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.