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!

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