So you want HAPPY...?

I've been blogging a lot here about how weird Urinetown is, how many rules it breaks and/or mocks, how it rejects pretty much every element of the Rodgers and Hammerstein model, the model 90% of musicals have followed since the 1940s (including shows like Rent, Les Miz, Avenue Q, and lots more). Urinetown certainly wasn't the first to break some of these rules, but it does the most thorough -- and most intelligent -- job of it. The music of Urinetown rejects the R&H rules for music, the lyrics reject the rules for lyrics, the rhyming rejects the rules for rhyming, the structure rejects the rules for structure, the content rejects the rules for content... I could keep going, but you'd stop reading...

So where does that leave us? How do you stage a show like that? Unfortunately, many companies around the country are producing the show now, but so many of them do it like it's The Pajama Game or Annie Get Your Gun. It's not.

Let me say that again. IT'S NOT.

This is a show literally like no other that's ever been written. It's not just a show that breaks rules; it's a show about breaking those rules. And the primary job of a director (at least in my opinion) is to understand what the creators meant to say and then figure out the clearest possible way to say that. Sometimes that means doing the show very much like its original production, and sometimes it means taking an entirely different approach to achieve the same goals in a new or different context. This is a show that means to tear down the R&H model and leave it in rubble, so that must be our charge as well...

A noble purpose, in my opinion...

With New Line's production of Urinetown, it seems to me that Stephen Sondheim's cardinal rule applies -- Content Dictates Form. This is a show about breaking the rules of musical theatre, so our production must break the rules of musical theatre as well (although we must do that without sacrificing character, story, themes, etc.). We have to question every single convention of musical theatre. Some of those conventions will beg to be broken; others are probably best left intact so as not to lose the audience behind in the dust.

So what are the questions we ask? A lot of them are the same questions we always ask with New Line shows, but we ask more of them this time. Must the playing space be limited to a stage? (No.) Can a show require something from the audience? (Yes.) Can the actors interact with the audience? (Yes.) Do we have to pretend we're eavesdropping on "reality" or can we acknowledge the artifice of our work? (No and Yes.) Must the characters all act naturally? (No.) Must they move naturally? (No.) Must the staging look natural? (No.) Does the plot have to make logical sense? (No.) Can songs be left unfinished? (Yes.) There are lots more like these...

And even beyond that, we've created some staging for this show that purposefully yanks the audience out of the "reality" of the story (whatever that means in the case of Urinetown) and continually reminds them that this is just a show, that it's fake, that these are just actors -- and even more unusual for a musical comedy, that our show has an Agenda. We will not ask our audience to "suspend disbelief" this time. The constant (and often hilarious) acknowledgement of the artificiality of our performance is utterly forbidden under the R&H rules, but if you really think about it, this approach is a much more honest one. A show is artificial, after all. The actors aren't these characters. And by acknowledging all that, we eliminate the Big Lie of the Fourth Wall.

In Urinetown, we're not trying to lure you into getting emotionally involved with these characters. No, our aim (much like Brecht) is to get you to sit up and think about what's happening. You won't get wrapped up in Hope and Bobby's romance because the show doesn't want that; instead you'll be realizing how silly the conventions of old-fashioned musicals are, how corrupt the relationship between government and business is, how foolish and selfish The People can be, and how overly seriously we all tend to take ourselves in the Big Scheme of Things.

Some people won't like our approach. They'll wish they were seeing The Pajama Game at the Muny. (Then again, they did buy a ticket to a show called Urinetown!) Our job isn't to make the audience comfortable; it's to give the audience an adventure. And whatever else it will be, our Urinetown will be an adventure.

Long Live the Musical!