For the last few years, people have asked me if New Line would ever produce Something Rotten!, and they've always been surprised when I immediately replied, "Oh Hell, Yes!" We originally planned to produce it in fall 2020, but that was not to be. So last night, we finally went into rehearsal for this wonderful, incredibly funny musical.

Sometimes, people tend to think that because New Line produces only smart, socially and politically relevant, adult musical theatre, that we don't do comedy. But we do a lot of comedy. As Aristophanes well knew, it's much easier to deal with serious issues through comedy. It's the "Spoonful of Sugar" theory.

And though Something Rotten! is outrageously wacky, it deals with one of the most important issues in our society in the twenty-first century -- what is success? I was so grateful to Michelle Obama for coming out during their White House years and saying directly that making money is not the only measure of success. And that's exactly the lesson our protagonist Nick Bottom has to learn in Something Rotten!

This show is all about defining commercial success, personal success, and artistic success -- and realizing that they are not all the same thing. It's the central conflict between our fictional brothers Nick and Nigel. Nick has this lesson to learn; Nigel has already learned it.

A few years back, I got to interview the real world Kirkpatrick brothers for my Stage Grok podcast when the show first came to the Fox on tour. They are two-thirds of the Something Rotten! writing team, along with John O'Farrell. They told me the idea of the show started with a wonderful What If  that's not only funny, but unexpectedly resonant in a dozen different ways.

What if Shakespeare's London operated like today's Hollywood?

The extra insightful part of this juxtaposition is that Shakespeare's theatre scene was a commercially competitive world, and Will made his living as a writer; so mashing up these two worlds reveals so much that the two moments share, the good, the bad, and the ugly. We see that Bottom's mistakes all come from chasing that competition.

In the original production of Something Rotten!, the costumes were all Elizabethan (or Elizabethan-adjacent); but in ours, the costumes are going to suggest the present, but with references and callbacks to the Elizabethan age. If the audience is constantly reminded of this double setting of time and place, I think the mashup of these two parallel worlds will be even clearer, and as a result, funnier.

One thing I've realized about the show as we've started work -- in so many ways, it's a perfectly constructed 1950s musical comedy, but so meta. It uses the tools and devices and construction of old school musical comedy, but it also undermines all those things at the same time. It's exactly the kind of show I invented the "neo musical comedy" label for, using all those tools inherited from George M. Cohan and George Abbott, but for very different agendas, social, political, artistic, satirical, etc., and completely rejecting the silly idea of a "Fourth Wall."

Something Rotten! is a meta-musical, a show that acknowledges in various ways that it's a show, referencing not just the show's story but the actual performing of it as well. When meta-musicals are written really well, they can be amazing -- if the meta-theatre devices come out of the story. Among the best of them are Bat Boy, Urinetown, Passing Strange, Spelling Bee, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Hedwig and the Angry Inch... there are so many good ones. Among the worst are the shows whose writers think random and relentless self-reference, and intentionally bad acting, are automatically funny. You know which shows those are.

To me, the funniest and smartest thing about this very smart show is its title. Of course, it refers to the famous Hamlet quote, "There's something rotten in the state of Denmark." And that also comically describes Bottom's whole scheme -- and Shakespeare's scheme too. But it also refers to the hilariously bad musical-within-the-musical Omelette. Both Omelette and the eggs (people) that made it are arguably rotten.

But more subtly the title also describes as rotten the central conflict of the show, how Bottom defines success, his worldview that only financial success is worth pursuing, and that any means to that end are okay, which is "rotting" Bottom's soul and his relationships. And though Bottom is attempting to steal from Shakespeare, Shakespeare likewise keeps trying to steal from Nigel. It's "the system" that has poisoned Bottom (and Shakespeare). It's the same misguided mindset among young actors and writers today that only Broadway means success in the theatre.

It's also struck me that Something Rotten! is a terrific companion piece to Tom Stoppard's brilliant Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. Both shows take minor character from another play and put them centerstage. In A Midsummer Night's Dream, we saw Bottom, Peter Quince, and their troupe rehearse and perform The Most Lamentable Comedy and Most Cruel Death of Pyramus and Thisbe. Now we find out that they didn't produce only that one play. And Bottom's got a brother who's a writer! And now they're trying to steal Hamlet, which brings us full circle to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the two minor characters from Hamlet, who got their own play.

The other fun part is all these very different takes on ol' Will Shakespeare, from Shakespeare in Love to the hilarious UK sitcom Upstart Crow, and now to Something Rotten! -- each portrayal gets something fundamentally right and also takes big liberties. We often see different takes on iconic characters, especially Shakespeare's characters, but it's rare that those characters are iconic writers.

There is a whole smorgasbord of crazy, wild, smart, transgressive, meta-theatrical stuff in Something Rotten! It's everything I could ask for in a musical. Cynical but idealistic, smartass but big-hearted, steeped in musical comedy tradition and also happily dismantling it.

1595, but also 2022.

And the cherry on top is that I love Shakespeare! So that makes all this even more fun for me. It's such a gift to work on material this audacious, this original, this inventive, and I get to do it with a cast full of very funny, very talented actors, along with our new music director Mallory Golden, and our new choreographer (and also current actor) Alyssa Wolf.

This is one of those perfect musical comedies that works best as a perpetual motion machine, no mugging, no gags, no schtick, just keep it moving! The script and score are incredibly well crafted, and we just have to follow the path they've laid out for us, and get out of the way of the brilliant comedy. The best musical comedies, like Something Rotten!, Anything Goes, Guys and Dolls, Urinetown, Bat Boy, don't need the director and actors to make them funny; they are built funny, by funnier people than us. I felt that the original Broadway production got in the way of the material too often with needless schtick. By definition, this is a comedy of words and ideas, so that's where we need to focus the audience; not on funny costumes, funny props, or funny sets.

As we've learned over the years, the more seriously we -- and the characters -- take a story like this, the funnier it will be. The higher the stakes for these characters, the more serious their desperation, the crazier and wilder the comedy gets. As the writers of Bat Boy and the Actors Gang taught us, the goal is "the depth of sincerity, the height of expression.” Honest, but Big. The canvas is bigger, the colors richer, the brushstrokes more expansive, but the image is no less true, the details no less real, the textures no less subtle. It's a wacky show, but it's also about real human emotions and relationships.

We've only had a single music rehearsal so far, but all of us can already feel how much fun and what a wild ride this will be. Stay tuned!

Long Live the Musical!

P.S. Season tickets are on sale now, and single tickets will go on sale at the end of the month. For more info about the show, click here.

P.P.S. To check out my newest musical theatre books, click here.

If There Is a Next Time

The Urinators have left the building. New Line's return to Urinetown has ended. We had to shut down the second week, but we came back and finished the run -- and our 30th season! I will be forever grateful to all the New Line artists and audiences who gathered together again in a darkened room to share a crazy mobius strip of a musical.

Here's my thank-you, with apologies to Mssrs. Hollmann and Kotis...

It's a privilege to pee;
That is, if you're doing Urinetown,
That little show of some obscure renown;
For it's all about the Poor,
And the Pompous, and their spoor.

Fifteen years since we last peed;
That is, since we last did Urinetown.
Even now, its truth can sure astound;
It's a prescient piece of art --
Trump is Cladwell, just not smart.

The Evil Geniuses who wrote this show
Know how low leaders go.
So props to Hollmann and to Kotis,
Who gave us notice
Of Trump as POTUS,
And you can quote us!

But now it's darker, to be sure,
For the real world seems like Urinetown,
With no Hope and with no cure around;
We're as doomed as Bobby Strong,
And our world is upside-wrong.
But for now, it's free to pee!

I feel just like The Little Drummer Boy, only sarcastic.

We don't repeat shows often, but when we do we're always amazed at how relevant the show still is, or is again. And I'm finally understanding it's because really great works of art tell important, timeless, universal truths, and so those works will always be relevant. The truths may be uncomfortable, even disturbing, but they're still truths.
Little Sally: Can't we do a happy musical next time?
Lockstock: If there is a next time, I'm sure we can.

If there is a next time. That line suddenly takes on extra weight in this time of the Black Plague.

And even though I directed our critically acclaimed production of Urinetown in 2007 and wrote a chapter analyzing the show, I still found new treasure hidden in this endlessly rich script asnd score this time. Again, that's what happens with a truly great piece of art.

Kotis and Hollmann are particularly adept at showing us serious, sobering, human truths, in the form of outrageous, silly, wacky musicals, like Urinetown and Yeast Nation. It's the Spoonful of Sugar philosophy of storytelling. Well, maybe it's more a spoonful of sugar with a dash of tabasco and a habanero pepper.

A million thanks, to our artists, our audiences, our donors and funders, and to Greg Kotis and Mark Hollmann who shared their wacky dystopia with us, so we could share it with you.

Long Live the Musical!

Always It's Been Urinetown!

At the very end of Urinetown, the cast sings:
This is Urinetown!
Always it's been Urinetown!
This place, it's called Urinetown!

"This place" meaning where these characters live? Or "This place" meaning this theatre, or this city where you're watching the show. Are we in Urinetown? This connects back to early in Act II, when Little Sally hits us with a comic bombshell:
Lockstock: Where are they hiding, Little Sally?! Tell me and I'll see things go easy on you.
Little Sally: Easy on me?! You mean like sending me to the nice part of Urinetown?!
Lockstock: That can be arranged.
Little Sally: Save it for one of your other stoolies, Officer Lockstock. My heart's with the rebellion. And besides, the way I see it, I'm already in Urinetown. We all are. Even you.
Lockstock: Me? In Urinetown?
Little Sally: Sure. The way I see it, Urinetown isn't so much a place as it is a metaphysical place.

We're already in Urinetown. We all are. The place or the musical? Is the musical the "metaphorical place" she's talking about?

These days, we probably have a slightly better idea of what the characters in Urinetown are going through, now that we've all been through a damn pandemic! But in Urinetown we still tend to think of it all as a joke. Peeing! Lulz! But it's a joke based in really grim reality, a joke meant to grab us by the neck and shake us a bit. After all, parts of the world, and yes, parts of our country, regularly have droughts.

And let's be honest, Urinetown isn't just an ecological disaster musical. It's also a political disaster musical, making the painfully funny point -- more relevant today than ever before -- that in a democracy, a lot of The People are stupid and gullible. Spend a little time on Facebook and you'll see how true that is. In Urinetown, part of the dystopia is the people themselves, how they've been changed, what they've been through; after all, our "heroes" are guilty, of wrath, pride, envy, and other assorted sins.

Before the angry and vengeful song-and-dance, "Snuff That Girl," Urinetown lays it all out for us:
Little Becky Two-Shoes: String her up!
Little Sally: Wait a minute! You can’t just give her the rope!
Hot Blades Harry: Why not?!
Little Sally: Because killin’ her would make us no better than them.
Little Becky Two-Shoes: Haven’t you heard, Little Sally? We are no better than them. In fact, we’re worse.

It's a joke, but it's not. Our heroes are no better than our villains. Once again, writers Greg Kotis and Mark Hollmann pull the rug out from under us and violate all our expectations about the Good Guys and the Bad Guys. Be careful whose team you're on...

Today in 2022 this exchange with Becky Two-Shoes brings with it the uncomfortable parallel to the fear and hatred that fuels the Trump Party; and the chants to "Hang Mike Pence!" during the January 2021 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. These Urinetown rebels feel left behind, abandoned, treated unjustly, afraid; and that's exactly how Trump supporters feel. And as Yoda has taught us, fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, and hate leads to suffering.

So to get my head into this very dark, fucked up, dystopian space, I decided to watch a bunch of iconic dystopian movies while we rehearsed. Which was fun! Though I'm not including zombie movies in this list, I would also very much recommend all the George Romero zombie films. As it is with Romero's films, it's really interesting to think about what was going on politically and socially in our country when each of these dystopian films were released.

Here's what I watched...

Things to Come (1936)

Soylent Green (1973) -- I've seen this movie a few times over the years, but not recently; and when I watched it again, it still packs a hell of a wallop. Not least because it's set in 2022! It's so close to real, and so many details make us cringe because it looks like the nightly news. Like the best dystopian films, it lives in that Dystopian Uncanny Valley, that place where it's so close to reality that it makes you uncomfortable.

I had forgotten how much water rationing is part of the world of Soylent Green, and though I always remember that iconic climactic line, I had forgotten that the whole story is really about that mystery that starts with a murder -- like Urinetown. In a scene in the movie where our protagonist finds himself investigating a murder in an ultra rich man's apartment, he becomes almost mesmerized by the rare sensations of fresh food, cold water on his face, a shower, a flush toilet, hand soap, all those things that go along with accessible water. It made me think of when the city has had to turn off my water to work on the pipes; and even for a few hours, it's a huge inconvenience to me. Living that way all the time would be torture.

Westworld (1973) -- Though it seems like a very different kind of story from Urinetown, the iconic sci-fi movie Westworld isn't far off. Once again, a giant corporation more powerful than any government does what it wants and people die. While Urinetown is about an ecological disaster, Westworld is about a cultural and technological disaster. On a smaller scale and in more subtle ways than the Terminator series, in Westworld, the machines also "wake up" and take over. Maybe Westworld can be thought of as a prequel to Terminator... At least there are no computers in Urinetown...!

Sleeper (1973)  

World on a Wire (1973 TV movie) and The 13th Floor (1999) -- two mind-bending thrillers based on the same source, set in various levels of reality, and involving the creation of a fully functioning virtual world. The 1999 film is one of my favorites.

Rollerball (1975) --
At first, this amazing thriller doesn't seem to have much in common with Urinetown, but they are companion pieces. The title sport is a brutal combination of football and roller derby that has become the national sport -- designed specifically to discourage individuality and ambition, and to pacify the masses with mindless, extreme violence. In Rollerball, there are no countries anymore, just corporations, and each segment of the market (energy, food, housing, etc.) is controlled by a single corporation. And as in Urinetown, the corporation is all powerful and the people are just pawns. And as in Urinetown a hero does arise, and the film ends just as he triumphs over the corporation -- for the moment.

Logan's Run (1976)  

The Warriors (1979) 

Mad Max (1980) 

Escape from New York (1981) 

Videodrome (1983)
-- one of my all-time favorite movies, a total mindfuck.

1984 (1984) -- This movie is so dismal and sad and drab and hopeless, it's hard to watch. But that's the story. I hadn't read 1984 since college, and I had forgotten how awful this world is. But this is probably the closest we come to the everyday lives of the people of Urinetown, except 1984 is no cartoon. There's no ironic distance for the audience, which makes it really tough to get through.

Brazil (1985) -- Watching this film again (easily my tenth or twelfth viewing) with Urinetown in my head was really interesting. Though Brazil is really serious absurdism, and Urinetown is very funny absurdism, the two stories have so much in common, particularly, the absurdity of dumb laws, of bureaucracy, of mid-level execs with small bits of power, of the human tendency to assume the next guy will do something; and of course, both stories shatter the Hero Myth story, in very different but really interesting ways.

RoboCop (1987) -- if ever there was a bleak cautionary tale about corrupt corruptions taking over our county, this is it. It's incredibly gory, but a hell of a great dystopian movie.

The Running Man (1987)

They Live (1988) and The Matrix (1999) -- Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get you. They Live follows a similar, though more straightforward, story as The Matrix, but the enemy in They Live is aliens hiding among us, rather than a malevolent computer. It's a great movie!

Back to the Future 2 (1989) -- this looks way too much like the Trump years now...

Slipstream (1989)

12 Monkeys (1995) 

Strange Days (1995) 

Harrison Bergeron (1995 TV movie)
 -- another of my favorites about a near future in which mediocrity is enforced, in the name of equality. Based on a Kurt Vonnegut story.

Dark City (1998) -- This one also seems at first a long way from Urinetown but it's another dystopian movie about the little guy being powerless against greater forces. It's also an amazingly stylish, wonderfully freaky film, with Richard O'Brien as one of the bad guys!

Pontypool (2009) -- a horror movie all about language, about a contagious idea. It's a weird zombie cousin to Urinetown.

District 9 (2009) -- a sci-fi version of Urinetown. Sort of.

Dredd (2012) 

Elysium (2013) 

Color Out of Space (2020) 

There are more, lots more. I guess people really love fearing the future. It's interesting how much these movies overlap the ideas of Urinetown. But as the Rich Folks tell us in the Urinetown opening
It's the oldest story –
Masses are oppressed;
Faces, clothes, and bladders
All distressed.
Rich folks get the good life,
Poor folks get the woe.
In the end, it's nothing you don't know.

As with everything else in Urinetown, this lyric has levels to it. Class warfare is an old story, but at the same time, Urinetown is certainly not an old story. The lyric mashes together traditional class oppression with urinary class oppression: "Faces, clothes, and bladders all distressed." And the last line is a gem, with it's double-negative. But what is the "it" that's nothing we don't know? This story? The history of class warfare? The act of peeing? All of that? And is "in the end" an ass joke?

Kotis and Hollmann remind me of a wonderful quote I found years ago, in an anniversary issue of Mother Jones magazine, "Better to give us thanks for knowing the importance of being un-earnest, of taking undignified chances, for having the courage to risk all, risk being wrong, risk looking foolish. If there is in fact any secret at all to our amazing longevity, that's surely near the heart of it: knowing how to act the fool like the future depends on it."

I never though I'd say this, but the only fundamental difference between Soylent Green and Urinetown is the approach. And that's the wicked genius of Kotis and Hollmann.

Long Live the Musical!

P.S. Click Here to buy tickets!

The Power of the Truncheon

The term "environmental theatre" can mean two different but related things. Sometimes it refers to site-specific theatre, meaning the show takes place in the actual, real-world environment where the story takes place, a restaurant, a donut shop, a bus stop, etc. For example, a recent New York revival of Sweeney Todd took place in a pie shop.

But the way the term was first used was to describe a show that uses the entire environment of the theatre as a playing space, playing scenes out in the house, in the aisles, etc., so the audience is inside the story, essentially eliminating the distinction between performance space and audience space.

New Line has only sort of accidentally done the first kind, with The Cradle Will Rock, because we recreated that historic opening night, so the setting for our show was a theatre. But we've done quite a few of the second kind, with shows like Sweeney Todd (1998), Into the Woods (1999), A New Brain (2002), Bat Boy (2003, 2006), Urinetown (2007, 2022), and a few others.

In the case of Urinetown, it's extra funny because ours is an environmental production of a show about the environment. So I guess that makes our production environmental environmental theatre.

But even when Urinetown is staged on a proscenium stage, the environment is still this theatre on this night, and the audience is dragged inside the action early on. And the stunning metatheatrical bottom line is that this very serious story and these very vulnerable people are trapped in a musical comedy. Their environment is a stage, and everything about their lives is restricted by the rules and conventions of mid-century, George Abbott, musical comedy. And they all know it. And they don't like it.

The story of Urinetown doesn't belong in a musical comedy. That's the central joke of the whole show. This is the wrong storytelling form for this story, and that dissonance reveals so much that's funny (ridiculous?) about both the storytelling form and the story itself. It's very funny, in a wacky, meta kind of way when Lockstock and Sally discuss the show's structure, conventions, plot, etc. It's not just funny because musicals don't do that. It's not just funny because Sally challenges so much about the show. It's funny because we all know her lines criticizing the show are part of the show that the writers wrote and she rehearsed. It's also funny because Sally senses something wrong that she can't quite articulate.

They're all in the wrong storytelling form! If this is a musical comedy, Bobby should be a charming, funny, romantic hero, like Billy Crocker or Cry-Baby Walker. Instead, he starts a political movement over an issue he doesn't understand, and he fails the rebellion. Hope should be a well-mannered, sheltered, young lady like Hope Harcourt or Sarah Brown. Instead she is slowly but thoroughly disillusioned and then takes over an underground rebellion. Pennywise should be a gentle, wise, older woman who guides our heroes, like Nettie Fowler or Aunt Eller. Instead she's an Eva Peron who stayed poor. Little Sally should be more like Winthrop Paroo.

Cladwell should be a formidable but sympathetic villain who gets a song to explain how he got this way. Instead, Cladwell is a Bond villain who sings about killing bunnies. Cladwell shouldn't get an old-school, dance-filled, MGM-style introduction like "Mr. Cladwell;" he should get a song like "Lonely Room" from Oklahoma! But they're trapped in this musical comedy.

The brutal, cold-hearted cops Lockstock and Barrel ought to get a song like "Stars" from Les Miz or "The Stuff" from Reefer Madness. Instead they get a faux rap song in favor of police brutality, again the wrong form for the content, and in this case, a really wrong form. This is the hybrid monster that comes from this unholy (but hilarious) coupling of musical tragedy and musical comedy. Urinetown is clearly the child of The Threepenny Opera, but while Threepenny's agenda was serious; Urinetown's agenda is more mischievous. The more I work on it (and having worked on Threepenny), I realize that Urinetown is just Threepenny turned up to eleven.

Just look at this lyric, and keep in mind, it's a pro-brutality rap number...
It's a hard, cold tumble of a journey,
Worthy of a gurney,
A bumble down,
A slapped face,
Smacked with a mace,
Certain to debase,
Is our stumble down.
It's a path that leads you only one place,
Horrible to retrace,
A crumble down.
A hard, cold tumble of a tourney,
Jumble of a journey
To Urinetown.

There's a lot to unpack there! Even if we don't know the Big Secret of Urinetown yet, this is pretty intense. If we do know that secret, the word down takes on a different color. Notice how fast the violence escalates, in one line from "a slapped face" to "smacked with a mace"! Not surprisingly, this "journey" is "worthy of a gurney" -- and if you're on a gurney, you're either gravely injured or dead. And if there are any doubts about the intention, they assure us their actions are "certain to debase." And after all, isn't that the point of police brutality, to debase, to dehumanize?

This is a funny show, but it's a really ugly story. We're laughing all night, but the characters aren't. The cops sing:
There are those who think our methods vicious–
Overly malicious,
A bunch of brutes.
But it's we who gather for the people –
Tavern to the steeple –
Lawful fruits!

Now here's the justification (as always) for the brutality; it's to preserve law and order, to serve the people, from those at the moral bottom of society ("tavern") to those at the moral top ("steeple"), so that "law-abiding citizens" can live safe, fruitful lives, to gather the fruits of their honest work, like God wants.

Of course, it's all about the definition of "law-abiding," right? And who gets to define it. The song goes on...
Our task: bring a little order –
Swindle out a hoarder
From what he loots.
As the book says, "certainly a season" –
Trample out a treason,
With hobnail boots!

Notice that the police will bring "order" even if it means "swindling" someone. They vow to "trample out" treason (in other words, treason like peeing for free), with the heaviest of violent metaphors, hobnail boots, the heavy boots historically worn by invading armies. And to make it even worse, Lockstock even quotes the Bible to justify their brutality, Ecclesiastes 3:1-8. But this is no random citation. Look at that verse:
To everything there is a season,
A time for every purpose under heaven:
A time to be born, And a time to die;
A time to plant, And a time to pluck what is planted;
A time to kill, And a time to heal;
A time to break down, And a time to build up;
A time to weep, And a time to laugh;
A time to mourn, And a time to dance;
A time to cast away stones, And a time to gather stones;
A time to embrace, And a time to refrain from embracing;
A time to gain, And a time to lose;
A time to keep, And a time to throw away;
A time to tear, And a time to sew;
A time to keep silence, And a time to speak;
A time to love, And a time to hate;
A time of war, And a time of peace.

To Lockstock's mind, this is the time to kill, the time for war. And you'll forgive the digression, but this verse applies to much about Urinetown. First, they had the good years, but then they had the dreaded Stink Years, and now here they are. And in a more meta way (okay, this is a big digression), many of those lines could describe the contrast between tragic pop opera and old-school musical comedy, which is one of the things Urinetown takes potshots at. Okay, enough of the Bible.

"The Cop Song" continues on its creepy way...
Years past, all lived in a jungle,
Scooping out a bungle,
Nature’s bowl.
Life of constant deprivation,
Certain aggravation,
Took its toll.

Here, the cops remind us of the Stink Years, when the economy fell apart, a major Depression hit, and the city became a "jungle" where people found food wherever they could, foraging like our primitive ancestors. And living in constant need of food and shelter, it drove people crazy (or so believes Lockstock), and so the only solution was force -- the "truncheon" or nightstick.
Soon learned power of the truncheon.
Organize a function,
King to pawn.
So if peace is what you're after,
Urinetown's the rafter
To hang it on.

The combination of bureaucracy ("a function, king to pawn") and brutality, is what delivers "peace" to "the people." And so, the reasoning goes, Urinetown should be a shining example to other cities of how to keep the peace. Despite the wacky dissonance of the musical style, these cops take their beliefs and their jobs very seriously. They believe they are protecting order, and therefore democracy, and therefore freedom. Of course, freedom is what the rebels think they're fighting for too.

And if all that weren't creepy enough, the song identifies several case studies of people who broke the law by peeing for free, clearly meant to be cautionary tales.

It's a very funny song, largely because of its bizarre dissonance of form and content, and yet it's not funny. It's a song about how people have been brutalized and jailed (well, killed, actually) because of where and when they peed. The punishment is satirically outsized compared to the offense. And yet, how often in our real world do we see people -- let's be honest, black men -- being brutalized and/or killed over things almost as trivial.

Yeah, then it's not as funny....

And that's the genius of this ground-breaking neo musical comedyUrinetown. It's hilarious, but it's also subtextually pretty serious. It paints a vivid picture of how emotional, and therefore stupid, many people tend to get over politics and specific issues, and how much people love to join a "movement." It makes them feel less alone, and even more, it makes them feel important, like they matter. But that's the trouble -- it's about how it makes them feel instead of what they think.

America was founded on the freedom of belief, but the dark underbelly of that are the millions of Americans who still today conclude that their beliefs are more valid than facts and information, that the 2020 election was stolen, that wearing Covid masks was a violation of freedom, that vaccines cause autism, that Hillary Clinton was part of a child sex ring run out of a pizza parlor. Now, anything anyone believes -- anything -- is considered sacred because it's a belief, and therefore, unassailable and unrefutable.

Can we blame Bobby and the rebels for believing they should have the right to pee for free? Can we blame them for not thinking it through and foreseeing the consequences? Does the American electorate ever do that? Do lawmakers ever do that? Did the Supreme Court do that in their striking down of Roe v. Wade?

We don't usually think about the political environment when we talk about environmental theatre, but maybe that's the thing that keeps Urinetown endlessly interesting, funny, insightful, and painful over the years, as the real-world political environment keeps getting closer and closer to the insanity of Urinetown.

I have a reproduction of a prop from the original production of Urinetown, the fee hike proclamation. At the very bottom, in small type, is the date it was printed by the government -- 2027. Does that mean we're in the Stink Years now? Did Trump take us into the Stink Years? I guess so...

Long Live the Musical!

P.S. Click Here to buy tickets!

Urinetown Fucks With Us

I've written a lot, here on this blog and in my books, about how much musicals like Urinetown fuck with our art form, with audience expectations, with storytelling itself. But there's macro-fucking-with, and micro-fucking-with.

Or to put it another way, overt fucking-with and subliminal fucking-with.

Urinetown fucks with us on a surface level, by challenging our assumptions about politics, about government, about political movements. And it fucks with us on a level just under the surface, by up-ending our assumptions about musicals, about musical comedy, about character types, about musical theatre song types, and of course, about happy endings.

But on a deeper level, Urinetown also fucks with us subliminally, by not conforming to the basic storytelling rules and conventions we assume it will conform to; or to put it another way, by blowing to bits those rules and conventions.

Look at the way the show opens. The first words are from Officer Lockstock, who is both a character inside the story and an omniscient narrator outside the story. And he tells us all of that immediately, starting the show with, "Well, hello there. And welcome... to Urinetown! (pause) Not the place, of course. The musical. Urinetown the place is...well, it's a place you'll hear people referring to a lot throughout the show."

Right away, before anybody even sings, the writers have already thrown us off balance. The word Urinetown is both a place and a musical. In other words, we can't always be sure what words mean in this world. We can't trust language. And notice he doesn't refer to "actors" but instead to "people." These are the people of Urinetown the place, inside the story, and they are people (actors) of Urinetown the musical (outside the story). Outside the story, they know how it ends. Inside the story, they don't.

The first verse and chorus are inside the story:
You'll get Urinetown!
Off you'll go to Urinetown!
Away with you to Urinetown!

And because it's in the second person ("You'll get Urinetown!"), it implicates the audience in this dystopian world too. But the second verse and chorus are outside the story, though still second person. This song is all about the audience.
You our humble audience,
You have come to see
What it's like when
People can't pee free.
First act lasts an hour;
Don't assume you're fine.
Best go now;
There often is a line!

This is Urinetown!
One restroom here at Urinetown!
It's unisex at Urinetown,
All by design!

There's intentional ambiguity here about the word this in the phrase "This is Urinetown." We've been set up by the beginning of the song to think this should mean this place and time within the story, but by this point in the song, our frame has shifted, and this now means this performance in this theatre. The show will keep us on this reality seesaw all night, tossing us back and forth between the "reality" inside the story and our reality sitting in theatre seats watching this show. And they'll never warn us when they're about to switch without telling us.

The "rich folks" sing:
It's the oldest story –
Masses are oppressed;
Faces, clothes, and bladders
All distressed.
Rich folks get the good life,
Poor folks get the woe.
In the end, it's nothing you don't know.

Notice how often the lyric dips into the second person, directly addressing the audience as "you." The lyric also essentially tells us the plot of the show -- a class struggle -- and suggests that this story is nothing new. Which is also a big, funny lie. And then, not only does the show acknowledge itself as a musical -- in fact, quite explicitly as a fucked up musical -- but Kotis and Hollmann go even further in their meta-mania, referencing the larger context, the mechanics of buying tickets, coming to the theatre, etc. The show itself -- the writers, the actors, the characters, whoever -- even assume Urinetown's own offensiveness by comically foreseeing a rush for refunds after the opening number.
You're at Urinetown!
Your ticket should say "Urinetown!"
No refunds, this is Urinetown!
We’ll keep that dough!

The song ends with a big vocal counterpoint section, with half the ensemble singing:
This is Urinetown!
Here are are at Urinetown!

Again, the audience is left not knowing if we're talking about Urinetown or Urinetown, and of course, we're talking about both. And maybe the craziest twist our writers throw us is that Urinetown inside the story is really "Urinetown," in scare quotes, because it's just an idea, not a concrete place. So both meanings of Urinetown are essentially abstract, one a myth, the other a musical. You'll notice that we're not in Urinetown; we're at Urinetown. Fairly early in Act I, the show short-circuits our assumptions, and redefines the word "Urinetown," when Lockstock says:
Because it's a secret, that's why. Its power depends on mystery. I can't just blurt it out, like "There is no Urinetown! We just kill people!" Oh, no. The information must be oozed out slowly, until it bursts forth in one mighty, cathartic moment! Somewhere in Act Two. With everybody singing, and things like that.

Not only does the show commit a huge spoiler on itself, but it also tells us quite specifically and accurately how that info will "come out" in Act II (implying that they are aware that they are currently living in Act I). And while Lockstock tells us this spoiler, he also tells us it would be wrong to tell us the spoiler.

So why is this meta-self-betrayal so funny to an audience? Because it follows the two cardinal rules of comedy; it's both a surprise and it tells the truth. In fact, it tells the truth about the story and about the musical. And it's a surprise simply because we all know it's wrong to spoil a plot surprise. All throughout the story, Little Sally and Officer Lockstock discuss Urinetown ("Urinetown") and Urinetown, pointing out the musical's obvious "flaws" as a musical comedy, and its relentless violations of musical comedy conventions we all unconsciously accept.

Like the convention that the Hero is actually the Hero. Spoiler Alert: He's not.

Why has this perverse musical comedy become so successful, so embraced by audiences? I think it's because it's so perverse, because it finally acknowledges the silliness and dishonesty of the Rodgers and Hammerstein (not) naturalistic musicals. A musical will never be naturalistic. The audience will always be aware of the performance. And also the silliness and dishonesty of the Fourth Wall, especially for musicals.

Urinetown swept away (or at least, began the process) the nonsensical conventions of Broadway musicals that dated back sixty years or more. Forever after, a straight-forward, old-school musical comedy would feel kind of stupid, and the neo musical comedy would take root, using the forms and devices of old-school musical comedies, but with a more cynical, ironic, socio-political agenda.

It's also important to point out that today, meta-theatre -- theatre that acknowledges itself as theatre -- is no longer a gag or a joke. Now theatre that acknowledges its own artificiality as storytelling seems more honest to us. Think about shows like Hadestown, Hamilton, A Strange Loop, Next to Normal, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, the revised Color Purple, and my personal favorite, Bat Boy. We know we're in a theatre, we know those are actors onstage and we know they've rehearsed every moment of the show. Rodgers and Hammerstein tried to make us forget all that, but how can you, when the story keeps taking off into music? Why build a story on the lie of the Fourth Wall? That just gets between the actors and the audiences.

Theatre is about connection. The Fourth Wall is about disconnection.

In the mid-1800s, music was divorced from theatre for the first time in its history, and by the end of the century, there were non-musical plays and there were musicals, two different enterprises. And a few decades later, for some reason, writers like Rodgers and Hammerstein decided "serious" musicals should operate more like plays; and the idea of the "integrated musical" was born, blending all its disparate elements into one beautiful unified whole. But that's only one way to write musicals, and also it never really worked. Sometimes it's more interesting to set those elements against each other, like in Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Bukowsical, and Head Over Heels. This is the Age of the Mashup, after all.

People find Urinetown so funny because it's so honest in ways that it's not supposed to be, in ways that are fundamentally subversive, in ways that musicals just weren't until the mid-1990s, and in ways that make us think about what we think about musicals. But also because no matter when the show is produced, it feels newly relevant to that moment. Watching the hilariously angry dance number "Snuff That Girl," inevitably makes me think of MAGA rallies. And the vague, feel-good song "Look at the Sky" reminds me of the Obama years.

And so, here in 2022, it's easier than ever to relate to the mindless fear of change among the characters in Urinetown, because more so than at any time past, Urinetown is now just a funhouse mirror held up to today's actual politics, driven not by facts or issues or policies, but by slogans and by fear, with most of that fear focused on fear of the Other. Even though it was written at the tail end of the last century, Urinetown predicts with frightening accuracy the mindless politics of 2022.

But then again, I may well feel the same way in 2032. And now that I think about it, if Urinetown is always relevant, we're really in trouble.

The commercial musical theatre in New York had been pretty barren during the 1980s, mostly because the art form had disconnected itself from the mainstream culture, ever since the 1960s. But Jonathan Larson, and those who came with and after him in the 90s, were determined to heal that disconnect. Not only was Rent musically "of the moment," its story and characters were also "of the moment." Rent gave us new rules, or sometimes just revisions of the old rules, and it changed the trajectory of our art form.

It's hard to believe Urinetown is more than twenty years old! I remember seeing it on Broadway and being thrilled by this wild, new creature before me. At various points in my life and artistic evolution, I've seen shows that blow my mind and make me think, "Wow, musicals can be this?" It happened to me with Rocky Horror, Hair, Rent, Company, Robber Bridegroom, A New Brain, Bat Boy, and of course, Urinetown.

I'm so grateful to everyone who keeps New Line Theatre alive. I'm so lucky to get to work on brilliant, ground-breaking material like this. I hope you'll come see this inspired lunacy in June!

Long Live the Musical!

P.S. Click Here to buy tickets!

Not the Place, the Musical.

When Urinetown opened on Broadway in 2001, it broke the musical comedy. In a good way.

In a perverse way, it was the most honest musical to be written in decades.

Evil musical theatre geniuses Greg Kotis and Mark Hollmann (also creators of the amazing Yeast Nation) took the long-perfected machinery of the American musical comedy, passed down to us from Cohan through Abbott, and they threw several big wrenches into that machine, pulled out some of its gears, smeared peanut butter on a few of the belts.

They fucking broke it. In a good way.

Even the weirder experiments of the past never broke it. They may have used that machinery for subversive and/or outrageous purposes (Little Shop, anyone?), and in the case of Sondheim's Merrily We Roll Along, he ran the machine backwards, but they always kept the machine running.

Okay, Threepenny Opera broke it too, which is why Urinetown is built on Threepenny's model.

The opening number of Urinetown violates every rule of musical theatre openings -- except for one, maybe the most important, Sondheim's Ten Minute Rule, which requires laying out all the ground rules for the evening in the first ten minutes of the show, ideally in the first song. (Think of Into the Woods, Company, Hamilton, High Fidelity, Next to Normal, Bat Boy, Be More Chill, Heathers, and so many other great shows.) Urinetown does in fact set up all the rules for the evening in the first song, but these are really different rules.

In this show, there is no Fourth Wall, the central story is actually about urine, and while most stories weave the central theme subtly throughout the story, Urinetown bludgeons us repeatedly all night with water and pee imagery. This world is familiar, but also different from ours, like a fun house mirror of our real world, distorted, but still a mirror. We can count on certain things making sense, but not all things, and we can sort of see our reflection. The great secret mystery of the story is intentionally spoiled in the first number. The hero of the story isn't really the hero. The big love song is about the lovers' hearts, not as symbols of love, but as anatomic organs. The storytelling is unnervingly serious and perversely literal. The heightened style of acting mashes together the high formality of Classical Acting with a gleefully silly plot and ridiculous characters and dialogue.

One of the bookwriters of Bat Boy (to this day, one of my Top Five Favorite Musicals) had a saying to describe the acting in their show. And while Bat Boy is goofier on the surface than Urinetown is, it applies to both shows, as well as Little Shop of Horrors, Cry-Baby, Spelling Bee, Head Over Heels, and so many others.

"The depth of emotion, the height of expression."

It means the emotions still need to be real and honest, even complex, but the presentation, the expression of those emotions, is big and exaggerated. It's fairly hard to do this at first, not least of all because it feels so unnatural, but actors usually acclimate to it pretty fast. It's a very effective style that suits these stories so perfectly.

Long ago, I saw John Cleese say that he learned early on that the funniest thing in the world is watching someone try not to laugh, and the saddest thing is watching someone try not to cry. That really stuck with me, and the more I think about it over the years, the more I see how true it is. We've put that idea into practice in several shows and it really works. And it connects back to "the depth of emotion, the height of expression."

Comedy isn't for amateurs. Seeing someone trying to be funny onstage just isn't that funny. It's much funnier for an audience to discover what's funny. Seeing someone really "underline" a punch line is much less funny than when the actor underplays it, and lets us find what's funny about it.

In 2015, I wrote a blog post about neo musical comedies like Bat Boy and Urinetown, and I wrote this:
Too many actors and directors don't understand that the key to Urinetown (and many other shows like it) is honest, straight-faced, highly intense acting and emotions, coupled with ridiculously high stakes. The more seriously the actors take their characters and the story, and the higher they raise the dramatic stakes, the funnier the show gets. I'm not talking about over-acting, or melodrama, or any other phony style. That puts up a wall between the actors and audience. I'm talking about a heightened, more exaggerated physical and vocal performance, with a genuinely honest acting performance, which comes entirely from character and situation, without commentary or a wink from the actor. Intensity and honesty together are very powerful – and/or very funny. It's about connection, not disconnection.

Audiences don't want to see the actors working at being funny, begging for laughs. That kind of nonsense just gets between the audience and the story. And it's less funny.

We can't let the audience catch us trying to be funny, because that's just not that funny. And this material is comedy gold! We don't need to add a thing, we don't to "help" it be funny (the idea makes me cringe), we don't need to "sell" it. We need to take it seriously, REALLY seriously, like the End of Humans seriously, like Charlton Heston at the end of Planet of the Apes seriously. That's literally what the story is. And that's when the show will be its funniest -- and most true to what Kotis and Hollmann wrote.

We have to think in terms of letting the show be funny, by following it, rather than making the show funny.

In some ways, Urinetown asks actors to actively go against their best acting instincts. But I've seen this weird alchemy work. I saw the original cast on Broadway and was thrilled by it. And I directed the show for New Line fifteen years ago, with a fearless cast (the first New Line show for both Zak Farmer and Michelle Sauer!). They found the weird, wonderful, unsettling style and had so much fun with it. It's a blast to return to this upside-down world again.

This is not a musical comedy. It's a neo musical comedy. They are a different animal. Come see New Line's Urinetown and you'll see what I mean.

Long Live the Musical!

P.S. Click Here to buy tickets!

Tearing Up RENT's Origin Myth

You would be truly amazed at how many fans of Jonathan Larson’s Rent pretend to be experts on Puccini’s opera La Bohème and Henri Murger’s 1851 comic novel Scènes de la vie de Bohème – without in fact seeing the opera or reading the novel, by the way.

There is a common belief that Rent is based on the famous opera, but it’s not. Believe, me, I have studied the opera and the novel and the stage play and Rent. When Rent opened it was an easy shorthand to say it was based on La Bohème, rather than explaining the story’s long actual history, but it’s not true.

If you read the book, you will see that I’m right.

Scènes de la vie de Bohème didn’t begin life as a musical, or an opera, or even as a novel. Writer Henri Murger was an authentic, twenty-something Bohemian (i.e., starving artsy), a poet in Paris in the 1840s. Though he later wrote other novels, he’s most remembered for Bohème. Like his own character Rodolphe (Roger in Rent), Murger edited a fashion paper, the Moniteur de la Mode (Fashion Monitor), and a magazine for the hat industry called Castor. In 1844, Murger joined the staff of the daily paper Le Corsaire (which is French for The Pirate), which was helpfully subtitled, “journal of shows, literature, arts, and fashions.”

A friend and editor of another magazine, L’Artiste, suggested to Murger that he focus less on poetry and instead write stories. But among the Bohemians, prose was for amateurs; true artists wrote only poetry. Still, luckily for us, Murger took the advice to heart. So in 1848, he began to write the serialized stories The Bohemians for Le Corsaire, “autobiographical fiction” about Murger and his starving artist friends, all of them re-named. Among those friends were the famous painter James Whistler, the great poet Charles Baudelaire, the great writer Alexandre Dumas Jr., and the novelist and art critic Champfleury, among many others.

In the biography The Legend of the Latin Quarter: Henry Murger and the Birth of Bohemia, authors Evalyn Marvel and Arthur Moss write, “The stories appearing in Corsaire were attracting considerable attention. While the controversy of Realism versus Romanticism was being waged, they slipped in neatly to bridge the gap. They were sentimental, pathetic, romantic – but they were also witty, comic, reportorial.”

At the crossroads of the Romantic movement and the Realism movement, Murger managed to walk a tightrope in his stories between the two, realistic and cynical enough for the critics and academics, romantic and funny enough for the average reading public. Marvel and Moss write, “Bohème is replete with sentiment but its humor redeems it from being mere sentimentality. Murger knew his Bohemia and he could laugh at it as well as weep over it. Murger’s humor, even today, does not pall. It is essentially modern in its keen sense of the ridiculous, in its grasp of the absurdities of situations.”

His stories caused a sensation in literary circles, but Le Corsaire was a small paper and didn’t reach a huge audience. And yet a Parisian publisher collected the stories into a single volume and sold out 70,000 copies.

Then, a young playwright, Théodore Barrière, asked for permission to adapt Murger’s stories for the stage. The subsequent play, La vie de Bohème in 1849 was a huge hit. Murger wanted to include some of his poetry in the play, so Barrière agreed, but only if they were set to music. Almost accidentally, the show became an early proto-musical comedy. Murger also wanted a happy ending, but Barrière insisted that Mimi had to die, that the integrity of the entire show depended on telling the truth at the end. After all, the real life version of Mimi (well, one of the three), Lucille, did die.

The play enjoyed an all-star gala opening night on November 22, 1849. Anyone in Paris who liked the theatre was there. Most of Murger’s real life friends were in the audience to see their fictional selves onstage, and they were delighted. After the huge success of the play on stage, publisher Michel Levy offered to publish the stories as a full novel. So Murger and Levy collected and ordered the stories, and Murger did some revisions.  The novel was published in 1851 and was a bestseller.

Murger didn’t invent the world of alternative, unconventional, iconoclastic, artsy “Bohemia,” a world of starving artists and unpaid rent, a world of “art for art’s sake.” But he was the first to write a novel about this community and these people – all based on his own experiences as one of them. Murger died suddenly at the age of 39.

Decades later, composer Giacomo Puccini and his two librettists, Illica & Giocosa, based their 1896 tragic opera La Bohème on the popular stage play, and not the novel, despite publicly saying otherwise. Another composer Ruggero Leoncavallo wrote music to his own libretto and opened his tragic opera La Bohème a year later in 1897. Both were successful, but Leoncavallo’s opera was largely forgotten, while Puccini’s became world famous.

A century and a half later, Jonathan Larson would follow a path incredibly parallel to Murger's, writing about his life and his community, and then dying suddenly at the age of (almost) 36, leaving us Rent. As crazy and wild as Murger’s stories are, they are sketches of real life and real people. These things really happened and these characters actually existed. 

When Rent opened, everybody made a big deal out of its connection to La Bohème, largely because the opera is very well-known and the novel is not. But Rent is not an updating of La Bohème. While La Bohème romanticizes suffering and death (which was very trendy in 1896 when it premiered), Rent celebrates life with all its might, as evidenced by all the references to life in the show (the Life Café, Angel’s group Life Support, and others). While Bohème is tragic, Rent is joyous like the novel. While the world of the opera is romantic and poetic, the world of Rent is tough, gritty, angry, and real (again, more like the novel). And of course, where Bohème has the lovely “Musetta’s Waltz,” Rent has the cynical “Tango Maureen.”

Larson used so many details from Murger’s novel. The book is unlike the opera in many ways, particularly in its wonderful sense of humor. The book is funny, first and foremost, and the four friends are much more like the four friends in Rent than they are like the characters in the opera. The book is chock full of rampant casual sex and other delightful decadences, a remarkable thing for a book written in the 1840s. Also in the book, Mimi’s great tragic death of tuberculosis really belongs to a one-chapter character named Francine, who was in love with a man named Jacques, who died of grief soon after Francine.

Lots of small details in Rent come from the novel: the importance of Collins’ coat, their regular restaurant where they often order nothing and don’t always pay the bill, the burning of manuscripts and letters for heat, Marcel/Mark’s decision to sell out his art, and the structural significance of Christmas Eve. The novel makes a strong (and constant) point of the fact that the four bohemians are irresponsible, selfish, and immature, a complaint leveled by critics against Larson’s character, but they’re also endlessly clever and charming.

In the book, Rodolphe is able to write his one great poem only after Mimi has left him, paralleling Roger’s song “Your Eyes.” And just as the song revives Mimi in the musical, Mimi in the novel sees Rodolphe’s poem in a magazine and it’s (indirectly) what brings them together again. The novel is organized into a couple dozen short stories, so when critics complained about Rent’s structure, they didn’t realize it mirrored the original novel. It’s a legitimate storytelling structure, a series of snapshots, a book of days, that ultimately come together like a jigsaw puzzle to form a rich tapestry of characters, relationships, and truths.

The trick that both Murger and Larson pull off is that the incidents aren’t really random and unconnected at all; they only seem that way. Content Dictates Form, as Sondheim always said. Instead of telling the story of these characters in a conventional, linear narrative, they unfold like a collage, in more of a cumulative narrative. Like Company, Follies, Passing Strange, Pippin, and other shows, you don’t see the whole picture till you get to the end. But there are long arcs of story and character, and we do see our four central characters grow and learn and change over time.

I first read the novel years ago when I first studied and wrote about Rent. I’ve now really studied it closely and I’m so impressed and so entertained by what Murger has done, making us love these incorrigible, selfish, whiny, crazy, whimsical, talented people. Anybody who thinks the book isn’t a novel, just because it began as a serialization, probably hasn’t read it.

And now there's a new edition of the novel especially for Rent fans, more readable, more accessible, and as outrageous as ever. If you love Rent, you'll love the novel. This edition is called La Vie Bohème! and there's an essay of mine in the back about Murger and Rent (from which some of this post is poached).

I've always loved reading novels that musicals are based on. It's such fun for me to see what's the same and what's different, what got left out or changed, what the novel can tell me about these characters that I didn't know from the show, etc. I have three shelves in my bookcase full of these novels, including quite a few I haven't read yet. Some of my other favorites so far are Candide, Be More Chill, Aspects of Love, Pal Joey, High Fidelity, 42nd Street, Show Boat, and Kiss of the Spider Woman.

But I think La Vie Bohème! may be my favorite (although I just call it "the Rent novel"). Maybe because I relate to the four main characters so completely, maybe just because it makes me laugh out loud.

If you enjoy fiction, and you like Rent, give La Vie Bohème! a shot. And let me know what you think!

Long Live the Musical!