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!

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