Yes, this musical called URINETOWN had been produced way off-off-Broadway in the Fringe, and quite a few people who’d attended had liked it. However, with such a scandalous title and such songs as “It’s a Privilege to Pee,” it would never be able to move off-Broadway, let alone to Broadway.
And that plot! URINETOWN told of a society in which one had to do business with mogul Caldwell B. Cladwell in order to, uh, do one’s business. Every one of his toilets is a pay toilet, and woe be to the person who tries to avoid paying.
True, just as the Greeks were famous for shunting all violence off-stage, URINETOWN kept its toilet issues off-stage, too. But still, rarely did a musical even allude to bodily functions – and when it did, euphemisms were applied – such as when Stephen Hopkins in 1776 was said to visit “the necessary.”
Of course, whenever a tyrant arises, a champion of the people soon emerges. Here he’s Bobby Strong – but will Bobby be strong enough to defeat the rich and powerful Cladwell?
In a word, no. URINETOWN is again different from most other musicals in which heroes prevail by the end and don’t die in the middle of Act Two. Bobby, in love with Cladwell’s daughter who loves him, too, doesn’t get the girl but gets to fall off a building instead.
The score encompasses the various styles of music often heard on Broadway – waltzes, rave-ups, soft-shoe – but the overture and opening number are pure Kurt Weill. Add to this a most atypical country gospel spiritual and a Hungarian czardas, and the score is the most eclectic of the new century.
Nevertheless, URINETOWN indeed sauntered onto Broadway in 2001 and stayed there for more than two years. It would have played even longer if its theater hadn’t been forced to close because of construction.
There was talk of moving to another theater, but the cost was judged to be prohibitive. This is somewhat surprising, given that the set was little more than a single wall that used one side to show the communal bathrooms and the reverse to display Cladwell’s office. Frankly, you and I could have carried the entire set out with our two hands, put it in a U-Haul and driven it to a new theater. But we’re not members of the union are we?
Too bad. Nine months into its run, URINETOWN got a big boost by winning Tonys for Best Book, Score and Direction. It did not, however, win Best Musical. Perhaps the voters felt that, despite the show’s success with New York’s critics and audiences, something called URINETOWN wouldn’t play in the provinces.
But ho-ho-ho, who’s got the last laugh now? Bookwriter-lyricist Greg Kotis and songwriter Mark Hollman, that’s who. URINETOWN has been produced internationally; my personal favorite title was the one used for the Berlin production: Pinkelstadt.
Starting this weekend (March 21, 2014, that is) and for the next 19 months, URINETOWN will be produced in more states (26) than it won’t be (24), not to mention three Canadian provinces. Seven productions will be found in regional theaters, 12 in community theaters, 14 in college theaters and a whopping 50 in high school theaters.
Here’s an even greater irony: despite the unappetizing title and subject matter that involves urination, even a dinner theater in Swoyersville, Pennsylvania has chosen to mount URINETOWN. They’re obviously not afraid that too many patrons are going to cry out, “Not while I’m eating.”
And let’s not forget that recent production done by a kids’ theater – or, to be more accurate, Kidz Theater. That’s the official name that founder Kristen Caesar gave her troupe seven years ago when she set up shop in New York City. Anyone from eight to 17 would be welcomed to be on-stage or off in the musicals that Caesar would direct and choreograph throughout the year.
If you have an inordinate number of non-dancers in your company, URINETOWN solves any choreographic challenges. There are as many opportunities for actors to strike a pose as dance. Caesar accomplished one number with no dance at all, but with a genuine tug of war as two factions pulled on a sturdy rope.
Because this is a show about anarchy, you can have each cast member do his own dancing independent of everyone else’s; precision is not a requirement here, and could even be considered a liability. At Kidz Theater, each lad and lass was seen giving enough frenetic moves to throw a whirling dervish out of whirl. Even in “Run, Freedom, Run” – that aforementioned country gospel spiritual – Caesar only asked her “dancers” to run in place. The effect was, well, effective.
In a way, URINETOWN is a natural for teens. The show takes a comic book approach, and if there’s one thing with which kids have had experience, it’s comic books. The chance for their characters to express their fury at being denied free public bathrooms allows them to release a good amount of adolescent angst. The many “in-your-face” confrontations also mean that when the kids go home after rehearsals, they’ll be too exhausted to fight with their parents. Many a mom and dad will be grateful you chose this show.
Because it deals with a distressed community, URINETOWN’s costume demands are meager. No one in the Kidz’ program got credit for designing costumes, leaving us to infer that kids were just asked to go home and raid their attics and basements. They did so admirably. Think of what you’ll save on costume rentals. Add to these rags the expressions that Caesar demanded on her actors’ faces, and the kids looked as ominous as the chorus of SWEENEY TODD.
The authors purposely kept many of their townspeople in the dark, so lighting designer Ashley Vellano purposely did the same. That’s a wise approach, for the show needs an eerie and somber mood. And so, URINETOWN once again turns out to be economically viable — for you just might find that your next month’s electric bill will be a little less costly.
You may e-mail Peter at firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out his weekly column each Tuesday at www.masterworksbroadway.com and each Friday at www.kritzerland.com. His new book, Strippers, Showgirls, and Sharks – a Very Opinionated History of the Broadway Musicals That Did Not Win the Tony Award is now available at www.amazon.com.