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!