In which I’m filled with symbolism and things like that
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
: “Too Much Exposition”
For nearly a week now—beginning, with eerie prescience, shortly before domestic terrorists attempted a coup on the U.S. Capitol building—I’ve been attentively playing the soundtrack of the 2001 Broadway musical Urinetown, whose creative melodies and comical asides satirize our economic systems under a not-entirely-inconceivable premise. It’s relevant enough because of what a plausible mask-era production it could make. It’s more relevant because at present, with public health and political affairs in the state they’re in, my home country seems to be drawing closer than ever to the titular metaphor.
As we gain more and more of a perspective on the pandemic and the changes it’s imposed upon our lives (particularly the policing of what we wear and how we behave), I have tried to diagnose the special brand of misery that has swept the United States, a supposedly advanced nation with a host of really basic dysfunctions. My friends, family, and curated Twitter have documented a totally unique experience of hell and a totally unique hope to go along with it. Meditating on this documentation and why it feels familiar, all at once I realize that it reminds me of a show about literal hope—and heavy policing. That what I’m witnessing is both Urinetown the musical and Urinetown the location.
The plot, for those unfamiliar, follows a community impoverished by a devastating water shortage and by the resulting corporate privatization of public toilets (known as ‘amenities’). Essentially, everyone has to pay to pee. The most disenfranchised of the townspeople rally behind a young idealist, Bobby Strong, after he leverages his job at a local amenity to stage an uprising. Bobby faces a conflict of interest in the form of Hope Cladwell, daughter of the big corporation’s head honcho, which leads to a kidnapping and a standoff and other events necessary to a proper revolution. And all the while they are haunted by the spectre of “Urinetown,” the universal and mysterious punishment for citizens who pee freely and illegally. (“Did you hear the news? They carted old so-and-so off to Urinetown the other day.” “Is that so? What’d he do?” “Oh, such-and-such, I hear.”)
It’s kept from being a classic Robin Hood social-justice morality tale by two factors: the rebellion really isn’t very well organized; and the ruling establishment, while draconian, does in fact provide for the people by conscientiously managing the water supply. In any event, the action is set up and guided by Officer Lockstock, resident Sheriff of Nottingham, who has at least made his peace with brutalizing offenders and sending them to Urinetown even if he may not actively enjoy it. His partner on the beat, in case you hadn’t guessed it, is Officer Barrel—the names are pretty symbolic, if by ‘symbolic’ we mean blatantly obvious.
In a more innocent time I listed the opening number among my favorites. It introduces Lockstock and his narrative counterpart, an irreverent street urchin called Little Sally, as thoroughly self-aware characters in a show which they can tell is not going to be happy. But just because it isn’t happy doesn’t mean it isn’t fun…and the score arguably only gets better. Various styles of theatrical number are parodied, from the love duet (“Follow Your Heart”) to the angry-mob anthem (“Look at the Sky”) to the quote-unquote victorious finale (“I See a River”). And, like all good parody, they’re fine examples of those styles in their own right. There are equally excellent numbers which I think are meant to be taken at face value: the gospel-inspired “Run, Freedom, Run”; the How-to-Succeed-esque “Mr. Cladwell”; the jazzy, ensemble-based “Snuff That Girl”; the character- and scene-establishing “Cop Song.” You could easily leave a performance humming any of these tunes.
The overture, too, is first-rate. I’d forgotten what a model it is until this most recent listen. Clocking in at 1:13, it sets the mood with a choppy tempo and discordant melody, switching between major and minor modes, letting us know we’re in for a couple hours of bittersweetness and tension. It’s an independent composition—its musical ideas never resurface, nor is it a medley of the subsequent ideas—and yet it is unmistakably representative of the show’s personality. (I love the overture to West Side Story for the exact opposite reason: it gives us a taste of so many melodies which have since become classics, and once the orchestra reaches the “Tonight” section I know they’ve hit their stride and start to get really excited.) It asserts its point and then makes way for the story.
Not to mention you’d be hard pressed to find a musical theatre score which showcases the clarinet more superbly; it’s flooring how much love composer Mark Hollmann lavishes on the woodwinds.
Wait just a minute, why have I gone off about the music? Well, if you think about it, the soundtrack to 2020 was undeniably strong. Good music doesn’t stop us getting where we’re going. Sometimes it simply highlights it.
This is a work of folk horror, as charming as it is chilling, as winking as it is wicked. (Like Midsommar, only way funnier and way better.) It makes you laugh even in the face of the grim truths it presents about your world—as Lockstock retorts to Little Sally’s criticisms, “Don’t you think people want to be told that their way of life is unsustainable?” Even first-time offenders of the peeing regulations get Urinetown: the authorities famously take no prisoners. Which would mean, if we were to apply that principle to our own mask mandate, that the U.S. population would be reduced by half. It’s a discussion of how much/little difference individual choice makes in a society preoccupied with surviving. And yet the bureaucrats sit at the top of this society, not only surviving but thriving.
The original Broadway production rang almost too true to its time, more so than the cast and crew could have imagined while preparing it. That is to say it opened nine days after the attacks on the World Trade Center, and what was already a dark comedy became, well, a really dark comedy. Think about the immense contextual implications of a line like
What is Urinetown?
Urinetown is here
It’s the town wherever people learn to live in fear
Likewise, the art released since last March has been lent a new resonance by the atmosphere—Fiona Apple’s record, for example, was made largely in her home featuring many household surfaces as instruments, long before we were ever instructed to stay indoors. These artistic statements bear the mark of the environments that receive them; they become even more meaningful than they were on merit alone.
So what if it’s distasteful content, or an ugly title? It’s no uglier than the situation we’re faced with now. And at least they’re not squabbling over toilet paper—I’ve reason to believe that would get you Urinetown as well.
Dedicated to Celeste and Christa, whose respective productions made me a fan in the first place.
Image: original Broadway cast