Always It's Been Urinetown!

At the very end of Urinetown, the cast sings:
This is Urinetown!
Always it's been Urinetown!
This place, it's called Urinetown!

"This place" meaning where these characters live? Or "This place" meaning this theatre, or this city where you're watching the show. Are we in Urinetown? This connects back to early in Act II, when Little Sally hits us with a comic bombshell:
Lockstock: Where are they hiding, Little Sally?! Tell me and I'll see things go easy on you.
Little Sally: Easy on me?! You mean like sending me to the nice part of Urinetown?!
Lockstock: That can be arranged.
Little Sally: Save it for one of your other stoolies, Officer Lockstock. My heart's with the rebellion. And besides, the way I see it, I'm already in Urinetown. We all are. Even you.
Lockstock: Me? In Urinetown?
Little Sally: Sure. The way I see it, Urinetown isn't so much a place as it is a metaphysical place.

We're already in Urinetown. We all are. The place or the musical? Is the musical the "metaphorical place" she's talking about?

These days, we probably have a slightly better idea of what the characters in Urinetown are going through, now that we've all been through a damn pandemic! But in Urinetown we still tend to think of it all as a joke. Peeing! Lulz! But it's a joke based in really grim reality, a joke meant to grab us by the neck and shake us a bit. After all, parts of the world, and yes, parts of our country, regularly have droughts.

And let's be honest, Urinetown isn't just an ecological disaster musical. It's also a political disaster musical, making the painfully funny point -- more relevant today than ever before -- that in a democracy, a lot of The People are stupid and gullible. Spend a little time on Facebook and you'll see how true that is. In Urinetown, part of the dystopia is the people themselves, how they've been changed, what they've been through; after all, our "heroes" are guilty, of wrath, pride, envy, and other assorted sins.

Before the angry and vengeful song-and-dance, "Snuff That Girl," Urinetown lays it all out for us:
Little Becky Two-Shoes: String her up!
Little Sally: Wait a minute! You can’t just give her the rope!
Hot Blades Harry: Why not?!
Little Sally: Because killin’ her would make us no better than them.
Little Becky Two-Shoes: Haven’t you heard, Little Sally? We are no better than them. In fact, we’re worse.

It's a joke, but it's not. Our heroes are no better than our villains. Once again, writers Greg Kotis and Mark Hollmann pull the rug out from under us and violate all our expectations about the Good Guys and the Bad Guys. Be careful whose team you're on...

Today in 2022 this exchange with Becky Two-Shoes brings with it the uncomfortable parallel to the fear and hatred that fuels the Trump Party; and the chants to "Hang Mike Pence!" during the January 2021 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. These Urinetown rebels feel left behind, abandoned, treated unjustly, afraid; and that's exactly how Trump supporters feel. And as Yoda has taught us, fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, and hate leads to suffering.

So to get my head into this very dark, fucked up, dystopian space, I decided to watch a bunch of iconic dystopian movies while we rehearsed. Which was fun! Though I'm not including zombie movies in this list, I would also very much recommend all the George Romero zombie films. As it is with Romero's films, it's really interesting to think about what was going on politically and socially in our country when each of these dystopian films were released.

Here's what I watched...

Things to Come (1936)

Soylent Green (1973) -- I've seen this movie a few times over the years, but not recently; and when I watched it again, it still packs a hell of a wallop. Not least because it's set in 2022! It's so close to real, and so many details make us cringe because it looks like the nightly news. Like the best dystopian films, it lives in that Dystopian Uncanny Valley, that place where it's so close to reality that it makes you uncomfortable.

I had forgotten how much water rationing is part of the world of Soylent Green, and though I always remember that iconic climactic line, I had forgotten that the whole story is really about that mystery that starts with a murder -- like Urinetown. In a scene in the movie where our protagonist finds himself investigating a murder in an ultra rich man's apartment, he becomes almost mesmerized by the rare sensations of fresh food, cold water on his face, a shower, a flush toilet, hand soap, all those things that go along with accessible water. It made me think of when the city has had to turn off my water to work on the pipes; and even for a few hours, it's a huge inconvenience to me. Living that way all the time would be torture.

Westworld (1973) -- Though it seems like a very different kind of story from Urinetown, the iconic sci-fi movie Westworld isn't far off. Once again, a giant corporation more powerful than any government does what it wants and people die. While Urinetown is about an ecological disaster, Westworld is about a cultural and technological disaster. On a smaller scale and in more subtle ways than the Terminator series, in Westworld, the machines also "wake up" and take over. Maybe Westworld can be thought of as a prequel to Terminator... At least there are no computers in Urinetown...!

Sleeper (1973)  

World on a Wire (1973 TV movie) and The 13th Floor (1999) -- two mind-bending thrillers based on the same source, set in various levels of reality, and involving the creation of a fully functioning virtual world. The 1999 film is one of my favorites.

Rollerball (1975) --
At first, this amazing thriller doesn't seem to have much in common with Urinetown, but they are companion pieces. The title sport is a brutal combination of football and roller derby that has become the national sport -- designed specifically to discourage individuality and ambition, and to pacify the masses with mindless, extreme violence. In Rollerball, there are no countries anymore, just corporations, and each segment of the market (energy, food, housing, etc.) is controlled by a single corporation. And as in Urinetown, the corporation is all powerful and the people are just pawns. And as in Urinetown a hero does arise, and the film ends just as he triumphs over the corporation -- for the moment.

Logan's Run (1976)  

The Warriors (1979) 

Mad Max (1980) 

Escape from New York (1981) 

Videodrome (1983)
-- one of my all-time favorite movies, a total mindfuck.

1984 (1984) -- This movie is so dismal and sad and drab and hopeless, it's hard to watch. But that's the story. I hadn't read 1984 since college, and I had forgotten how awful this world is. But this is probably the closest we come to the everyday lives of the people of Urinetown, except 1984 is no cartoon. There's no ironic distance for the audience, which makes it really tough to get through.

Brazil (1985) -- Watching this film again (easily my tenth or twelfth viewing) with Urinetown in my head was really interesting. Though Brazil is really serious absurdism, and Urinetown is very funny absurdism, the two stories have so much in common, particularly, the absurdity of dumb laws, of bureaucracy, of mid-level execs with small bits of power, of the human tendency to assume the next guy will do something; and of course, both stories shatter the Hero Myth story, in very different but really interesting ways.

RoboCop (1987) -- if ever there was a bleak cautionary tale about corrupt corruptions taking over our county, this is it. It's incredibly gory, but a hell of a great dystopian movie.

The Running Man (1987)

They Live (1988) and The Matrix (1999) -- Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get you. They Live follows a similar, though more straightforward, story as The Matrix, but the enemy in They Live is aliens hiding among us, rather than a malevolent computer. It's a great movie!

Back to the Future 2 (1989) -- this looks way too much like the Trump years now...

Slipstream (1989)

12 Monkeys (1995) 

Strange Days (1995) 

Harrison Bergeron (1995 TV movie)
 -- another of my favorites about a near future in which mediocrity is enforced, in the name of equality. Based on a Kurt Vonnegut story.

Dark City (1998) -- This one also seems at first a long way from Urinetown but it's another dystopian movie about the little guy being powerless against greater forces. It's also an amazingly stylish, wonderfully freaky film, with Richard O'Brien as one of the bad guys!

Pontypool (2009) -- a horror movie all about language, about a contagious idea. It's a weird zombie cousin to Urinetown.

District 9 (2009) -- a sci-fi version of Urinetown. Sort of.

Dredd (2012) 

Elysium (2013) 

Color Out of Space (2020) 

There are more, lots more. I guess people really love fearing the future. It's interesting how much these movies overlap the ideas of Urinetown. But as the Rich Folks tell us in the Urinetown opening
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.

As with everything else in Urinetown, this lyric has levels to it. Class warfare is an old story, but at the same time, Urinetown is certainly not an old story. The lyric mashes together traditional class oppression with urinary class oppression: "Faces, clothes, and bladders all distressed." And the last line is a gem, with it's double-negative. But what is the "it" that's nothing we don't know? This story? The history of class warfare? The act of peeing? All of that? And is "in the end" an ass joke?

Kotis and Hollmann remind me of a wonderful quote I found years ago, in an anniversary issue of Mother Jones magazine, "Better to give us thanks for knowing the importance of being un-earnest, of taking undignified chances, for having the courage to risk all, risk being wrong, risk looking foolish. If there is in fact any secret at all to our amazing longevity, that's surely near the heart of it: knowing how to act the fool like the future depends on it."

I never though I'd say this, but the only fundamental difference between Soylent Green and Urinetown is the approach. And that's the wicked genius of Kotis and Hollmann.

Long Live the Musical!

P.S. Click Here to buy tickets!