By Cascadia Vape
This past weekend I had an opportunity to see a local production of “Urinetown: The Musical” at Shoreline Community College and was pleasantly surprised to find it had much more to offer than toilet humor. It was in fact a “fourth wall”-breaking satirical critique of extreme political corruption, trickle-down economics, populism, revolutionary movements, dystopian fiction and musical theater itself presented with a steady stream of humor and catchy tunes.
Urinetown begins with a bit of self-aware exposition from narrator Officer Lockstock as he explains to prototypical adorable kid character Little Sally how a 20 year drought had led to the banning of private toilets. To regulate restroom-related activities, UGC (Urine Good Company) was established and quickly rose to power by forcing the public to pay for use of amenities for “private business.” Those unable to pay and who do private business in unauthorized ways are forever banished to a penal colony called Urinetown. As Lockstock says to Sally and the audience, “that’s the central conceit of the show”.
The next few scenes further establish the show’s premise depicting the last desperate moments of Joseph “Old Man” Strong who pleads with amenities manager Pennywise to let him go for free just once. Pennywise steadfastly refuses with the song and dance number “It’s a Privilege to Pee.” By the end of the song, Joseph is unable to hold it in and urinates on the street. Police immediately arrive on the scene to haul him off to Urinetown to the horror of his wife Josephine and son Bobby, who happens to be an amenities employee supervised by Pennywise. Soon after, Bobby has a chance encounter with Hope, the daughter of UGC CEO Caldwell Cladwell, who, in moment of love-at-first-sight cheesiness, leads him into a duet of “Follow Your Heart” which inadvertently inspires Bobby to lead an uprising.
Much of the rest of the plot is self-consciously predictable while at times subverting audience expectations and turning tropes on their heads, particularly during the finale. It’s not the most original of Dystopian visions (the urination aspect notwithstanding) since the narrative arc is at least as old as the 1927 film Metropolis. But what makes it unique is the way it draws upon a rich tradition of theater and music to tell such an archetypal and enduringly relevant story. The musical numbers, written by Mark Hollman and Greg Kotis, are consistently funny and are seamlessly integrated with the plot, yet stylistically diverse. The production seems largely inspired by big Broadway musicals such as Les Misérables but retains an off-Broadway edge due to references to Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, and also because of its provocative title and political/economic critique.
As fragmented as American society seems to be regarding political issues in this day and age, the message of Urinetown is presciently on-point and would appeal to audiences across the political spectrum. Conservatives would likely view it as a cautionary tale against collectivism, nanny-state policies and idealistic activism. Those with more liberal views might see in it a depiction of the dangers of privatization, unchecked corporate power, and social/environmental irresponsibility. Arguments for either side brought up through the course of the narrative are made more palatable regardless, not with sugar but bitter heapings of sardonic humor. In other words, it’s a “feel good” fable perfectly suited for our times.
As one who is admittedly not usually a fan of musical theater, I’m glad I gave Urinetown a chance (despite the title). After seeing this production and Reefer Madness: The Musical, I’m beginning to realize it’s an aspect of culture I’ve been missing out on. If I were more open to musicals, it probably wouldn’t have took 17 years for me to discover the Reefer Madness musical or 15 years to hear about Urinetown, which apparently opened in 2001 and has since been showered with accolades including two Obie Awards, two Lucille Lortel Awards and three Tony Awards.
Those in the Seattle area still have a chance to catch the excellent Shoreline Community College production on Oct. 14, 15 and 16 by purchasing tickets here.
Those without productions of Urinetown in their area can watch a version of it here: