists, an experimental theater company, and was a performer and writer on their long-running performance piece Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind, which premiered in 1988. After attending an international theater festival in Transylvania with the Neo-Futurists, Kotis traveled across Europe, finding himself with limited funds in Paris, where many of the public restrooms charge a fee, and from this came the idea of a totalitarian society that has turned the basic process of urinating into a commodity, leading him to write Urinetown. After returning to the United States, he moved to New York City, became active in the theater scene, and worked on the play for three years. In that time he married Ayun Halliday, another member of the Neo-Futurist troupe; they have two children. After Urinetown, Kotis wrote Pig Farm, which premiered in 2006, and The Truth about Santa, which premiered in 2008.
Hollmann wrote the music and some of the lyrics for the play. Hollmann was born in Belleville, Illinois, a southern Illinois town near St. Louis, Missouri, in 1963. He attended the University of Chicago to get a law degree, with the idea of going into politics, but he switched to studying English, and then music, while he was Page 261 | Top of Article there. He graduated from the University of Chicago in 1985. He and Kotis met when they were both members of Cardiff Giant in the 1980s. Hollmann, a talented musician, also played trombone for Maestro Subgum and the Whole, an art-rock band based in Chicago, and played piano for the famed Second City improvisation theater's national touring company. He was trained at the Making Tuners Workshop at the New Tuners Theatre in Chicago and at the BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theatre in New York, where he currently lives with his wife and son. In 2009, the musical Wild Goats, for which Hollmann wrote the music, premiered in Chicago.
Act 1, Scene 1
The first scene of Urinetown begins outside of Public Amenity Number Nine, a public urinal in the poorest and dirtiest area of an unnamed city. Poor people line up to pay their money to Penelope Pennywise, who runs this facility, so that they can go inside and urinate. Hope Cladwell passes through on the way to her first day of work at her father's company, Urine Good Company.
A problem arises when Old Man Strong, whose son, Bobby, works at Public Amenity Number Nine, arrives without enough money to pay the entrance fee. Ms. Pennywise refuses him admittance. When he cannot hold his urine any longer, Old Man Strong undoes his pants and urinates against the wall of the building. Officer Lockstock and Officer Barrel immediately show up to arrest him and take him away.
Act 1, Scene 2
The second scene takes place in the executive offices of Urine Good Company. Senator Fipp has come to collect bribe money from the company's president, Caldwell B. Cladwell. Fipp feels that he has completed his service to the company by pushing a bill through Congress that will allow Urine Good Company, or UGC, to raise the rates on people wishing to use the public toilet. Cladwell does not want to pay Fipp until the vote has been taken and the measure has passed. Cladwell's daughter, Hope, arrives to start working at her father's company, and Fipp comments on how beautiful she is until Cladwell tells him to stop his comments. Cladwell introduces Hope to his employees. He explains how he built the company after a drought, which began twenty years earlier, forced society to ration flush toilets. The employees sing a song praising Cladwell for his money-making ways.
Act 1, Scene 3
On a street corner at night, Little Sally, a poor little girl who is counting her pennies until she has enough to use the public urinal, talks with Officer Lockstock about the drought, raising the question about why the only public action against the drought seems to be rationing toilets, and not something to do with hydraulics that might solve the water shortage. When she leaves, Officer Barrel arrives and says that he has sent Old Man Strong down to Urinetown, screaming all the way. The policemen sing about how all violators of the law who try to get around the use of the public urinals are sent for punishment to Urinetown.
Hope Cladwell and Bobby Strong arrive on stage. When the policemen leave, Hope tells him that he should listen to his heart. During the song "Follow Your Heart," they listen to each other's hearts and find out they are in love with one another.
Act 1, Scene 4
Mr. McQueen, the assistant to Mr. Cladwell, announces the new rate increase to the people waiting to use Public Amenity Number Nine. The poor people gathered around are flabbergasted at the news. When Bobby Strong arrives he tells the Page 262 | Top of Article people that they should rise up against UGC and refuse to pay to use the urinal anymore.
Act 1, Scene 5
As Senator Fipp is preparing to leave for Rio, Lockstock, Barrel, and Pennywise enter with news about the uprising at the Public Amenity. Hope is shocked to hear that the revolt is being led by Bobby Strong. Cladwell orders the policemen to use violence to stop the protesters, and he leads the cast in the song "Don't Be the Bunny," about the cruel, competitive nature of the world.
Act 1, Scene 6
When the police and the UGC board members arrive at Public Amenity Number Nine, the poor people involved in the rebellion talk about running away, but Bobby Strong encourages them to stay and hold their ground. Faced with guns, the revolutionaries seem poised to be killed until Bobby grabs Hope Cladwell by the arm. He and his supporters take Hope as their hostage, and as scene 6 ends everyone begins running in slow motion.
Act 2, Scene 1
Act 2 begins with a scene in the secret hideout of the revolutionary movement, which is marked with a sign that says "Secret Hideout" hanging above the stage. The poor people are nervous because Bobby Strong has gone out to negotiate with Cladwell and has not returned.
At the UGC headquarters, Officer Lockstock tells Cladwell that the police have searched all over the city for his daughter, and that she is probably being held in the sewers. Cladwell threatens to send everyone off to Urinetown if they will not cooperate.
On the street, Bobby Strong and his mother, Josephine, promise to keep up the fight against the corporation. Lockstock catches Little Sally, a member of the revolution, and offers to send her to "the nice part of Urinetown" if she will cooperate, but she refuses and escapes.
Act 2, Scene 2
Back at the Secret Hideout, Hot Blades Harry and Little Becky Two-Shoes discuss how much satisfaction they would derive from killing Hope, their hostage, and they sing the song "Snuff That Girl." Bobby Strong returns to the hideout and stops them before they kill her. Ms. Pennywise, who is affiliated with the UGC, arrives to encourage Bobby to go and meet with Cladwell, promising that a peaceful resolution can be found. Hope encourages him to go and talk to her father.
Act 2, Scene 3
At the Urine Good Company offices, Cladwell talks with Bobby. He offers him a suitcase full of cash if he will call off the revolution and tell the people to pay the new fee, but Bobby says his conscience will not let him aid in the oppression of the people. Cladwell tells the police to take Bobby off to Urinetown: Ms. Pennywise reminds him that the revolutionaries are holding his daughter and have promised to harm her if Bobby is harmed, but Cladwell says he does not care. He tells McQueen to prepare all of the police in the city for a battle. Ms. Pennywise and Senator Fipp feel betrayed by Cladwell, as Officers Lockstock and Barrel take Bobby Strong away to "Urinetown." It turns out that "Urinetown" is not a place: "a trip to Urinetown" just means being thrown off of a building's roof.
Act 2, Scene 4
Little Sally arrives at the Secret Hideout with the news that the police have thrown Bobby Strong off of a roof. Before they can take their revenge against Hope, though, Little Sally says that she heard Bobby's dying words, which were about his love for Hope and his understanding that everyone, including the people leading the revolt, are guilty in this situation, but that he envisions a better future.
Before the poor people can harm Hope, Ms. Pennywise reveals that she is actually Hope's mother, from a love affair she had with Cladwell long ago, before he had built his financial empire. Hope tells the poor people that they can kill her and let the rebellion die, or they can follow her and she will lead the rebellion that Bobby began.
Act 2, Scene 5
The revolutionaries go after the representatives of the established order. They catch Mrs. Millennium, an executive with UGC, as she is planning to leave the country with Senator Fipp, and kill them both. Hope and a band of her followers confront Cladwell about his plan to leave her to die. Cladwell is thrown off of a roof, and his assistant McQueen is given a chance to join the revolution.
Officer Lockstock comes on stage to narrate what happened after the revolution. Hope took Page 263 | Top of Article over her father's company and made the public toilets free for everyone once more. This led to an exhaustion of the available water supply, just as Cladwell had warned it would. Another revolution in the future ended up with Hope suffering the same fate that befell her father, while Mr. McQueen became rich by moving to Brasília and opening a bottling plant, selling the water of the Amazon River. With the town depleted, the people realized that their town itself was Urinetown.
Officer Barrel is one of two policemen featured in the play. He is less often noticed than Officer Lockstock, the other featured policeman, because Officer Lockstock is also the play's narrator.
Officer Barrel seems to be in a subservient position to Officer Lockstock. He appears once with a shovel and a mop, and is told at another time to go and get the shovel and mop: the implication is that it is Officer Barrel's responsibility to clean up the body after someone has been thrown off of a roof.
In scene 5 of the second act, Officer Barrel blurts out that he loves Officer Lockstock. Lockstock is unresponsive and leaves, uncomfortably, but Barrel is dense enough to believe that his confession of love, though ignored, went well.
Little Becky Two-Shoes
One of the poor people in the town, Little Becky Two-Shoes proves to be aggressive once the revolution begins. Even before hearing that Bobby Strong has been killed by the police, she supports killing their hostage, Hope Cladwell, for no better reason than that killing would feel good.
Dr. Billeaux is a member of the board of Urine Good Company. He is the head of their research department.
Caldwell B. Cladwell
Mr. Cladwell is the play's villain. He is the president and owner if the Urine Good Company, which owns all of the town's toilets that are available for public use. Cladwell is a self-made millionaire. Years earlier, when the drought first affected the land, he was a poor but ambitious man. At that time, he had an affair with Penelope Pennywise and had a daughter with her, Hope. Cladwell raised the girl himself. He built the Urine Good Company to force people to pay for a necessary function, urinating. In business dealings, he has proven unscrupulous. The way that Cladwell's employees speak to and of him in only the most glowing terms indicates that he is not willing to tolerate even the slightest hint of disagreement from them.
When his daughter, Hope, is kidnapped by the revolutionaries, Cladwell orders the police to prepare a crackdown, even though it might mean Hope's death. Even his employees who think of him as a ruthless businessman are shocked by how heartless he is. He dies unrepentant, claiming that all that he did that was evil was justified because it conserved water. In the epilogue, Officer Lockstock reveals that Cladwell was right, and that his methods actually were the only thing that delayed an ecological disaster for years.
Hope is the daughter of Caldwell B. Cladwell, the president of Urine Good Company. She has recently graduated from the Most Expensive University in the World, and is starting at her father's company, working in faxing and copying. On the way to her job, she wanders into the poor part of town, where she meets Bobby Strong, who becomes a leader of the revolution against her father's company. They fall in love.
When the revolutionaries are confronted by the police, they take Hope captive. She finds out that her father ordered Bobby executed, thereby killing the boy she loves and taking the chance that the revolutionaries would murder Hope in retaliation. Hope becomes the leader of the revolution, taking control of UGC and opening it up to everyone for free.
Like all employees of Urine Good Company, Caldwell B. Cladwell's secretary fears him and speaks only with glowing praise to him.
Fipp is a corrupt senator who has been bribed by Caldwell B. Cladwell to push a bill through the Senate that will allow Urine Good Company to raise the rates they charge for using their toilets. Fipp plans to take the bribe money and escape to Rio, but when the revolt begins Cladwell tells Page 264 | Top of Article him that he has to wait until it is all settled before he can leave. Later, when the revolution is in full blossom, Fipp is again planning to leave for Rio when he is stopped by Mrs. Millennium, who says that Cladwell has forbidden him to leave. He bribes her by offering to take her with him, but the revolutionaries catch them and kill them both.
Hot Blades Harry
Harry is one of the poor people who is involved with the revolution against UGC. He is one of the leading supporters of killing their hostage, Hope Cladwell.
In addition to being a character in Urinetown, Officer Lockstock serves as the play's narrator. Within the play he and his partner, Officer Barrel, are the only two policemen identified by name. They are both corrupt, taking their orders from the Urine Good Company and arresting or even killing citizens at the command of UGC's president, Caldwell B. Cladwell. At one point in act 2, scene 5, Officer Lockstock admits that his conscience sometimes bothers him, but that he is motivated to act illegally by his concerns for the health and safety of the community.
As the play's narrator, Officer Lockstock sets up the premise, telling audiences about the water shortage and resultant rationing of toilet facilities. He banters with Little Sally, outside of the bounds of the story, about the shape of the play and its title. Officer Lockstock resumes his narration at the end of the first act, the beginning of the second act, and at the end of the play, when he tells the audience what was to occur in the years to come.
Mr. McQueen is Caldwell Cladwell's second in command at UGC. He is a shameless sycophant who praises every word out of Cladwell's mouth.
Mrs. Millennium is an executive with UGC.
Ms. Pennywise, often referred to in the play as "Penny," is the proprietor of Public Amenity Number Nine, which is the filthiest urinal in the poorest part of town. She heartlessly refuses anyone who lacks the entry fee the opportunity to use her facilities, no matter how desperate they may be. Often, when Ms. Pennywise speaks to her employee, Bobby Strong, she refers to his good looks and strength, implying that she has some degree of sexual attraction to him.
In the second act, Penny tries to aid the poor people in their revolution against the corporate/government establishment. It turns out that she has a vested interest in seeing that the revolution ends peacefully: not only does she care about Bobby, but the revolutionaries' hostage, Hope Cladwell, is actually Penny's daughter, a fact that no one in the play previously knew. Ms. Pennywise remembers the heartless Caldwell B. Cladwell from a time before he was wealthy, back when they were both social equals and had an affair.
Along with Officer Lockstock, Little Sally is one of the characters who is sometimes aware that they exist in a play: she talks to him while he is narrating directly to the audience, referring to theatrical conventions that are or are not being followed. When she is not talking outside of the boundaries of the play, Little Sally is a little girl who is saving her money in order to use the public toilet. She is constantly counting her pennies, to see if she has enough.
At the start of act 2, scene 4, it is Little Sally who brings news of Bobby Strong's death to the people in the Secret Hideout. She sings a song that relates his last words, even though she knows how unlikely it sounds that a man thrown off of a roof could have said so much.
Bobby is the play's central figure. In the beginning, he is a dutiful employee of Urine Good Company, building a good future for himself while working for his boss, Penelope Pennywise. His perspective starts changing when he sees his own father, Joseph Strong, turned away from Public Amenity Number Nine because he does not have enough money to pay for his admission. What really changes Bobby, though, is when he meets Hope Cladwell and she tells him to listen to his heart. As a result of listening to his heart, he leads the people in a revolt against the company Hope's father owns. After he is killed by the police, Bobby, appearing in the form of a ghost, comes to realize that the poor people are just as guilty as the rich people who control the town, and his ghost warns both sides that they have to work together.
Josephine is Bobby Strong's mother and Joseph Strong's wife.
Old Man Strong
"Old Man" Strong, also known as Joseph Strong, only appears in the first scene. He needs to use the public toilet, but Ms. Pennywise refuses to admit him because he does not have enough money, and she tells Strong's son, Bobby, to refuse him admittance too. Desperate, Strong urinates against the side of the building. The police come and take him away. The next time one of the policemen, Officer Barrel, appears on stage, he is carrying a shovel and a mop, indicating that Strong was taken and thrown off a building.
One of the poor people who participates in the revolution.
Tiny Tom is one of the poor people of the town. Whenever "Old Man" Joseph Strong's ghost comes back and repeats that he does not have the money to enter the urinal because he is "a little short," Tiny Tom gives the same punch line that he gave when Strong said those words the first time: "No shorter than yesterday. Unless I've grown."
The situation established at the beginning of Urinetown only really turns into a plot when Bobby Strong decides to lead the poor people who frequent Public Amenity Number Nine in a rebellion against the powerful forces that control their society. Bobby works for the Public Amenity and is therefore a part of the social hierarchy at the beginning of the play. Two things happen, though, to drive him toward rebellion. First, he watches his own father, who is too poor to pay to use the restroom, forced to break the law, and then Bobby sees the police take Joseph Strong away for punishment or death. The second thing to make Bobby declare class warfare is that Hope Cladwell teaches him how to listen to his heart, and in doing so he finds out how much he hates the prevailing social system.
Led by Bobby, the poor people, who are the only ones forced to use a decrepit, filthy toilet Page 266 | Top of Article like Public Amenity Number Nine, wrest control of the facility from Urine Good Company, claiming that they have an inherent right to it. The class struggle expands when Caldwell B. Cladwell and his board members come to the site of the protest. The police, who theoretically should be neutral in the matter, side with the wealthy property owners and threaten the poor people, who then kidnap Cladwell's daughter in their own defense.
The play follows through with its class conflict theme by presenting Cladwell as someone who values money over family ties and is willing to accept the death of his own daughter if it will help him quell the revolution. The revolutionaries sacrifice any claim they have to moral ideals when they talk about killing Hope: doing so would certainly hurt their revolution and drive their cause backwards, but some of them want to kill her simply for the thrill of killing. This kind of thinking is certain to bring stronger repression from those in power, continuing the class divide.
The word "freedom" is used often in Urinetown. On one level, the play is sincere in showing a group of oppressed people who yearn to be free. The poor people in this play are held at a financial disadvantage by the rich, forced to pay whatever fees the Urine Good Company can bribe the corrupt legislation to let them charge, and they are punished by the law if they will not or cannot pay.
On another level, though, the playwrights use the word "freedom" as something that has almost no meaning, mocking it as the sort of noble-sounding word that is used to stir up emotions with no real context. An example of this is the song "Run, Freedom, Run" in the second scene of act 2. Put into the context of a rousing song, "freedom" seems inspiring, but the song does not really say anything about being free: freedom is spoken to as if it were a person and is told to run away from the challenges it faces. When one character admits to being afraid of freedom, Bobby Strong responds with more noble-sounding but empty rhetoric: "Freedom is scary; it's a blast of cool wind that burns your face and wakes you up."
On its surface, Urinetown resembles stories that tell of oppressed people struggling for their freedom. In reality, though, it often treats "freedom" as a meaningless word that people use but do not understand.
Urinetown begins with a situation that is already corrupt, and then the play looks backward to show how that corruption came to be. In the beginning, Caldwell B. Cladwell, who is easily the most corrupt character in the play, having made his fortune by taking advantage of the intrinsic need to urinate, appears to be nothing more than greed personified. As the story progresses, audiences learn more about how he became that way. Penelope Pennywise recalls her affair with Cladwell before he was rich, implying that he once was a man who could love, who could appreciate the thrill of the struggle for life that he found energizing when he was poor, back during the early years of the drought. Cladwell himself explains his corruption in the song "Don't Be the Bunny," telling Hope that the world is hard and unforgiving to people who do not do harm first. Cladwell is a bad, greedy man, but the play shows audiences that social Page 267 | Top of Article circumstances corrupted him, forcing him to be the way he is.
Other characters in the play show how a bad situation like the twenty-year drought can lead to corruption. At one point, Officer Lockstock claims that he loves the people of the town, but his actions show anything but love: he is ruled by the money paid to him by the privately owned Urine Good Company. Even the poor people themselves show that they are only uncorrupted when they have no power: once Hope Cladwell is their prisoner, they consider murdering her, simply because they can. The power they have over her is a corruptive influence.
In the end, the play takes a position that corruption is not the terrible thing that it might seem to be. Although he has been motivated by greed, Cladwell turns out to have been the town's savior. By cloaking his greed in a social policy meant to make it seem positive, he actually did help conserve the little water that was left. In this way, Urinetown shows corruption to be a part of the natural order, not a diversion from it.
Urinetown has an original story, but many distinct elements of its story are parodies, or humorous variations on other works. For the most part, it parodies works from the musical theater tradition. In his introduction to the book, Hollmann acknowledges that he had in mind the works of the German playwright Bertolt Brecht and the German-born composer Kurt Weill, who wrote musicals about class struggle in the early twentieth century, in writing several tunes for this play, including "It's a Privilege to Pee." Hollmann also acknowledged that he was trying to capture the mood of a traditional hymn in "I See a River," and "a typical second-act musical-comedy gospel tune" in "Run, Freedom, Run." Critics have also noted that the musical style and choreography of the song "Snuff That Girl" is a parody of the song "Cool," by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim, presented on Broadway in 1957 in West Side Story.
The romance between Bobby Strong and Hope Cladwell in this play is a direct parody of the romantic element that is traditionally forced into Broadway musicals, whether relevant to the story being told or not. They come from opposite sides of two warring factions, a tradition going back at least as far as William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. Their ideas about hearts intertwining and hearts speaking to each other are cliche' s, but Hollmann and Kotis poke fun at these cliche' s by having the characters acknowledge them once in a while, such as questioning how much a heart is speaking or crossing the line from the metaphoric "heart" to the one that has veins and aortas.
Plays do not always have a narrator, letting their characters present their stories onstage and trusting the audiences to pick up necessary information from what is presented. In Urinetown, there is a narrator, Officer Lockstock. He stands at the front of the stage before the action begins in the first act and tells audiences what the situation is, and he stands there at the end of the play to tell them about the events that occurred in the years after the actions they have witnessed. He also comes forward to speak as the narrator at the end of act 1 and the beginning of act 2. As a character in the play, Officer Lockstock is limited in what he knows, but as the narrator, his knowledge is unlimited.
When Little Sally talks to Officer Lockstock as he is narrating, the two of them banter in a way that not only shows that they are aware of being in a musical play, but that also reflects on the traditions of such musical plays. They talk about the title, Urinetown; they talk about the commercial drawbacks of having a narrator reveal too much directly to an audience in exposition, and of how unpopular a musical with a sad ending is destined to be. They are aware of their existence as characters at a theater, standing in front of an audience, but then they instantly join the characters within the play and lose their awareness of the world outside of the world in which they live.
The original date scheduled for Urinetown's premier on Broadway was Thursday, September 13, 2001. After the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., that occurred two days earlier, on September 11, that date was considered impossible to meet. In the months after the attacks, much
changed in American life, including serious doubts about whether the Broadway theater tradition would be able to survive the social upheaval at all.
On the morning of September 11, 2001, New York City was thrown into chaos when American Airlines Boston-to-Los Angeles flight 11 that had been taken over by armed hijackers crashed into the north tower of the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan at 8:46 a.m. The plane, filled with jet fuel for the cross-continent flight, exploded and began a fire. Seventeen minutes later, as rescue teams raced to help those trapped in the north tower, hijacked United Airlines Boston-to-Los Angeles flight 175 crashed into the matching south tower. Within eighty-five minutes, both 110-story towers had collapsed, creating a deafening roar that shook the entire metropolitan area and released a plume of dust that was large enough to be seen from space. Though the terrorists' plot focused on Manhattan, where it was most successful in terms of carnage caused and in attracting media attention, there were two other planes hijacked that morning. An American Airlines plane flying out of Washington, D.C., Dulles Airport was crashed into the Pentagon Building, and a plane flying out of Newark, New Jersey, was probably being taken to crash into the U.S. Capitol, but it was forced down in a field in Pennsylvania when passengers heard news of the New York attacks and fought back against their hijackers. Approximately 2,600 people died in the destruction of the World Trade Center, and 125 died at the Pentagon: the passengers and crew on all four hijacked planes raised the death rate another 246.
The attacks shocked the world, leading governments across the globe to reassess the measures they would be willing to use against terrorists. Financially, the airline industry suffered immense losses, as all commercial air traffic in the United States was halted for several days and then, when planes were allowed to fly again, many would-be Page 269 | Top of Article travelers avoided air travel because of what they had witnessed. The United States tourism industry dropped precipitously, as travelers from other countries cancelled vacation plans, fearing that the United States would not be safe. Lower Manhattan has traditionally been a center for the banking industry in the United States, and many major banks had their headquarters in the World Trade Center, or nearby: records became inaccessible if not lost, and key personnel were killed in the attacks.
Broadway, the country's home of legitimate theater, is just a few miles from where the World Trade Center fell. The decision was made by 10:30 on the morning of September 11 to cancel all Broadway performances for the next few days. Performances were also cancelled in Washington. In both cities, performers and crew were devastated, hit closely by deaths of loved ones. Shows were also cancelled in cities across the country, such as Chicago, Los Angeles, and Houston, that had not been directly hit by the terrorist attacks. In addition, other diversions, such as Major League Baseball, which had not been suspended since the height of World War II, were put on hold for a few days. In the confused days following the attacks, it would have seemed callous to go on with entertainment programs. People were frightened, angry, and sad: they were not in the mood to be entertained.
Theaters reopened later that week, but the Broadway theater scene was to feel the effects of the attack for a long time. Ticket sales were down roughly 50 percent, much of it due to the loss of tourists who shunned Manhattan. Four shows that had been struggling before the attacks closed immediately, and several others closed within a month. Performers and crews took pay cuts of 25 percent to 50 percent to keep their shows open. When Urinetown opened a week later, on September 20, it had good sales, but it took more than a year for Broadway theater in general to regain the position it had lost.
Urinetown has been popular with audiences, moving quickly from its 1999 premier at the New York International Fringe Festival to its off-Broadway premier two years later, and then moving up to a legitimate Broadway theater in less than a year. In part, audiences seem to have responded to its general silliness and its lack of pretension. As Nancy Franklin noted in the New Yorker:
[The] show is a terrifically spirited send up of musicals and their conventions—just the thing for older audiences who have endured some pretty bad serious musicals on Broadway in recent years and for younger audiences who may be more inclined to spend their money on software or shoes than on a Broadway show.
Mark Steyn made a similar point in his review in the New Criterion, dismissing those who might find the subject matter distasteful.
A musical about urine … is still a cut above musicals about musicals, musicals about operetta, musicals about Hollywood, and all the other lame parodies parodying things most of us only know from other parodies."
The show's lack of substance, however, left some critics unimpressed. John Simon, for example, writing in New York magazine, found that it lacked even the rudimentary sense of originality that is the mark of a good play. "The originality of Urinetown," he wrote,
if it has any, lies in the equal contempt for the rich and the poor, and in what would be a tragic ending if persiflage could yield to pathos. But if anything makes a show ridiculous rather than entertaining, it is an anything-goes attitude: The thrown-in kitchen sink always lands with a thud.
Robert Brustein agreed, noting in his review in the New Republic, that "the tone of the evening is so ambivalent and uncommitted and frivolous that ultimately you don't care about the fates of any of the characters."
In addition to critics who found Urinetown not-so-bad and those who found it not-good-enough, there were those critics who actually liked it. Richard Zoglin, for example, wrote a review in Time magazine that included the play with two others that he considered better than The Producers, the runaway hit from the same year that was widely credited with no less than reviving the energy and commercial interest of the Broadway musical theater tradition. After noting that The Producers was great but not groundbreaking, Zoglin went on to praise Urinetown for its audacity: "The vest-pocket production has outsize energy, as does the terrific, beefy Kurt Weill-like score by Mark Hollmann and Greg Kotis. They aim for comic-operatic heights and keep the audience soaring."
Kelly is a writer and an instructor of creative writing and literature. In the following essay, he explores why some critics enjoy Urinetown but others find the play unengaging.
When critics favor Greg Kotis and Mark Hollmann's musical Urinetown, it is generally because they admire the playwrights' willingness to stick to their own convictions of silliness: unlike traditional Broadway musicals, this play does not spare any character or situation from savage mockery in order to please its audiences. When critics dislike the play, however, it is generally for the same reason, though they see it with different results: they find the entire production difficult to care about, lacking as it is in any serious emotion. Each side is right, of course. Urinetown does steer clear of the standard pattern by refusing to provide even one character that audiences might want to identify with. It takes place in a parody world of its authors' creation, one where people are either motivated by greed and cowardice or, if not, they can be expected to be, after they have wised up, given in to corruption, and dropped their simplistic delusions.
Books, plays, and movies often let their audiences see through the attractive coating that is wrapped around the social order, showing them an ugly, hardened reality that they then present as being the way things really work. What marks Urinetown as a particularly cynical piece is the way that Kotis and Hollmann keep tearing off layer after layer of veneer until they reach the social core, passing through levels of idiocy and hypocrisy but never finding any layer that they can present as good or true. There is no hope that would make the world of this work a worthwhile place, not even from the one sweet, well-meaning character whose name is actually "Hope." The play ends with a sense of futility that the play-wrights then invite audiences to join them in laughing about, a shared sense of doom that usually does not sell out Broadway houses or win Tony Awards.
Most of the characters in the play are simply terrible at heart, lacking any redeeming features. This is most obviously the case with Caldwell B. Cladwell, the mogul so ruthless that he sings a song about killing bunny rabbits to illustrate his point about Darwinian survival and then later provokes the rebels who hold his daughter hostage, because bowing to their demands would be bad for his corporation. Cladwell is surrounded by sycophants and flunkies, including one senator, who might question his wisdom and in fact do later express their regret about having listened to him, but who would never dare challenge his authority out loud.
Greedy corporations, the executives who run them, and the cowardly functionaries (including corrupt politicians) who keep them alive have been pretty standard targets for comedy throughout the ages. Humor takes many forms, but one of its principal tenets is the reversal of expectations. People need to believe that the society they live in has a core of intelligence and competence and is in the hands of others who are at least somewhat concerned with the general good. Satire has therefore, through the ages, earned laughs by showing a world where those who should care are in fact uncaring, where those who are good are so only because they are dolts. Not even the most demanding critic could fault the writers of Urinetown for mining such a rich vein of satire as corporations and politicians for laughs. The basic premise of the play is that corporations and politicians are making money off of one of the most intrinsic functions of the human body: a critic who proclaims that it is a "cynical" play is merely stating the obvious.
Usually, though, playwrights will anchor an absurd premise around one or more "normal" characters who exist in the world of the artistic work but have the moral sensibilities of contemporary society. These characters can see the craziness that the audience members see. The character coming closest to this description in Urinetown is Bobby Strong, who decides to make a stand against the totalitarian Page 271 | Top of Article control of the play's Urine Good Company, costing him his job, and, eventually, his life. Bobby works as an appropriate surrogate for the audience members in several ways. For one thing, he is poor. This is generally not an attribute of most theater patrons, but it does help draw a clear contrast between Bobby's values and the values of the members of the Urine Good Company board. Audience members, disgusted with the wealthy people in this play, identify with the poor more plainly than with the rich they see onstage. Another reason audience members relate to Bobby is that he is an idealist, which also might not describe the average audience member until they start to identify themselves in contrast to the play's many immoral characters. Finally, Bobby still has enough enthusiasm in him to fall in love at first sight—if this is not a trait that most audience members have, it is certainly a trait that everyone would like to imagine that they possess.
In the end, though, Bobby dies the death of a fool, not the death of a hero, and audiences detach themselves from him immediately. He is tossed off of a roof by two lowly policemen, and his dying words, at first inspirational, drag on and on until their initial nobility becomes Page 272 | Top of Article nothing more than a joke. Kotis and Hollmann seem to like their character, and they want audiences to like him too, but in the end they are not willing to spare him the same satiric blade that they use to dissect the rich and mighty characters. Audience members and critics end up feeling betrayed to find that there is no more nobility in Bobby Strong's idealism than there is in corruption.
After Bobby's death, the play's one chance for an emotional connection with its audience is Hope Cladwell. From the moment when she first comes onstage, Hope is presented as being sweet but clueless, somewhat vacant: not only is she the spoiled child, educated at the "Most Expensive University in the World" to take a soft position as "a fax/copy girl," but she blurts out her sentimental enthusiasms too readily. She changes after Bobby dies, though. She takes charge of his revolution against the company that she is meant to inherit. She opens the toilets up for free use by the public. She has her father and his underlings killed. She is poised to fit the role of the play's inspirational leader, even bearing some shadings of a born-again religious archetype.
That all ends, though, when the narrator, Officer Lockstock, tells the audience that Hope's well-intentioned meddling was to lead to a hastening of the environmental destruction that her father's self-serving rationing helped stave off. Hidden in the middle of the narrator's synopsis of the years to come is the fact that the poor people Hope led forward with compassion are to eventually rise up and kill her out of resentment.
This is surely where the critics' animosity comes from. Hope, who seemed to be the one character to develop a working conscience, dies as an afterthought, her death so crude a joke that the story has no place for it onstage, resorting to having this unpleasantness told but not dramatized. Anyone who hoped that some good might come of this situation must be disappointed: Kotis and Hollmann kill hope, in both senses of the word. In the last few lines of the play, the mirror world presented in Urinetown turns out to be not funny and sad, just sad. The humorous reversal of finding out that Hope cannot fix her society's ills with kindness alone is good for one laugh, but after it has been played, audiences exit with the message that those who care about anything that has happened over the course of the past two hours are suckers.
Comedies exist to amuse their audiences, and tragedies exist to warn against the fates of those who are careless or unlucky. There is nothing inherent in either genre that requires that characters should maintain their dignity. This, at least, seems to be the premise that the authors of Urinetown would hold up in their defense, if ever called to face the fact that some viewers find their play to be funny but insubstantial. Tens of thousands of audience members have agreed over the years: this play has a thought-provoking premise, fiendishly clever lyrics, and enough elements of the traditional Broadway musical to show that it is breaking those traditions consciously. To others, though, a joke is just a joke, and, in the end, nothing more. To them, Urinetown has nothing to say about what is good in this world, only about what is not.
Source: David Kelly, Critical Essay on Urinetown, in Drama for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2010.
Julia Katz and Erin Spangler
In the following review, Urinetown, a popular production for universities and high schools, is critiqued by two high school students.
Sometimes art really does mirror life.
Albert Einstein High School's musical Urinetown boldly takes on a recessionary economy, the mismanagement of greedy corporations, rapidly deteriorating natural resources, the stark differences between Wall Street and Main Street—and potty humor. In a solid farce, Einstein students certainly kept in touch with the times—while still laughing at the absurdity of it all.
One day, playwright-lyricist Greg Kotis really, really had to go, but found himself at a toilet with a fee attached. Collaborating with Mark Hollmann, Kotis turned this odd experience into the Tony Award-winning Urinetown, a Broadway production poking fun at politics and the typical American musical.
Set in a drought-ridden fictional town where it soon becomes clear that "It's a Privilege to Pee" when the government mandates pay-peruse public potties, run by wealthy Caldwell Cladwell's Urine Good Co., to conserve water. But Cladwell's optimistic daughter Hope inadvertently encourages frustrated worker Bobby Strong by telling him to "Follow Your Heart" and start a revolution.
Malika Cherifi, mesmerizing from her first appearance through the final curtain, led the company as witty policewoman—and narrator—Officer Page 273 | Top of Article Lockstock. Excelling in a classically male role is no easy feat, but spot-on characterization and a lush alto range made Cherifi's performance a hit.
Cherifi's wacky gestures and swift wisecracks were shared with Awate Serequeberhan's tough-guy cop, Officer Barrel, a smaller part that made a huge difference in Einstein's production. Serequeberhan's New York accent and comic range garnered significant laughter throughout the show, as did Tracey Gearhart's precocious portrayal of Little Sally. With her persistent curious questions, Gearhart showcased a witty nature and rarely strayed from her adorable character.
As archetypal hero Bobby Strong and ingenue lover Hope Cladwell, Dan Patrick Leano and Madeleine Grewell each succeeded in difficult roles. Leano's melodic voice rang true in songs such as "Run Freedom, Run," while Grewell's cutesy voice and frivolous movements perfectly suited her character.
Many of the Rebel Poor were an energetic, fun ensemble, such as happy-go-lucky Tiny Tom (Aaron Fellows) and Hot Blades Harry (Milton D. Garcia). A few missteps in musical and comic timing left some songs and gags seeming lackluster.
Standout technical elements at Einstein included the innovative lighting design by Matt Jones, who creatively placed many lights on the stage itself. These were used with more traditional spotlights and beams, all of which were cued flawlessly with the help of crew members Minh Pham, Alexandra Christie, Molly Moses, Ben Sudbrink and Joanne Conelley. The set was also commendable, with different levels and urinal-like pieces on each side that aided actors through many jokes, often a pleasant distraction from screechy microphone quality.
With all the economic issues plaguing Americans today, it seems that we're in what Einstein students might call "The Stink Years." But though the amusing comedy Urinetown is by no means a happy musical, let's hope that our story will have a brighter ending—and a slightly more appealing title.
McLean High School
What musical combines satire of capitalistic society, reverse pantomime and a whole lot of bathroom humor? Over the weekend, the answer to this question was found in the weird farce that was Albert Einstein High School's production of Urinetown.
Urinetown: The Musical was created by playwright Greg Kotis after a vacation in Europe, where the existence of "pay to pee" bathrooms inspired him to write the story. The narrative follows the unlikely romance between a cutesy bourgeois daughter of the president of the Urine Good Co. (UGC) and a rebellious amenity worker. After a showing at the New York International Fringe Festival, the musical comedy eventually made it to Broadway, where it earned Tony Awards for best director, best original score and best book of a musical.
Albert Einstein's production was anchored by its ensembles both big and small. The supporting actors were able to significantly add to the performances of the leads with little character details that made the whole production quite believable.
Malika Cherifi, as the tongue-in-cheek narrator Officer Lockstock, had perfect physicality and delivery in her many humorous lines and sang with a clear and pleasant voice. She worked flawlessly with Awate Serequeberhan, who played Officer Barrel. Serequeberhan pulled off a very convincing New York accent and was able to commit entirely to his character, even in improvised bits before the overture and during the intermission.
The strength of the Rebel Poor ensemble, UGC staff ensemble and other supporting characters made up for any deficiencies with more major characters. Although some of the actors were a bit wooden, the movement and dancing of the ensembles were intricate and in sync, especially in the show-stopping satire of "Run, Freedom, Run."
Urinetown requires a great range in vocals, and although many actors had trouble keeping on pitch, Elizabeth Ebron as Penelope Pennywise had strong and spectacular range. Tracey Gearhart, as the philosophical Little Sally, depicted a Cindy Lou Who-esque innocence that was committed and gutsy-not awkward or nervous.
The production was generally technically solid. Matt Jones's lights were very well designed and executed, especially the use of flashlights in "The Cop Song." Although some technical aspects detracted slightly from the performance, making the timing confusing or the actors hard to hear, the sets, including huge urinals, were interesting and funny in of themselves.
Although silly and slapstick, Urinetown brings to light the paradox that is modern politics and Page 274 | Top of Article makes its audience think of ways to refine the problems presented in this unhappy musical. Einstein's production was generally a privilege to watch, just as much as it was a "privilege to pee" for the characters onstage.
West Potomac High School
Source: Julia Katz and Erin Spangler, "A Relevant Musical for a Country with an Economy in the Toilet," in Washington Post, March 26, 2009, p. GZ17.
Rebecca Stone Thornberry
In the following review, Thornberry covers everything from acting to production values in a major regional production of Urinetown.
In 1989, musical theatre performers with disabilities created The Physically Handicapped Actors and Musical Artists League (PHAMALy), a Denver-based not-for-profit theatre, to establish a venue in which their disabilities would be treated as part of the given circumstances of the production process. Company members live with a wide range of disabilities: some are blind, for example, while others are of short stature, hard of hearing, use wheelchairs, or have conditions such as Parkinson's, cerebral palsy, or bipolar disorder. PHAMALy's entertaining, provocative productions educate audiences and the theatrical community about performers' capabilities, focus, and determination, as well as the creative uses to which disability can be put onstage.
PHAMALy's production of Kotis and Hollman's Urinetown, The Musical! aggressively confronted issues of difference by casting performers with physical and developmental disabilities. Artistic director Steve Wilson's clever production, mounted at the Denver Center's 550-seat Space Theatre from 27 July to 19 August 2007, drew enthusiastic audience response. Merged with surprising design elements, his tongue-in-cheek, if not always successful, direction created a deft, funny, and moving production characterized by capable, irreverent performances. Urinetown, about a drought-stricken society whose citizens must relieve themselves in corporate pay toilets or face banishment, was an excellent vehicle for these artists, who are known for ingeniously reframing conditions that many producers might deem insurmountable. This production's in-your-face performance style, energy, and dark sense of humor destabilized disability—more often constructed as something to be hidden or spoken of in hushed, serious tones.
The director effectively mined the play's humor and kept an appropriately fast pace throughout. Taking full advantage of the intimate, arena-style theatre, he surprised the audience by rapidly shifting focus between levels, even employing the grid as the rooftop from which the corrupt Officer Lockstock, and his sidekick Barrel catapult hero Bobby Strong. One of Wilson's most intriguing uses of disability highlighted a central theme of the play: the blindness of the wealthy and powerful to the suffering of the disenfranchised. Wilson's casting of blind actors as the corporate drones of Urine Good Company, owner of the city's public toilets, proved an amusing intellectual concept, but the joke lacked adequate variety over the multiple scenes in which these characters appear. Wilson's decision to place blind performers in a synchronized chorus line during the song "Mr. Cladwell," for instance, was a laudably bold choice—we do not expect blind actors who are not necessarily trained dancers to venture into Rockette territory. However, the moment was undercut, not because the dancers could not see, but because the execution lacked the degree of precision expected from such choreography. Wilson admirably staged and executed the script's swift transitions, and the term "ensemble" acquired new meaning as performers took responsibility for helping one another enter, exit, and change position on the dimly lit stage. For example, a cast member in a wheelchair helped guide blind actors offstage: grasping the wheelchair's handles, they were led safely past open traps as the stage picture shifted.
Juliet Vila and Andrew Caldwell delivered engaging performances as Hope Cladwell and Bobby Strong. Vila, who is blind, is a gifted comedienne, with a sweet, clear soprano singing voice and an understanding of both Hope's love for Bobby and her seemingly inborn quest for power. She employed a gentle, singsong voice and a tentative smile to portray Hope as a naive supporter of Bobby and his revolution. After Bobby's death, she markedly changed her vocal and physical choices, employing a gruffer intonation and a maniacal grin, to reveal Hope as even more grasping and conniving than her father. Caldwell, a likeable leading man, made Bobby strong, centered, and believable. Vila and Caldwell's interplay became particularly interesting where physical touch replaced eye contact as their primary means of communication.
As Penelope Pennywise, who presides over one of the city's public toilets, Kathleen Traylor conveyed both the character's aggressive exterior and her heart of gold. From her wheelchair, Traylor, a double-amputee, played Pennywise as a pragmatic graduate of the school of hard knocks who wasted little time on sympathy. Mallory Kay Nelson's costume design, employed to full comedic effect by Traylor, incorporated a tight-fitting bustier and, most surprisingly, a removable plunger and mop as Pennywise's prosthetic legs.
Scenic designers Charles Packard and Jennifer Orf ingeniously solved a particular difficulty of staging Urinetown in the round: a number of scenes revolve around a public pay toilet. After considering sight-line issues, the designers for-went a standing unit and instead painted two traps as manhole covers with prominent wheelchair logos. When entering the "public amenity," performers simply stood on or, in the case of those in wheelchairs, rolled over the traps. They were then lowered approximately three feet and bravely mimed relieving themselves in partial view of the audience%#2014;a shrewd comment on the privacy concerns of some with physical disabilities. In a playful statement about the daily reality of some people with disabilities, an actor in a wheelchair emptied his colostomy bag into this unusual lavatory.
Urinetown's lyrics acquired additional significance when framed as references to stigmatization and disability. When Traylor's Pennywise growled, "You're no different, then, from lowly me," while glaring up from her wheelchair, the line resonated as a comment on the social construction of disability. In this world, Pennywise clearly retained control despite an otherwise disadvantageous physical condition. In "We're Not Sorry," the ensemble sang a phrase that epitomizes PHAMALy's spirit and could easily serve as the company's motto: "We're not sorry, hey that's life."
Although PHAMALy's focus remains musical theatre, it has performed works such as Thornton Wilder's Our Town (January 2007) and Dale Wasserman's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (January 2008), adapted from Ken Kesey's novel. In June 2008, PHAMALy will restage its controversial, critically acclaimed 1999 production of Henry Krieger and Bill Russell's musical Side Show about the stigmatization of those whose bodies challenge conventional expectations of the human form. The company will undoubtedly bring its inventive humor and unique, affecting perspective to that work as well.
Source: Rebecca Stone Thornberry, Review of Urinetown: The Musical, in Theatre Journal, Vol. 60, No. 2, May 2008, pp. 278-80.
In the following review, Cushman summarizes the musical numbers and the success of the Hollmann/Kotis team in a Toronto production of Urinetown.
I wouldn't want to give away the beginning. Still, I have to say, even before the overture is played, Urinetown is hysterically funny. The overture itself is hilarious; it's a parody, with every taut dissonance in place, of the opening music from The Threepenny Opera. Then comes the first song; and that's great, too. In fact, for its first 10 minutes, Urinetown is musical-comedy heaven.
That first number is delivered by a loquacious cop named Lockstock. (It later transpires he has a comparatively silent partner called Barrel.) Lockstock is here to tell us about "Urinetown the musical. Not the place." We won't see the place, he informs us, until Act Two, though he does warn us: "It's filled with symbolism and things like that."
Lockstock is assisted in his narrative duties by Little Sally, a presumably orphaned waif who feeds him questions like "Is this where you tell the audience about the water shortage?" Lockstock shushes her: "You're too young to understand it now, but nothing can kill a show like too much exposition." The title of the number is "Too Much Exposition."
Urinetown is a satire on matters political and environmental. It is also a satire on the idea of doing a musical satire in the first place. This higher or self-referential level provides most of the jokes. Or rather, most of the joke, because the show keeps making the same one in different words. I laughed heartily to begin with, but less heartily as the idea—"the central conceit," to quote Lockstock slightly out of context—kept coming back for more. But I have to confess that when it comes around the last time it does so with a twist that justifies most of what has gone before. Urinetown (The Musical) plainly thinks it's very clever and very funny. It overrates itself on the second count but is absolutely accurate on the first.
At the risk of burdening this review with too much exposition: The water shortage became a Page 276 | Top of Article drought, and this gave the government the excuse to hand over all toilet facilities to a private corporation, the Urine Good Company, which runs them on a fee-for-use basis at a handsome profit. Any citizen found hoarding (though that may not be the right expression) is consigned to the dreaded Urinetown, the musical theatre's answer to Room 101.
The corporation is run by the ruthless Caldwell B. Cladwell, who has a corrupt senator in his pay. (Senators in musicals are always corrupt. This is an inviolable tradition that may have originated in Ancient Rome.) He also has a daughter, whom he was unwise enough to christen Hope. Hope is a college graduate and an idealist. She believes in love. She takes an upstanding but confused young man named Bobby Strong, and, by having him listen closely to her beating heart, turns him into a hero. He leads a rebellion. This being a musical, it succeeds. This being, as it is at pains to assure us, an unconventional musical, the revolution has consequences undreamed of in most shows, even the ones that keep singing at us that dreaming is all-important.
According to Little Sally (and if you haven't heard it from her, you'll have heard it from Urinetown's abundant pre-publicity) another item that could kill a show is a bad title. She's obviously right. Look at Les Miserables. This show has Les Mis in its sights from the get-go, though it only closes with it toward the end. In Urinetown, as not in Les Mis, we are actually told why the people are revolting.
It cannot, however, avoid taking on board some of its target's deficiencies. The actual narrative, as heroes and villains and attendant rabble are manoeuvred into position, tends to trundle. The fact that it's being played for laughs rather than sentiment makes less difference than you might think.
Greg Kotis had the idea, which is inspired, and wrote the book, which sometimes isn't. (Give it credit: It is, in the circumstances, remarkably un-scatological. That's a relief.) He also, with composer Mark Hollmann, wrote the lyrics. These have both point and point of view, and they are, when not cramming in too many syllables to be comprehensible, decent. But there is no special joy in them; even I, who love to quote lyrics, feel no urge to quote any of these. Cladwell's big cynical number, "Don't Be the Bunny," might be better for an occasional change of animal.
The show does have three great and glittering weapons: the music, the staging and the performance. Hollmann's score is super-pastiche; it takes in the styles of just about every musical in circulation while maintaining its own delighted voice. The opening Threepenny Opera strains are its Ground Zero, though its greater debt is to the next Brecht-Weill piece, that classic among dystopian musicals, Mahagonny. (Actually, Urinetown is better satire than Mahagonny. For one thing, it makes sense.) The music also draws on sunnier sources like Bye Bye Birdie and The Music Man; at least I can't think of any better analogue for the rapped-out "Cop Song" than the latter show's "Ya Got Trouble," Urinetown (The Place) being River City with the river dried up. One song, "Run Freedom Run," sort of mutates, starting out by mocking Broadway's idea of country and finishing by crucifying its notion of gospel. The audience claps along as if it were the real thing, leaving you wondering on whom is the joke. A late anthem, "Tell Her I Love Her," impales French musical epics in all their pomposity, while the finale, "I See a River," is a wonderfully vacuous piece of sturdy uplift.
John Rando's direction and John Caraffa's choreography, both imported from the 2001 New York production, supply a great, zany commentary. It's a delight to see a staircase wheeled into position so that Hope and Bobby may serenade one another, Tony-and-Maria-style. Indeed, one of the great joys of the show comes in seeing the insufferably virtuous romantic leads taken down a lot of pegs. Bobby meets just the fate you would want for him. As for Hope, whose divided loyalties make her both heroine and hostage: It was presumably the script's idea to have her spend most of Act Two gagged and bound to a chair, but I imagine it was the production's to have her contributing enthusiastically to one of the numbers from that position.
There is much fun, too, in the staging of the insurrection, when the mob have Cladwell on the run and Lockstock over a Barrel. Suddenly everyone starts walking in slow motion. It's about this time, too, that Little Sally makes an unexplained and unexpected appearance on roller skates. And just as the show begins before its beginning, so too it continues after its close with the company twirling around in a celebratory dance that looks like something left over Page 277 | Top of Article from Fiddler on the Roof. Come to think of it, Cladwell has earlier executed some melismatic cadenzas that outdo "If I Were a Rich Man." Which is fair, because he really is.
The actors maintain the high standards we are coming to expect from homegrown casts in American musicals. David Keeley as Lockstock is butter-smooth, as genial as he is sinister; as Miss Pennywise, the unappetizing proprietress of the even less appetizing Public Amenity No. 9, Mary Ann McDonald reveals a gratifying talent for tuneful overacting; Stephen Patterson and Cara Leslie are straight-faced star-crossed carollers; Frank Moore is an efficient Mr. Big; and Jennifer Walser's Sally is everything you would imagine an omniscient moppet to be. As for the down-trodden poor, they are deeply unsavoury and spend most of their time in a sewer. What else would you expect?
Source: Robert Cushman, "You Gotta Go," in National Post (Canada), May 31, 2004, p. AL2.
The following review describes a perspective on the Broadway production of the musical before New York ticket sales were affected by 9/11.
The New York theatre season really gets going Thursday night with the Broadway opening of a show that arrives with so much positive press and popular buzz that it seems to have "Number 1" built into its very title.
Say hello to Urinetown.
It all began when Greg Kotis and Mark Hollmann—the 30-something authors of this piece of sardonic musical merriment%#2014;failed to place their brainchild in dozens of conventional regional theatres.
Even with hindsight, it isn't hard to understand why their initial attempts failed to generate much enthusiasm. The show is a savage satire on our society, set in a not-too-distant future when a monopoly controls all public washrooms and makes everyone plunk down a fee to use them.
Or, as the grasping Penelope Pennywise sings in one of the show's first numbers:
"I run the only toilet
In this part of town, you see.
So if you've got to go,
You've got to go through me.
It's a privilege to pee."
Is it any wonder most theatres chose to do Forever Plaid instead?
In desperation, Kotis and Hollmann snagged a place in the 1999 New York International Fringe Festival. The show was an instant hit with fringe audiences. Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright David Auburn (Proof) liked it as well and persuaded some producers to catch its last performance.
Nearly two years of rewriting and recasting followed, and the show acquired one of New York's hottest directors, John Rando (The Dinner Party). It finally debuted last May off-Broadway to an ecstatic critical response and sold-out houses.
And now it's opening at Henry Miller's Theatre for what everyone hopes will be a long and successful run.
I caught the show last spring and was blown away like my critical colleagues. Any initial scepticism vanished during a cheeky opening dialogue between a hardbitten cop, Officer Lockstock (of course, his partner is Officer Barrel), and a street wise urchin named Little Sally.
Sally is busy explaining the plot to the audience, but Lockstock reminds her "Nothing can kill a show like too much exposition."
She's got a ready answer: "How about bad subject matter? Or a bad title? That could kill a show pretty good."
The rest of the book by Kotis keeps that sly double standard going, and although it droops a bit near the end of Act II, well, so does The Producers.
The music by Hollmann is solidly melodic as well as breezily eclectic, suggesting a cross-breeding of Kurt Weill and Cy Coleman in the jaunty numbers and offering up ballads that sound like a shotgun marriage between Stephen Sondheim and the British mega-musicals. (If you can't get down to Manhattan, you can still savour the score on the delightful RCA-Victor recording, or visit the show's amusing Web site: www.urinetownthemusical.com).
Rando has staged it all with great inventiveness (the actors roam throughout the theatre), and the singing voices of the 16-member company can't be bettered.
Broadway veteran and TV star (Northern Exposure) John Cullum anchors the proceedings as the venal Caldwell B. Cladwell who runs this pay-for-pee operation, stopping the show with his exhortation to avoid playing the victim, "Don't Be The Bunny."
Urinetown is actually a funkier, feistier riff on that other smash, The Producers. Both of them Page 278 | Top of Article exult in the form of the musical, and celebrate it in high style even while they're deconstructing it with manic glee.
And at bottom, they both have serious things in mind—about society, authority and the cupidity of human nature—although you wouldn't suspect it at first because of the jubilation they generate in the theatre.
The triumph of Urinetown made me think about the Toronto Fringe Cinderella, The Drowsy Chaperone—a mindless spoof of 1930s musicals—and the similarities and differences it shared with its Gotham cousin.
Both shows opened in the summer of 1999 and proved immediate hits in their alternative venues. But the next step revealed the differences.
Urinetown threw out the entire creative team that had done it at the fringe except for one actor. The authors realized that if their work was to triumph on a broader canvas, they needed all the A-level support they could get. Then they had a series of private readings and workshops, added a savvy production team, and launched off-Broadway nearly two years later.
Only when it succeeded there did they think of moving it to Broadway.
The Drowsy Chaperone, however, rushed five months after the fringe festival into our own version of off-Broadway, a run at Theatre Passe Muraille, marginally expanded, with the original cast and creators largely intact. It was still successful, but a carping note was sounded by some critics (myself included) who found this wafer-thin romp was already wearing out its welcome.
However, the Mirvish organization (which is as close as we get to Broadway up here) picked it up and announced it for its next subscription season, some 18 months down the line.
They hired a director (Daniel Brooks) who had never done a musical, kept some of the old cast, rewrote a bit, and opened at the Winter Garden in June. The reviews by now were decidedly mixed, and although the show was no flop, it didn't exactly set the world on fire. I doubt you'll be seeing it move to Broadway in the near (or distant) future.
Why did Urinetown go on to glory while the Chaperone still drowses in obscurity?
The creators of Chaperone weren't ruthless enough. They had a fringe hit and thought all it needed was a little tweaking to make the big time. By the time they decided to make changes, they were the wrong ones, and they came too late in the game.
But there's another more important difference. In the end, The Drowsy Chaperone was sheer fluff with absolutely nothing to say. As Gertrude Stein once observed about Los Angeles, "There's no there, there."
On the other hand, Urinetown is as savage in its own way about the world we live in as The Threepenny Opera, and it's that savagery that holds up the spoofery, giving it substance.
You can get away with a one-joke show if that joke is really about something.
Urinetown is the wave of the future. And if that wave is bright yellow, then so be it.
Source: "Urinetown Enjoys a Flush of Success," in Toronto Star, September 8, 2001, p. J06.
Brustein, Robert, "Varieties of Musical Experience," in New Republic, December 10, 2001, pp. 26-27.
Franklin, Nancy, "The Curtain Rises," in New Yorker, October 1, 2001, p. 118-19.
Gould, Lance, "Diversions Defer to Disaster," in New York Daily News, September 12, 2001, p. 56.
Kean, Thomas H., et al., The 9/11 Commission Report, http://govinfo.library.unt.edu/911/report/911Report.pdf (accessed July 28, 2009).
Kotis, Greg, and Mark Hollmann, Urinetown: The Musical, Faber & Faber, 2003.
Lines, Andy, "War on Terror: Nation Mourns: Broadway Shut Fears," in Mirror, September 19, 2001, p. 17.
Simon, John, "Yellow Peril," in New York, September 17, 2001, p. 53.
Steyn, Mark, "Loveless Renderings," in New Criterion, October 2001, pp. 34-38.
Zoglin, Richard, "Better Than The Producers, "R in Time, July 2, 2001, p. 64.
Barbour, David, "Out of the Water Closet: Costume Design for Musical Urinetown," in Entertainment Design, November 2001, p. 6.
Barbour examines the choices that costumers Gregory Gale and Jonathan Bixby made in Page 279 | Top of Article designing the costumes for the play's Broadway run.
Boal, Augusto, Theatre of the Oppressed, Theatre Communications Group, 1993.
Boal is a Brazilian artist and social philosopher who views the theater in terms of class struggle. His well-documented book shows the history of serious theatrical movements that are parodied in this play.
Grant, Mark N., The Rise and Fall of the Broadway Musical, Northeastern University Press, 2004.
Urinetown is only mentioned in passing in the course of Grant's study, but his study of the history of the Broadway musical provides a context for the musical tradition that is being parodied here.
Heinberg, Richard, Peak Everything: Waking Up to the Century of Declines, New Society Publishers, 2007.
The premise of this book is that social decline is unavoidable as important natural resources become unavailable. It is a strongly debatable idea, but it does illustrate the situation in this play very clearly.
Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2279400024