Urinetown the Musical has been on my mind of late. A couple of weekends ago, I revisited the cast recording on a long drive home from a wedding with my pal Neil. Then last week I watched a full bootleg of the original cast that’s available on YouTube. And now I can’t stop thinking about how damn good it was. Which brings me to a new segment I’ve entitled “Oldies but Goodies!”
Because why shouldn’t we revisit old shows that we adore? Musicals that I still wonder if they’ll ever be topped. Urinetown changed my young 17-year-old mind about what musicals could be. I had never seen anything like it. I’d grown up on stuff like Les Miz, Miss Saigon, Frank Wildhorn (Jekyll & Hyde, anyone?), and as we’ve discussed, RENT. And then came along this tongue-in-cheek, insanely smart, dry, witty, entirely original musical that changed the forefront and future of musical theatre (as far as I’m concerned anyway). To this day, I believe that Avenue Q never would have won Best Musical in 2004 over a mainstream crowd-pleaser like Wicked had Urinetown not paved the way a couple years earlier, losing to Thoroughly Modern Millie in 2002. And yet it won Best Director, Best Score, and Best Book…but not Best Musical? I mean, what? I’m not bitter.
Urinetown introduced self-awareness to the conventions of musical theatre, on top of the hilarious fact that the entire story was about a town where you had to pay to pee. It poked fun at the musical form in general without putting it down and tipped its hat to so many other musical genres from West Side Story to Les Misérables. Only later came shows like Avenue Q and Book of Mormon as now it’s very popular to reference other musical styles. This show also brought us stars like Hunter Foster, Nancy Opel, Jennifer Laura Thompson, and more. It was Hunter’s big debut in the spotlight, and the moment I saw the Tony performance, I fell in love with him immediately.
When I went to see Urinetown for the first time (in the front row no less), I think my jaw sat on the floor the entire time. I remember laughing so hard my face hurt, but I also recall being so stunned by the humor and wit that I was dumbfounded into silence. I went home that Thursday night and spent the next two days convincing my parents that we HAD to go. I would do ANYTHING. In fact, I believe I promised to read seven books that summer in exchange for tickets (I wasn’t a big reader in my younger days). So after talking their ears off for hours on end, I got my wish, and we went that Saturday afternoon. And I went again 10 days later. Aaaand proceeded to return four more times before it closed.
The story is narrated by Officer Lockstock (his partner is Officer Barrel clearly) and the precocious Little Sally. They commentate throughout the show, discussing the fact that it has a terrible title and premise. We learn about the conflicted dreamer Bobby Strong, the stalwart Penelope Pennywise who runs one of the public amenities, the misleading Caldwell B. Cladwell who owns UGC (Urine Good Company, clearly) and imposes the bathroom fees on the town, and his optimistic daughter Hope who inspires Bobby to take a stand. The music is chock-full with fantastic tunes, including “Look at the Sky,” “Snuff the Girl,” and “Run Freedom Run.” I must have replayed the phrase “just laughter and gladness” from “Follow Your Heart” thousands of times. The book has so many jokes it’s hard to catch ‘em all. Here are a couple of my favorites:
McQUEEN: Ms. Cladwell, what an unexpected surprise.
HOPE: Is there any other kind?
HOPE: They may not have taught me much at the Most Expensive University in the World, but they taught me this much: kidnapping people is wrong.
BOBBY: Really? They taught you that there?
All these years later, Urinetown remains one of my all-time favorite musicals, plus it’s on my list of top five productions that I’ve ever seen. And even though it was only a bootleg on YouTube, it was so nice to see it again.
Urinetown the Musical
Music and Lyrics by Mark Hollmann, Book and Lyrics by Greg Kotis, Directed by John Rando
Henry Miller’s Theatre, Closed January 18, 2004
Pictured: Jennifer Laura Thompson and Hunter Foster