Oldies but Goodies: Urinetown

Urinetown the Musical

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

The Bridges of Madison County

The Bridges of Madison County

A few short weeks ago I wrote a post about the upcoming production of The Bridges of Madison County. It has since arrived on Broadway and is set to open on February 20th (check out photos here). So, how did it measure up to expectations? Honestly, it’s quite the mix.

Here’s the basic premise. It’s 1965 in Madison County, Iowa. We open on a housewife named Francesca (Kelli O’Hara), who lives with her husband Bud (Hunter Foster) and their two kids. Hubbie and the kids are heading out of town for a few days for some cattle steer contest thing that makes absolutely no sense to an East Coast girl like me. Fran is still adjusting to Iowan life. She’s originally from Italy and looks pretty darn bored with her daily chores in this flat town. Enter Robert Kincaid (Steven Pasquale)! He’s the dreamy, traveling photographer who pulls into town right when Fran’s family hits the road. Most everyone coming to this show knows that these two are destined to fall in love from the second he asks for directions to one of the covered bridges…of Madison County. And oddly enough, it’s these two we root for despite the fact that it’s an extramarital affair. Bud isn’t a bad guy by any means, but we still want this for Francesca.

The first act is like a beautiful, slow crescendo. It’s full of folksy tunes and soaring, lush ballads. It is also funnier than I expected. It’s hard to believe Steven Pasquale has never done a Broadway musical before, but finally audiences are getting a chance to hear his pipes, which of course sound amazing alongside the glory that is Kelli O’Hara (everything she touches is gold). The story relies on a strong bond between the two leads, and there is great chemistry between O’Hara and Pasquale. Over the course of Act I, the string on the violin is pulled tighter and tighter as the sexual tension builds between them. The ensemble isn’t used as effectively. They’re either under-utilized or one-dimensional. I like the snooping yet caring neighbor (Cass Morgan) for comedy purposes and also having a real face to the husband and kids out at the cattle event, but everything else somewhat fades to the background. Even the supporting characters feel like filler, because we are really just waiting for Robert and Francesca to be together.

It starts out so strong. All through the first half I was curious, longing for the next song, eager for the upcoming moment. That eagerness slowly faded during Act II. In fact, it turned into a distant memory. To sport a 90s reference, like the Energizer bunny, the show keeps going and going and going (running time is 2 hours and 35 minutes). The second act falls off track and turns into the same idea set to music over and over again. Want to hear another song about love? Here’s one. How about one about loss? Hit it! Oooh, love AND loss? That’s new! Bring it on. I know it sounds harsh, but I was disappointed to be disappointed.

I think it’s mainly a storytelling issue. After Robert and Francesca get together, there isn’t much left to cover or to fill the time. There is the fact that Fran is left with a decision to make: does she stay with her family or run off with Rob to take lots of pictures of bridges? The thing is, her decision is made sometime in Act II and then there is still another 20 minutes of material. All of a sudden we find ourselves in a montage time leap, jumping years into the future. I wonder if this happens in the movie/book as well. The plot problem reminds me of the “Moonlighting” curse which people like to bring up for every TV show known to man with a will-they-or-won’t-they couple. You know the drill: once a couple gets together, people assume the show will fall apart and lose viewers. I personally don’t think a relationship has to kill a show. Now, if the sexual tension was all the show had going for it, then there were problems to begin with. A couple can get together, but the writing has to keep up!

Musically, the two duets between Francesca and Robert are the big highlights: Falling Into You and One Second and a Million Miles. They also each have an 11 o’clock number, but by that point it’s all so repetitive we care less and less. Granted, it might just be me (and the people who were griping around me). I’m curious to see what the reviews will be and if changes are made during the preview period. I hear there are folks coming out of this show sobbing. So who knows? I like to think I’m a romantic and I always love to root for the couple, but the story left something to be desired after these crazy kids got together.

The Bridges of Madison County
Written by Jason Robert Brown and Marsha Norman, Directed by Barlett Sher
Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, opening night February 20th
Photo Credit: Joan Marcus
Pictured: Kelli O’Hara and Steven Pasquale

On the Horizon: The Bridges of Madison County

The Bridges of Madison County

Another new musical I’m excited for this season is The Bridges of Madison County. Ironically I haven’t read the book or seen the movie. It’s once again the cast and creative team that have me revved up for this show.

Directed by Tony winner Bartlett Sher, the music is written by Tony winner Jason Robert Brown and the book by Marsha Norman. Marsha Norman, guys! She’s a Tony and Pulitzer Prize winner who wrote the book for the musical The Secret Garden, a personal favorite from my youth.

The trio of stars are Kelli O’Hara, Steven Pasquale, and the recently announced Hunter Foster. I love these three. Kelli, a four-time Tony nominee, is wonderful; not just a beautiful blonde with a beautiful voice, but that girl can act (see: South Pacific, The Light in the Piazza). Steven you might know from TV land (Rescue Me or the less successful Do No Harm), but I’ve been listening to him woo me with his sweet, sweet voice for years in A Man of No Importance, singing The Streets of Dublin. And Hunter? Please. I’ve had a legit crush on him since 2001 when he starred as Bobby Strong in Urinetown. I try to see him in everything he does (yes, I even saw Hands on a Hardbody).

Here’s a song preview featuring O’Hara and Pasquale (and here is some rehearsal footage). If you’re a fan of Jason Robert Brown, I think you’ll enjoy the new tune. It has a Parade-like feel to it (for which he won the Tony for Best Score in 1999). Don’t know JRB’s music? Be sure to also listen to Songs for a New World and The Last Five Years on good ol’ Spotify.

Overall, there is a lot of potential here between the creatives and cast. Bridges begins previews on January 17th at the Schoenfeld Theatre and opens February 20th. Check back around then for a review from me!

The Bridges of Madison County
Written by Jason Robert Brown and Marsha Norman, Directed by Barlett Sher
Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, first preview January 17th
Photo Credit: Joan Marcus
Pictured: Steven Pasquale and Kelli O’Hara