What a weird show Urinetown is. I realize as I watch our run that this show is so very special for so very many reasons. One big reason is that its humor is largely ironic (there are also some Keystone Kops moments, etc., but irony is the driving force). Because of this, not every audience "gets" the show. We had the same experience with Reefer Madness and Johnny Appleweed.
Last night, I formed a theory about All of This. In the 1960s we had a Generation Gap, but that has morphed over time into an Irony Gap. Very few shows (or other forms of entertainment) can appeal across generational lines anymore (just like in the 60s). Older audiences want straight-forward stories and jokes, having grown up on I Love Lucy and The Andy Griffith Show and movies like The Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind. Younger audiences that grew up during the 60s and later decades (watching Watergate, the Iran Contra scandal, Monica-gate) want "postmodern" entertainment that challenges the mainstream, that distrusts authority, that finds deeper truths – and hypocrisies and self-deceptions – below the surface of mainstream civility and respectability. This is an audience that grew up with The Smothers Brothers, Laugh-In, Monty Python, Saturday Night Live, and now The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. This is an audience that finds the truth by tearing apart the layers of bullshit that try to obscure it.
That's the audience Urinetown was made by and for. The postmodern musical deconstructs the modernism of Rodgers and Hammerstein, mocks its sentimentality, finds irony in its simplistic mid-century morality, sneers at its Fourth Wall, and rips away the respectable to reveal the authentic and ugly and truthful. Perhaps Follies was the first real postmodern musical, dissecting and ultimately rejecting the Rodgers and Hammerstein model for something more nuanced, swimming in real-world gray area rather the manufactured moral or artistic surety.
So on Thursday nights of our run, when our audiences are generally older (gotta love that senior discount), they don't all really get the whole Irony Thing. They still laugh at the Act I Finale because it returns to the slapstick of the Keystone Kops. They still laugh at the pregnant woman tap dancing in "Snuff That Girl," because even Lucy made pregnancy funny...
But they don't "get" Urinetown. They don't get -- and probably wouldn't like, if they did -- the smartass side of the show, the postmodern, tearing-apart-conventions side. Which also made me realize the fundamental difference between our production and the production at the Rep last fall. The Rep's show was more goofy, more Mame, more The Mary Tyler Moore Show, whereas our production (and the original) are more The Smothers Brothers, Saturday Night Live, Second City, This is Spinal Tap, and The Daily Show, with that layer of anti-authoritarian cynicism darkening every color. It's the difference between those who trust what authority figures tell us and those who assume there are always ulterior motives and manipulations under the surface. Watergate, Vietnam, and Regan shaped my generation, and Urinetown was written for us.
In a time when Bush and Company can make federal environmental standards significantly worse and then call it a "Clean Skies Initiative," when a tax on inherited money is relabeled the "Death Tax" (can't you just hear Lord Vader breathing down your neck?) we need a Urinetown. It truly is The New Musical for The New Millennium
When we did Reefer Madness two of our regular audience members came up to me afterward and told me that they had a friend who really needed to see our show because he was addicted to marijuana too! In that second, my mind was completely blown. They had loved the show, but had no idea the entire show was sarcastic, that everything in the show meant exactly the opposite of what it actually said. They thought it was a real cautionary tale about the dangers of marijuana when it was actually a cautionary tale about the mindless demonization of drugs. Urinetown is proving to be a similar experience.
Our entire culture is moving toward Irony now, but it's creating the biggest Generation Gap since 1954. It'll be interesting to see how it plays out in the coming years...
Meanwhile, we'll continue to assault our audience with this smartass work of dark brilliance and watch to see who gets it and who doesn't...
Long Live the Musical!