Show Thoughts: Urinetown at Shenandoah Conservatory

I’m in the middle of a wonderful trip to northern Virginia to visit Shenandoah Conservatory. I’m considering applying to their degree for a Masters of Music in Musical Theatre Conducting.

During this trip, I’m going to observe classes at the conservatory, but in the meantime I had the chance to see their first musical of the season: Urinetown.

Urinetown is one of that class of shows that was a bit of a cult favorite a decade ago, then kind of dropped off. This is the first production I’ve even heard of since I saw it in high school. I’m sure that it gets produced regularly, but it’s not on the level of, say, Hairspray or Avenue Q, both of which came out at a similar time.

As usual when I discuss shows, I’m going to spend most of my time on the material, and comment briefly on the production briefly at the end.

The Story of Urinetown

I remember reading a preface to a published version of the script to this show when I was in high school. The creators stated that the show was inspired initially by a trend in Europe of pay-per-use toilets in public locations. The creators encountered this and decided to take it to its logical conclusion.

In Urinetown: The Musical (as opposed to Urinetown the place, which is “full of symbolism and things like that”), the plot is pretty straightforward.

A nasty drought has been going on for 20 years, and water is in very short supply. The Urine Good Company (UGC), under the leadership of Caldwell B. Cladwell, has contracted with the government to regulate water consumption by charging people every time they need to use the toilet.

And, before you ask, the creators address both questions that immediately arise: first, it is made illegal to eliminate waste anywhere other than in a public facility. Violation of this law leads to exile to the much mythologized “Urinetown” of the title.

Unfortunately, Cladwell is massively corrupt and uses the regulation as a cover for increasing his own personal fortune and rewards the politicians who support him with big payoffs. When he pushes through a new rate hike, the locals revolt, under the leadership of Bobby Strong, an assistant custodian at Public Amenity #9.

Bobby leads the people in kidnapping Cladwell’s daughter Hope for leverage, and demanding that people be allowed to pee for free all the time. Cladwell tries to pay off Bobby, and when rebuffed, sends him to Urinetown (which turns out to simply be tossing him off the roof of the building).

Rather than giving up, Hope (who was in love with Bobby, of course, as he’s the hero of the show) takes charge of the rebellion. She and the rebels storm the UGC headquarters, send Cladwell off to Urinetown, and open the water to everyone.

Unfortunately, Hope is ignoring the obvious issue. Corrupt as her father was, the water did need to be regulated. In a rather tidy epilogue, we are told that the water dried up, Hope was likewise disposed of, and the suffering continued.

The Script

Despite the dark subject matter, Urinetown is a comedy. It’s a hilariously self aware show that begins with “Welcome to Urinetown—not the place, of course, the musical!” and ends with a chorus of “That was our show!”

In between are

  • commentary on the fact that the concept is massively oversimplified

  • references to other musicals (mostly in the score and staging, which comes later)

  • meta commentary on how dark the show is and how it’s structured (“Nothing can ruin a show like too much exposition.”)

  • a ton of puns on Hope

  • continual conflating of the metaphorical heart with the actual biological organ

and more.

It’s the kind of script that does a lot of the work for the actors. As with a Gilbert and Sullivan script, it works best when delivered deadpan with appropriate pauses for laughter. This makes it a challenge, because good actors want to bring something to the role. With comedy, though, my taste runs toward deadpan and dry humor, which this show has in spades.

The primary thrust of the show is about economics of scarcity. The last spoken line of the show is “Hail Malthus” a reference to economist Thomas Malthus. Malthus’s primary contribution to economics is a theory of extreme scarcity, which is explored quite well on his Wikipedia page.

But there’s another layer that I find particularly interesting in light of current cultural trends.

Listen to Understand, Not to Reply

The show sets up a very weird dichotomy for the audience. On the one hand, we’re clearly supposed to root for the rebels and for Bobby Strong. They get all the good tunes, the more distinct characterizations, and we’re naturally disposed to root against authoritarian regimes.

On the other hand, Cladwell isn’t entirely in the wrong. Of course he’s massively corrupt and kind of a jerk. But, as the epilogue points out, he’s the only one who has the power or the will to regulate water consumption so what little is left can be preserved.

It sets up a tension between

  • the guys we like but are short sighted (Bobby and the rebels who have our heart)

  • the guys who are infuriating but have the right idea. (Cladwell and the company, who have our brain, if we give it more than a cursory consideration)

To get the full effect of the show, we have to be able to differentiate between style and substance. This is important in our relationships with people.

Bobby and the rebels repeat catchy soundbites like “Pee for free,” but they don’t think beyond that. Cladwell speaks reason, but it’s mixed with his own personal evil. The problem isn’t the rules. The problem is the person who can and will manipulate the rules for his own gain. Neither side has the right idea, but they’re not listening to each other.

The second message of this show is to pay attention carefully. Before you fight everything your opponent stands against, make sure you don’t agree on something. Don’t oppose a good idea simply because the other side likes it. It’s not about vindictiveness, it’s about what’s best for everyone.

The Score

Urinetown sounds like nothing else. The orchestra is a piano-driven ensemble of five or so players, featuring brass and woodwinds. There are no section strings, just a bass. The singing style is essentially standard musical theatre, with some extreme ranges and a lot of stylistic pastiche.

Most of the songs are your standard “book” songs, meaning they advance the plot. They are paired up with lyrics of varying degrees of cheesiness, from the tight rhymes of the title song to the comically forced metaphors of “Don’t be the Bunny” and “Follow Your Heart”

Act 2 is more musically interesting than Act 1. Much of this comes from the run of three songs right at the start of the act. These three are a microcosm of musical reference, but pretty cleverly disguised. (The production I saw highlighted these references with choreography references to the original shows).

The first song, “What is Urinetown?” is a klezmer-infected tune, with some overt references to the Fiddler on the Roof score. The choreography of this production referenced the wedding dances, but the music is more remniscent of the song “To Life” based on my quick glance back at the original cast recording of the latter.

The next song is “Snuff that Girl.” This one is a clear parody of “Cool” from West Side Story. Complete with the dance break explosions from individual singers and the hi hat solo. This choreographer cleverly included a number of moves from the Jerome Robbins choreography to West Side Story

The final number in this sequence is “Run, Freedom, Run” which I have been told is intended to parody “Gonna Build a Mountain” from the musical Stop the World—I Want to Get Off. A cursory listen to the latter makes a strong case, but there are enough differences between the two that I wouldn’t immediately connect them.

Outside of those three numbers, the rest of Act 2 feels a little rushed, but the music stays tonally consistent. In fact, nearly ever number is in a minor key, which lends some unity to the zany plot.

My favorite element of this show, from a director’s perspective, is that it seems quite rewarding for the ensemble. There are only a few numbers that don’t feature them, and they do get significant roles in most of the songs. It’s a crowd musical, with a small handful of leads, a few featured roles, and a lot of stage time for the ensemble.

The Production

I was excited to see what this show would look (and more importantly, sound) like. As I mentioned at the beginning, I am considering applying to Shenandoah Conservatory for a master’s degree, so it was a chance to see the kind of work they put out.

Overall, I was quite impressed with the cast. This is not an easy show to sing, or to characterize. The characters are caricatures, but need at least a little humanity. The ranges are pretty extreme, but I felt the voices were well-suited to the demands of the roles. The weak spots were few and far between, and they mostly happened in the most likely places (high belts, or low notes for high voices). The singing tone was lovely, though. In a few places words weren’t totally clear (mostly in faster songs).

The staging was effective and clever, using a simple two story set with a staircase, and some moving walls to quickly transition between locations. The curtain was only used at the end of both acts, with everything else happening in view of the audience. Even the pre-show involved the actors interacting with the audience (mostly begging for coins).

The acting was one of my biggest surprises. It was effective, but overdramatic for my taste. As I said earlier, this script is quite funny in its own right, and it doesn’t need more exaggeration for effect. Some of the bits (e.g., the way Hope reacted every single time someone said her name, or the homonym) were funny and highlighted the humor. But there were more than a few physical bits that I felt distracted from the script in the interest of a visual gag.

The other annoyance to me was the balance of microphones. On the positive side, I felt the overall level was perfect. Everything was clear without being overwhelming, and I was in the back half of the theater. However, there were a few hiccups where microphones didn’t come on at the entrance. Many times the background vocals were too loud, which made it hard to follow the lead vocals. I would have liked to see some subtle boosting of the lead, and softening the ensemble.

Overall, though, it was a wonderful performance. I am glad I got to see this thought provoking and hilarious show in a high-quality production. My congratulations to all of the actors, musicians, technicians, and the creative team.

Post-Show Thoughts

Its’ been a bit since I posted. Part of that excuse is the busy schedule of a show, plus a full time job. But now that Seven Brides for Seven Brothers has closed, I have time to reflect.

Looking Back

It’s been a fairly crazy (for me) summer. I had an ill-fated trip to the Grand Canyon, a micro-vacation to Austin, and an eventful, extensive rehearsal process for a musical.

The last one was of course the biggest part of my schedule. Rehearsals 4 days per week left little time for anything else in the evenings. The show was a massive success, selling out more than half of our 10 performances. I’ll update the show page soon with pictures and more info.

Toward the end of the summer, I made it a goal to have one new artistic experience every week. Previous sights included trips to the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, Island ETC in Galveston, and my first show at The MATCH.

Of course I also inaugurated this blog. Now that the show has closed, I have time to stop and think and reevaluate.

Looking Forward

For the first time in nearly three years, I don’t have a show coming up. It’s still taking a time to settle in.

I’ve been music director and/or pianist for 12 shows since fall of 2015. In that time, I’ve gained a lot of knowledge and experience on how to work with singers, directors, musicians, and the challenges of a musical theatre score.

I still have a lot of room to grow, and I’m looking forward to trying that now that I have a little time to focus myself. I want to do more score study, more piano practice, and more observing of other musicians.

I’m back in piano lessons, and after a recent exciting day as an organ substitute, I’m thinking of getting back in to organ lessons as well. I also recently came into possession of an accordion, so that may be in my future too.

I’m looking at attending graduate school if I find a program that I like and that will let me in. Doing some campus visits this fall, and applying. I will know by March or April of next year.

In the meantime, I have a choir to direct and I’m seeing another show this week. I made recordings of my playing piano so I can do some self assessment. I just bought a new score. The Woodlands Chamber Music Project is going to pick up. I’m reading more and exploring more.

So look forward to seeing new posts here!

What I'm Reading

On Saturday, I went up to the Newton Gresham Library at Sam Houston State University. I love to go dig through their music library for interesting things, and this time I found a whole new section. Over in the corner near the oversized scores, there was a trove of reference books related to producing musicals.

I also went to up to the American Literature section of the library and checked out a few volumes of classic plays by American playwrights: Edward Albee, Arthur Miller, and Tennessee Williams. I'm already very excited about what I'm discovering.

The Man Who Had All the Luck by Arthur Miller

This was a quick read from the collected plays of Arthur Miller. Written in 1940, it was first produced on Broadway in 1944. It follows the life of David Beeves, a young man who somehow manages to get everything he wants through what seems to be sheer luck. When his girlfriend's father refuses to grant his blessing, he is killed in a freak accident, leaving the path free. David seems to be blessed in business and relationships, while his family and friends encounter the normal consequences of bad luck and bad choices.

The play has a lot of dramatic momentum, and as David realizes his seemingly impossible luck, he flirts with madness. I was really compelled by this storyline, and I could definitely see it continuing to play well onstage (As I was looking up the publication date, I found it had a few semi-successful productions, including a 2002 Broadway revival.

Little Musicals for Little Theatres by Denny Martin Flinn

This was a surprising book. I was really excited to see it, because I've recently had an interest in smaller, more adventurous musicals. This book contains pages and pages of musicals that don't have massive production values. As the subtitle says, it's "A Reference Guide to the Musicals that Don't Need Chandeliers or Helicopters to Succeed".

The book is split into three sections: book musicals, themed revues, and composer revues. I'm about halfway through the section on book musicals and I've already discovered more than half a dozen musicals I want to explore or maybe even direct.

I don't always agree with his opinions on the shows I do know (such as his low opinion of Falsettos), but it provides plenty of food for thought.

What else is there?

I don't know how far I'll get this week, but here are the rest of the things I checked out.

  • The Collected Plays of Arthur Miller Volume 1 (1944-1961) containing All My SonsDeath of a SalesmanAn Enemy of the PeopleThe CrucibleA Memory of Two Mondays, two versions of A View from the Bridge, and The Misfits
  • The Theatre of Tennessee Williams Volume 1 containing Battle of Angels, The Glass Menagerie, and A Streetcar Named Desire.
  • The Collected Plays of Edward Albee Volume 1 containing The Zoo StoryThe Death of Bessie SmithThe SandboxThe American DreamWho's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?The Ballad of the Sad CafeTiny Alice, and Malcolm
  • So You're the New Musical Director by James H. Laster
  • From Assassins to West Side Story: The Director's Guide to Musical Theatre by Scott Miller
  • Making a Broadway Musical: Making it Run by John D. Mitchell

Can you sense the theme? I don't know if I'll get through it all, but plays are a quick read. 

Whatever it Takes

Apologies for the long delay between posts. This week's excuse is that I was in tech week for Seven Brides for Seven Brothers at the Owen Theatre. Last Friday was our opening night and the actors performed something of a tech week miracle.

I don't think it's a spoiler to say that this show took a long time to come together. As late as last Sunday, our runs of the show were slow, costumes hadn't been completed, lines were insecure, and the set was only half completed.

But in five days, the impossible occurred. The show actually came together. The final result is something everyone involved can be proud of.

The actors and crew did some truly genius work this week. They worked in and out of rehearsal to build and paint the set and stage, get costumes fitted, hang and focus lights, and clean up lines and choreography. By the end of the week, we had something that looks like the quality show that we wanted.

What I'm getting at, is that I really appreciate the work of this cast and crew. In the spirit of the title above, they did everything they could to pull this thing off. And they did. 

Special thanks to Philip Harris, who has helped me sort out a massive variety of microphone issues, to Ashley Truitt, who put in a truly ridiculous amount of work on the stage painting, and to Ethen Garcia and Kerri Edwards, who filled in roles at the last minute. It's a true team effort.

Thank you to all of the cast and crew. Without every one of them, this production would absolutely fall apart. In the next few days, I'll update the page for this show with new information and pictures about the show.

I'm Back! (To School)

It's been a bit since I posted on here. Frankly, I've been distracted and there haven't been many developments in most of my projects. 

What's happened this week?

  • Professional development and classroom planning at the school. School starts tomorrow!
  • Continued rehearsals and set building on Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, which opens August 31 (Click here for tickets)
  • I had a piano lesson and spent time at the gym.
  • I spent Friday in downtown Houston, having a really enjoyable conversation with a friend from college. In fact, there have been several really interesting conversations that I hope to reflect on here, when I can get my thoughts into writing.
  • I saw The Mousetrap at The Alley Theatre in Houston. Fabulous play, exciting twist. If you get a chance, you should go see it, though my performance was virtually sold out.
  • Some time to relax and to reflect today before school starts.

On that last note...

What's coming up this week?

  • More rehearsals! Seven Brides for Seven Brothers is going into the final stages of the show, and it's time for things to come together. This week I hope to add microphones and see the sets come together.
  • The first week of school! I'm excited to see the students come back and begin the new work this year.
  • I'm going to see another show this week. I need to decide what to see. I want to write more about the shows that I see and reflect on the work I want to be doing with my life.
  • More piano practice and time at the gym.

The year in advance

During this first week, I'm going to ask my students to reflect on two topics: what are they looking forward to this year and what are they the most worried about this year. In the spirit, I want to go through the same exercise for myself.

This year, I'm most excited for the chance to push the men's choir. We are instituting evening rehearsals for the first time this year, and that will give me a chance to really dig deep. This is also the first year I will have a group made up entirely of students that I taught. I'm interested to see how this will be different from previous years.

I'm also excited for the chance to expand my piano courses. Last year I offered a second year course in piano; this year that course will have its own class period. It will be more structured and hands on. I'm excited to see what happens.

I am most worried about my personal growth this year. On the one hand, I feel more confident in some things than I ever have. Especially where my teaching is concerned. On the other hand, the long talks that I have been having with friends and colleagues in recent months have left me doubtful of where I stand as a musician.

What I do know is that I need to be practicing piano a lot more, and watching TV a lot less. I'm still figuring out what my path will be, but those are both things I know.

Work helps ease my worry. So back to work it is!