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The musical Urinetown, by Mark Hollmann and Greg Kotis, falls in the class of the modern “anti-musical” with its untraditional structure and content, not only breaking the mold of what makes musical theatre, but making satire of itself and its relatives in the process. This essay will investigate how Urinetown uses satire to create a new, participatory role for audience unimplemented by its predecessors. This is relevant theatrical topic as it suggests a contrast from musical theatre’s historical structure, as well as changing social roles in the theatrical culture. To approach this proposition, I will investigate by researching the creation of Urinetown, as well as traditional musicals to serve as a comparative structure. I will use this research to draw conclusions about Urinetown’s satirical nature and the role it creates for the audience.

Introduction

My interest for Urinetown came with the announcement of a local high school’s theatrical season, which included the musical. Having heard the name but being unfamiliar with the show, I began to research the plot and was enthralled by the story. As wacky as it is, Urinetown has contemplative themes with social commentary. The musical tells the story of citizens in a town where all restrooms are government operated. As crude as it is, much of the focus of the musical is on having to “pay to pee”. While Hollmann and Kotis take a humorous approach, the show does embody the people’s oppression by their own government, a theme all too familiar in a historical and current context. Urinetown creates a culture of desperation, the frequent consequence of unequal wealth distribution. Corrupt members of the Urine Good Company, or UGC, live in lavishness while average citizens cannot even afford to fulfill their most basic needs. Essential to the plot are the characters which embody theatrical archetypes. These archetypes will be included in my scope of investigation along with Hollmann and Kotis’ creation of the musical. My interest in audience role came with my attendance of the North Carolina Governor’s School in the area of theatre. During our five weeks, we created a show which challenged traditional audience roles. The expectation of a theatre patron is to sit and be entertained, perhaps laugh and cry, and then go home. This actor-audience relationship has been upheld majorly through Vaudeville, opera, dramas, comedies, and most theatre imaginable. My investigation intends to prove that Urinetown does not adhere to these traditional audience roles, and instead uses satire to challenge its viewers, making them uncomfortable and offering a more participatory, engaging theatre experience. My methodology for this essay will primarily be analysis of research regarding record of Urinetown and its formation, and traditional musical theatre structure and the satirical comparison of it.

Investigation

Urinetown was inspired by the works of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, specifically Threepenny Opera. Threepenny Opera, which transformed old-fashioned opera and operetta forms, incorporated a sharp political perspective, and the sound of 1920s Berlin dance bands and cabaret, is most strikingly similar to Urinetown. From the show’s opening number, the audience is introduced to an oppressed society run by a corrupt government, shown through operatic chorus chords and lyrics. The show mimics others through its number, Too Much Exposition , poking fun at the notion of an excess of background knowledge to ruin a show, taking stabs at Threepenny Opera and other musicals such as Les Miserables. Dark and dramatic with crude humor laced on top, Threepenny Opera certainly bears a resemblance to Urinetown.

Urinetown is a prime example of ironic detachment, but it wasn’t the first musical to use this perspective. Though this approach has not been standard practice for most of the history of musical theatre, it has appeared in Of Thee I Sing (1931), The Cradle Will Rock (1937), Guys and Dolls (1950), The Threepenny Opera (1954),How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (1961), Hair (1968), Company (1970), Grease (1972), Chicago(1975), 42nd Street (1980), Assassins (1990), Bat Boy (1997), and others. These shows broke the traditional role of musical comedy.

Urinetown strays from self-importance in favor of self-deprecation. John Bush Jones writes in his book Our Musicals, Ourselves, “It seems no accident that a cluster of solemn musicals came right at the end of the century. Among serious and thoughtful creative people, the ends of centuries have often provoked a lot of serious and thoughtful thinking, and the production of works of literature, art, or in our case, musical theatre of especially unsmiling seriousness.” Urinetown rebels against this seriousness, even mocking it. This show acknowledges its own art form, but is also part of what it mocks, taking on issues such as corporate corruption, environmentalism, civil liberties, class warfare.

Ironic detachment has now become so present in television and modern culture that it no longer packs the same artistic or political punch. As our culture evolves, so must storytelling. Rodgers and Hammerstein were groundbreaking in 1943, but times have changed. Contracting to their elaborate storytelling , new musicals are more honest, breaking the “fourth wall,” that barrier of “lies” between actor and audience.

Urinetown, first opening in New York in the summer of 1999, referenced dozens of movies and other bits of American pop culture, including The Wizard of Oz. Contrasting though, where Dorothy’s selflessness and bravery saved the day in Oz, the traits result in hopelessness in Urinetown. Even though both stories take place in an era of depression, they have separate audiences.

Referenced in the musical is a response to Thomas Robert Malthus’ Essay on the Principles of Population (1798), which discusses the tendency of human beings to outstrip their resources. This heavy and dark allusion contrasts to the traditional musical, even in Urinetown with its light potty-humor.

Urinetown breaks the mold of the traditional musical and yet, in certain ways, is true to conventional musical theatre, the show’s structure taking after a Rodgers and Hammerstein model. The score ranges from direct homages to Threepenny Opera to traditional ballads to hymns, gospel, Bach, and the B-52s. The work, Urinetown, though it seems shallow and crude, is carefully constructed theatre, presented by outrageous circumstances.

Urinetown registered with audiences on many levels, like any good fairy tale, providing for each audience member a slightly different message, question, or experience. The show received ten Tony nominations, winning for best score, best book, and best director. Bruce Weber in The New York Times called it “a sensational piece of performance art, one that acknowledges theatre tradition and pushes it forward as well.” Linda Winer inNewsday called it “elevated silliness of the highest order that makes a gratifying case for the restorative return to knowing foolishness and the smartly absurd.” Rex Reed in The New York Observer wrote, “What kind of musical is this? A fresh, unique, original, impudent, colorful, exciting, irreverent, surprising and wonderful musical, that’s all.” Clive Barnes of the New York Post called it “a wild and happy mix of biting satire and loving parody.” Urinetown is both a satire of American political and social forces, and also a parody of musical theatre as an art form, both aspects equally well crafted. The show ran 965 performances, more than two years, a run that might have lasted far longer if not for September 11 and its crippling of Broadway.

Unlike traditional musicals, Urinetown’s extreme emotionalism is followed by cynicism. When a metaphor pops up, it is promptly diffused by literalism, such as the gazes to the distance. Even the resolution of the plot contrasts idealism with tragedy and harsh reality. Literalism is present throughout the show, from the conversations between Lockstock and Little Sally about the show itself, to the opening number that tells the audience where the bathroom is and what should be on their tickets. Of the two love songs, one focuses less on emotion and more on the literal body, and the other is relayed through Little Sally, as one of the lovers is already dead.

Urinetown is satirical, laughing at the sappy old-fashioned musical comedy, but also laughing at shows like Les Miz or Passion which reject those conventions and perhaps go too far the other way. Urinetown raises questions about what we expect from musicals, whether or not musicals confronting an issue are satisfying entertainment, why certain stories or topics are musicalized, whether or not serious musicals are too serious. Hollmann and Kotis use musical theatre clichés ironically throughout the show, using traditional musical comedy and making it more cruel, dark, and modern.

Each time Officer Lockstock and Little Sally talk about what musicals “shouldn’t do,” they’re also talking about devices certain musicals have used traditionally. When Urinetown kills off its hero, the joke is on Carousel. The violent-rage dance number, “Snuff That Girl,” consciously parodies “Cool” in West Side Story, right down to the finger snaps. Cladwell’s self-justification songs comically mirror Javert’s “Stars” in Les Misérables. In the original Broadway production ofUrinetown, one bit of choreography even invoked the now famous Les Miserables March. The scene in which Cladwell bribes Bobby mirrors the same scene in The Cradle Will Rock. And of course, Urinetown both uses and abuses the devices of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill and their Threepenny Opera.

The song “Mr. Cladwell” is a stab at traditional musicals which laud over the lead, like “Hello, Dolly,” “Mame,” and others, but instead of celebrating love for the leading lady and her optimistic spunk, here the adoring chorus is celebrating murderous, unchecked capitalism. The “Cop Song” is both a tribute to Threepenny but also an ironic nod to hip-hop culture. While hip-hop music has historically taken violence against the poor and turned it back on the police, here the violent imagery usually used for anti-police rhetoric is given to the police themselves, with the violence now turned back on the poor again. Other names in the show follow the Dick Tracy, with Robbie the Stockfish, Billy Boy Bill, Soupy Sue, Little Becky Two Shoes, Tiny Tom, and Hot Blades Harry.

Sally’s description of why Urinetown isn’t a good musical is funny precisely because the aspects she thinks are missing are no longer essential aspects to musical theatre. She thinks all musicals are 1920s musical comedies, but one of the central jokes of this show is that almost no musicals are like that anymore. Urinetown takes musical comedies, serious book musicals, political musicals, and concept musicals and takes them at extremes, showing us exactly how far we have strayed from the 1920s. Its very existence mocks anyone in the audience who still holds those mindsets about musicals in this age of Rent, Assassins, Passion, Bat Boy, Reefer Madness, Chicago, Floyd Collins, A New Brain, and Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Urinetown demonstrates that at conventional musical is no longer the convention.

Bobby Strong is the archetypal American musical comedy lead being charming, cocky, and heroic. This traditional character extends back to George M. Cohan in his 1904 musical Little Johnny Jones, Billy in Anything Goes, Joey in Pal Joey, Larry Foreman in The Cradle Will Rock, Billy in Carousel, Woody in Finian’s Rainbow, Harold Hill in The Music Man, Nathan in Guys and Dolls, and Ponty in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. Ms. Pennywise is another archetypal musical theatre character, the immoral but realistic older woman that Bertolt Brecht seems to have invented with Threepenny Opera, and well as in other musicals such as Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd, Fraulein Schneider in Cabaret, and Joanne in Company. Josephine Strong is the archetypal older wise woman, joining Aunt Eller in Oklahoma!, Nettie in Carousel, Lady Thiang in The King and I, the Mother Abbess inThe Sound of Music. But here, the older woman does not have much to offer in the way of wisdom.

Urinetown also takes much inspiration from Marc Blitzstein’s 1937 political musical The Cradle Will Rock, which was itself heavily influenced by Brecht and composer Kurt Weill. The Cradle Will Rock “label names” like Mr. Mister, Editor Daily, Dr. Specialist, Reverend Salvation, Harry Druggist, and Larry Foreman. Greg Kotis did the same thing in Urinetown, with the heroic Bobby Strong, the well dressed Mr. Cladwell, the optimistic and rich Hope Cladwell, the amoral but practical Ms. Pennywise, and the cops Lockstock and Barrel. The cops’ names are funny in relation the literal meanings of the phrase. But it’s also why the original staging of “The Cop Song” was ill-conceived; if Lockstock and Barrel are the only two cops on the force, if they are the whole police force, “lock, stock, and barrel.”

Urinetown is created with the spirit of Bertolt Brecht, particularly his Threepenny Opera and other political theatre. Brecht aimed to engage the audience through their brains instead of their hearts, to get them to think about the issues and questions put before them on stage and constantly reminding them of the over the top nature of storytelling while maintaining levels of wonder and self-criticism. The set projected an environment rather than representing it; the small chorus, songs to the audience, and elegance with which even the most serious scenes are performed commented on the fable nature of the show and the actions shown on stage.

Reflecting the mindset of his work, Brecht once wrote, “Nothing is more revolting than when an actor pretends not to notice that he has left the level of plain speech and started to sing.” It’s a bold statement, but not an unfair one. Brecht wanted truthfulness and realism on stage, not the performance. He rejected the ignoring of the Fourth Wall and thought that the Rodgers and Hammerstein naturalistic acting isn’t actually the least bit naturalistic since most people in the real world don’t break into four-part harmony. To Brecht, the act of singing onstage is more honest, more real, and connects the actor to the audience more fully because he’s not trying to “fool” them. This isn’t an approach that works with shows such as Brigadoon, but is almost necessary for Urinetown. Urinetown uses all of these ideas presented by Brecht.