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 background and analysis by Scott Miller

 

The music [in a musical] amplifies this element of separation, licensing us to stand apart from what we are seeing and enter a third dimension where each of us can individually decide whether to take the plot literally or sardonically, whether to take offense or simply collapse in giggles. This degree of Ironic Detachment is the very making of the postmodern hit musical. Ironic Detachment would be unattainable in a Tom Stoppard play because I.D. requires musical inflexion; it is impossible in opera and ballet, which are stiffened by tradition against self-mockery. Its application is unique to the musical comedy, an ephemeral entertainment which has found new relevance through its philosophical engagement with 21st century concepts of irony and alienation.

– Norman Lebrecht, arts columnist, 2005

Urinetown is a prime example of Ironic Detachment, but it wasn’t the first musical to navigate these conceptual waters. Though this approach has not been standard practice for most of the history of musical theatre, it has cropped up now and then, in Of Thee I Sing (1931), The Cradle Will Rock (1937), Guys and Dolls (1950), The Threepenny Opera (1954), How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (1961), Hair (1968), Company (1970), Grease (1972), Chicago (1975), 42nd Street (1980), Assassins (1990), Bat Boy (1997), and others.

All these shows broke the big rule of musical comedy, rejecting emotional attachment. It was once true that the whole point of musicals was expressing big emotions with the help of the very powerful and abstract language of music, a language that surpasses even the greatest poetry in its ability to express human emotion, precisely because it is an abstract language but one we all understand.

But not all musicals behave as they should. Lebrecht wrote about a London revival of Guys and Dolls:

[It] is superficially a comic romance between two reformed gangsters and their everloving molls. Except it never was. The Damon Runyon tales on which the musical is founded are unblushing glorifications of mob rule in Prohibition Noo Yawk. Runyon’s apologists claim that he identified with the little guy, the outsider. But his little guys were criminal hustlers, and Runyon, a night-desk newspaper hack, worshipped the power of thugs like Arnold Rothstein and Al Capone whose whim sent men to sleep in cement waistcoats… What Frank Loesser did in his music and lyrics in 1950 was to take a long step back from the material, allowing viewers to choose their own level of involvement with the people on stage… To appreciate how far ahead this was of its times you have only to set Guys and Dolls beside its immediate rivals, South Pacific and The King and I. Both of those classics demand an emotional response to the love story; without it, they fail. Loesser in Guys and Dolls throws the emotions into neutral: feel what you like, he tells audiences, it’s your show as much as mine. Loesser’s detachment anticipates Beckett and Pinter. It is the quintessence of modernity.

The Anthem of the People

More than most art forms, musical theatre (even musicals made in other countries) has always reflected American culture and values, showing us our own lives and choices: the giddiness and conspicuous consumption of the 1920s; the desperate need for optimism (and competing cynicism) in the 30s; the rabid, nationalistic fervor for The American Way (with the "wild men" always eventually succumbing to all-American domesticity) in the 40s; conformity in the early 50s but real cultural darkness in the late 50s; chaos, rebellion, and radical politics in the 60s; unfettered sexuality in the 70s; materialism and money-lust (especially in the pop operas) in the 80s; and a wild mix of irony and idealism in the 90s. Now in the early years of the twenty-first century, the focus seems to be on self-awareness and authenticity, in the form of postmodern musicals that reject the rules of modernism (the "realism" of Rodgers and Hammerstein), shows that comment on themselves and their audiences, that break through to a strange new honesty about the artificiality of storytelling.

The new musicals reject self-importance in favor of self-deprecation. John Bush Jones writes in his book Our Musicals, Ourselves, "It seems no accident that a cluster of solemn musicals came right at the end of the century. Among serious and thoughtful creative people, the ends of centuries have often provoked a lot of serious and thoughtful thinking, and the production of works of literature, art, or in our case, musical theatre of especially unsmiling seriousness." Urinetown rebels against this seriousness, mocking it, tweaking it. That a musical even acknowledges its own art form is striking, but Urinetown’s self-mockery about its own script and score is worth exploring. But Urinetown is also part of what it mocks, taking on weighty, contemporary issues (corporate corruption, environmentalism, civil liberties, class warfare) in its lunatic dash through the American experience at the turn of the millennium.

But there is also a bigger context here. Our whole culture has been heading in the direction of Ironic Detachment, not just musicals. During the 1960s, the counterculture attacked the mythologizing of American history and culture in the 1940s and 50s; but the conservative backlash against the 60s counterculture short-circuited its effort (and partially re-mythologized America through the sitcom and the Reagan Years). Now that the rebels of the 1960s are the executives of today, that de-mythologizing has recommenced. The Comedy Central cable channel is just one example, the home for several post-modern, self-referential, Ironic Detachment TV shows like The Daily Show (the parody news show), The Colbert Report (the parody news commentary show), Drawn Together (the parody reality show), Reno 911 (the parody reality cop show), The Showbiz Show (the parody entertainment news magazine) and others. And at the movies, there’s Scary Movie (and its sequels), Not Another Teen Movie, Date Movie, Epic Movie, Another Gay Movie, all parodies and deconstructions of various film genres. And even before those films, there were the mock documentaries of Christopher Guest and his friends – This is Spinal Tap, Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show, A Mighty Wind, and For Your Consideration.

Of course now we must ask if the over-saturation of postmodern Ironic Detachment has become so ubiquitous in television, film, animation, commercials (GEICO, anyone?) that it no longer packs the same artistic or political punch. Are we so used to self-reference and self-mockery now that they’ve lost their impact? On the other hand, some fear that once we tear down the old forms, it’s anybody’s guess what will evolve in their place. Still, as our culture evolves so too must our storytelling. The forms that served us well in the 1940s on longer have relevance for us. Rodgers and Hammerstein were groundbreakers in 1943, but it’s 2007. Whatever the new forms will be, they will be more honest because the biggest thing they’re tearing down is artifice, the "fourth wall," that barrier of "lies" between actor and audience.

The First Splash

One of the biggest Broadway hits of 2001 first opened in New York in the summer of 1999, both ending and beginning the millennium in a way that sent the musical theatre skidding off its tracks. In a good way. The show was called Urinetown. Its cast of newcomers was anchored by veteran John Cullum as the villain, capping off a career that had started with the last Lerner and Loewe show Camelot and also included Tonys for Shenandoah and On the Twentieth Century. Cullum connected the past to the future, standing astride the gap between old-fashioned, "integrated" musical theatre and this new brand of smartass, postmodern musicals. Urinetown took as its vocabulary dozens of movies and other bits of American pop culture, including The Threepenny Opera, Dick Tracy, Chinatown, Soylent Green, The Cradle Will Rock, and The Wizard of Oz. But whereas Dorothy’s selflessness and bravery saved the day in Oz, those same traits seem hopelessly irrelevant in Urinetown. Even though both stories are grounded in Depression-era America (sort of), they have separate audiences with very different needs.

This America is no longer that America.

Cardiff Giant, a theatre company in Chicago, had been known for its outrageous, irreverent social satire, some scripted, some improvised. Two members of the (now defunct) group, Greg Kotis and Mark Hollmann, began working in 1995 on what would become Urinetown. Kotis was also a member of the alternative theatre group, the Neo-Futurists, who specialized in evenings of brilliant one- and two-minute plays. During a trip to Europe with the Neo-Futurists, the nearly broke Kotis discovered to his dismay that most public toilets in Europe are pay-to-use, and the idea for Urinetown was born. It was to be a musical about a place (a city? a country?) in the not too distant future – "sometime after the Stink Years" – where all toilets are "pay-to-pee" and private toilets are outlawed. Here, all toilets are controlled by a large, malevolent, monopolizing corporation, the Urine Good Company. Not only all was this an outrageous idea – especially for a musical – but it was at the same time sociologically interesting, touching on issues of overpopulation, dwindling natural resources, global climate change, and the like. And it sounded hilarious.

Amidst all the lunacy was a serious (or at least, seriously smartass) response to the theories of Thomas Robert Malthus and his Essay on the Principles of Population (1798), which discusses the tendency of human beings to outstrip their resources, and the checks in the form of poverty, disease, and starvation that keep societies from moving beyond their means of subsistence. Pretty heady stuff for a silly musical about peeing. And pretty dark stuff.

In his preface to his famous Essay, Malthus wrote:

The view which [the Author] has given of human life has a melancholy hue, but he feels conscious that he has drawn these dark tints from a conviction that they are really in the picture, and not from a jaundiced eye or an inherent spleen of disposition. The theory of mind which he has sketched accounts to his own understanding in a satisfactory manner for the existence of most of the evils of life, but whether it will have the same effect upon others must be left to the judgment of his readers.

Urinetown would hold a similar point of view. The darkness of Urinetown’s world would not be a complete exaggeration, and not that far removed from a real world where California Congressman Randy "Duke" Cunningham goes to jail for accepting bribes and Jack Abramoff goes to jail for arranging them, a world in which prominent members of the U.S. Congress think climate change is a hoax, and a world in which there is Halliburton.

Kotis approached his friend Mark Hollmann, who immediately returned with a finished song, "It’s a Privilege to Pee." They continued working, feeling quite certain their creation was unproducible. By the end of 1997, a first draft of the script was finished. By June 1998, the first draft of the score was done as well. They put an ad in Backstage for actors to make a demo recording without pay, and with demo in hand, they sent their script and recording to dozens of theatres and agents. With this show they had decided to raise lots of questions and never answer any of them, to subvert every convention of musicals, defiantly refusing to give any potential audience even a drop of what they thought they craved. And yet, in certain ways, Hollmann and Kotis were utterly true to conventional musical theatre, particularly in their show’s structure, right out of the Rodgers and Hammerstein model. But no one would produce Urinetown. The authors received over a hundred rejection letters. And then the New York International Fringe Festival accepted them. They spent the spring and summer of 1999 rehearsing, rewriting, polishing, finding solutions. And so from a converted garage with no air conditioning on Stanton Street in lower Manhattan, Urinetown was born.

The score ranged from direct homages to Threepenny Opera to traditional ballads to hymns, gospel, Bach, and the B-52s. In his preface to the published script, composer Hollmann lays out his rule for the show – a joke is funnier if you don’t smile while you’re telling it. In other words, an evening of obvious parody and gags would get boring; the work had to stand up as organic, carefully constructed theatre, no matter how outrageous the content.

A producing group called the Araca Group saw the show and decided it was worth developing. They brought in a new director, John Rando, and had an open casting call for a reading of the show. Only Spencer Kayden, as Little Sally, would stay with the show from the Fringe Festival all the way to Broadway. After a very brief rehearsal period, the reading was presented at New Dramatists in January 2000. From that reading, Dodger Theatricals, one of the strongest producing groups in New York, entered the picture and they opened it off Broadway at the American Theatre of Actors in May 2001. The New York Times raved. The show received eleven Drama Desk nominations and two Obie nominations – and the Dodgers were taking it to Broadway! It was scheduled to open at the Henry Miller Theatre on Broadway on September 13, 2001.

But first came the terrorist attacks on September 11 and all of Broadway shut down. Some shows never opened again. Eventually, the Henry Miller reopened and Urinetown set its new opening for September 20. Business was tough for a while, but they kept plugging. And though the show had been written in a "pre-9/11 world," its potent satire of government oppression and overreach took on an even darker hue in the years to come, as the Bush Administration steadily (and often secretly) increased the power of the government over the lives of its citizens.

It quickly became clear that Urinetown works on so many levels, like any good fairy tale, providing for each audience member a slightly different message, question, or experience. As Al Capone liked to say, "We laugh because it’s funny and we laugh because it’s true." The show received ten Tony nominations, winning for best score, best book, and best director, but curiously, not best musical (it wasn’t the first time this had happened). Bruce Weber in The New York Times called it "a sensational piece of performance art, one that acknowledges theater tradition and pushes it forward as well." Linda Winer in Newsday called it "elevated silliness of the highest order that makes a gratifying case for the restorative return to knowing foolishness and the smartly absurd." Rex Reed in The New York Observer wrote, "What kind of musical is this? A fresh, unique, original, impudent, colorful, exciting, irreverent, surprising and wonderful musical, that’s all." Clive Barnes of the New York Post called it "a wild and happy mix of biting satire and loving parody." Barnes got it right – this was both a satire of American political and social forces, and also a parody of musical theatre as an art form, both aspects equally well crafted. The show ran 965 performances, more than two years, a run that might have lasted far longer if not for September 11 and its crippling of Broadway.

What is Urinetown?

When it opened in New York, the official slogan on the Urinetown T-shirts was "An appalling idea, fully realized." Actor Daniel Marcus, who played Officer Barrel, said in an interview, "I call it a love letter to the American musical in the form of a grenade."

Unlike "conventional" musicals, in Urinetown extreme emotionalism always gives way to cynicism. Every time a romantic metaphor pops up, it’s immediately diffused by unexpected literalism. Even the resolution of the plot short-circuits the idealism with the tragedy of cold hard reality. Literalism pervades every moment of the show, from the conversations between Lockstock and Little Sally about the show itself, to the opening number that tells the audience where the bathroom is and what should be on their tickets. Of the two love songs, one pushes aside emotion for biology, and the other requires an intermediary (Little Sally) because one of the lovers is already dead. This is not your father’s musical comedy.

In fact, Urinetown is a double satire, laughing at the sappy, happy conventions of old-fashioned musical comedy, but also laughing at shows like Les Miz or Passion which reject those conventions and perhaps go too far the other way. Urinetown raises questions about what we expect from musicals, whether or not "issue musicals" are satisfying entertainment, why certain stories or topics are musicalized, whether or not serious musicals are too serious. Hollmann and Kotis use musical theatre clichés ironically throughout the show, appropriating forms from traditional musical comedy and using them for the more cynical, more complex goals of a postmodern musical.

Each time Officer Lockstock and Little Sally talk about what musicals "shouldn’t do," they’re also talking about devices certain musicals have used with or without success. When Urinetown kills off its hero, the joke is on Carousel. The violent-rage dance number, "Snuff That Girl," consciously parodies "Cool" in West Side Story, right down to the finger snaps. Cladwell’s self-justification songs comically mirror Javert’s "Stars" in Les Misérables. In the original Broadway production of Urinetown, one bit of choreography even invoked the now famous Les Miz March. The scene in which Cladwell bribes Bobby mirrors the same scene in The Cradle Will Rock. And of course, Urinetown both uses and abuses the devices of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill and their Threepenny Opera.

The song "Mr. Cladwell" is a Jerry Herman We-Love-the-Lead song (like "Hello, Dolly," "Mame," and others), but instead of celebrating love for the leading lady and her optimistic spunk, here the adoring chorus is celebrating murderous, unchecked capitalism. The "Cop Song" is both a tribute to Threepenny (in both its title and content) but also an ironic nod to hip-hop culture. While hip-hop music has historically taken violence against the poor and turned it back on the police, here the violent imagery usually used for anti-police rhetoric is given to the police themselves, with the violence now turned back on the poor again.

Sally’s description of why Urinetown isn’t a good musical is funny precisely because the conventions she thinks are missing are no longer musical theatre conventions. She thinks all musicals are 1920s musical comedies, but one of the central jokes of this show is that even though almost no musicals are like that anymore, much of the public still thinks they are, and Sally is the audience’s (or even the public’s) surrogate. Urinetown takes musical comedies, serious book musicals, political musicals, and concept musicals and takes them to their furthest extremes, showing us exactly how far we have strayed from the 1920s. Its very existence mocks anyone in the audience who still holds those preconceptions about musicals in this age of Rent, Assassins, Passion, Bat Boy, Reefer Madness, Chicago, Floyd Collins, A New Brain, and Hedwig and the Angry Inch. The hidden joke of the show is not that Urinetown is not a "conventional" musical; it’s that neither are the vast majority of new musicals being written today. The "conventional" musical is no longer the convention.

On top of all that, Lockstock and Sally are also breaking the Rodgers and Hammerstein rules by explicitly discussing the musical they’re in, acknowledging that they are characters in a musical, having knowledge of the Real World.

Bobby Strong, Urinetown’s hero, is the archetypal American musical comedy lead – brash, charming, cocky, a bit of a scoundrel – a character invented by George M. Cohan in his 1904 musical Little Johnny Jones (and in his other shows), and developed further in the characters of Billy in Anything Goes, Joey in Pal Joey, Larry Foreman in The Cradle Will Rock, Billy in Carousel, Woody in Finian’s Rainbow, Harold Hill in The Music Man, Nathan in Guys and Dolls, and Ponty in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.

Ms. Pennywise is another musical theatre type, the amoral but practical older woman that director and playwright Bertolt Brecht seems to have invented: Mrs. Peachum in Threepenny Opera, Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd, Fraulein Schneider in Cabaret, and Joanne in Company. Josephine Strong is a comically ineffectual version of the Rodgers and Hammerstein Older Wise Woman: Aunt Eller in Oklahoma!, Nettie in Carousel, Lady Thiang in The King and I, the Mother Abbess in The Sound of Music. But here, the older woman has nothing of value to offer, not even her own inspirational "Climb Every Mountain" – another comment on the Rodgers and Hammerstein form.

Bruce Weber in The New York Times said, "There simply is no show I’ve seen that gives such a sense that the creators and performers are always on the same page of an elaborate, high-spirited joke, that they are the proud members of a cabal that knows what it takes to make the world a better place and that they are thrilled to share what they know." Of course, a few alarmists declared that Urinetown signaled the demise of the American musical comedy. They were clearly wrong, as the following years would prove.

Both Urinetown and another smartass musical, Mel Brooks’ stage adaptation of The Producers, became Broadway hits, but Urinetown was smarter, more insightful, far more artful, and ultimately will exert more influence on the art form. As the millennium turns, Urinetown is poised to become the Show Boat or Hair or Company of a new age of musical theatre, the new model that will replace the Rodgers and Hammerstein model. The Producers was just The Pajama Game with Tourrette’s Syndrome.

If It Ain’t Brecht, Don’t Fix It!

Every second of Urinetown is infused with the spirit of legendary German director and writer Bertolt Brecht, creator of The Threepenny Opera, Mother Courage and Her Children, Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, and other political theatre. Brecht created brilliant, disturbing, intellectual, emotional pieces of theatre, in which the goal was to engage the audience through their brains instead of their hearts, to get them to think about the issues and questions put before them on stage. He used many devices to yank the audience out of the "reality" of the story, forcing them to confront the story and characters intellectually, constantly reminding them of the artificial nature of storytelling. But contrary to popular oversimplification, Brecht never wanted to eliminate emotion; he wanted to engage deeper, more profound emotions through the more complex organ of the mind, using narrative to lay out a logical, reasoned case on one side or the other of a social or political issue – a dialectical theatre. Eric Bentley wrote about Brecht’s theory of "epic theatre":

The new narrative content signaled by the term "epic" was to be communicated in a dialectical, non-illusionist and nonlinear manner, declaring its own artifice as it hoped also to reveal the workings of ideology. "Alienating an event or character," wrote Brecht, "means first of all stripping the event of its self-evident, familiar, obvious quality and creating a sense of astonishment and curiosity about them." The direct and indirect use of a narrator, the conspicuous use of songs, masks, placards and images set in a montaged narrative sequence would help maintain this level of wonder and alert self-criticism.

All these devices are at work in Urinetown. Bentley also described a production of Brecht’s early play The Mother and its conscious artificiality:

The set was "quoting" an environment rather than representing it; there was extensive use of projections and scene titles; the small chorus, in its songs to the audience, commented on the fable and/or the actions shown on stage; there was an enchanting ease and, yes, elegance with which even the most serious scenes were performed.

Again, all devices found in Urinetown. Brecht himself once wrote, "Nothing is more revolting than when an actor pretends not to notice that he has left the level of plain speech and started to sing." It’s a bold statement to make, but not an unreasonable one. Brecht wanted honesty and authenticity on stage, not the performance of authenticity, rejecting the "lie" of the Fourth Wall. He believed that the Rodgers and Hammerstein style of "naturalistic" acting isn't actually the least bit naturalistic since most people in the real world don't break into song (at least not in four-part harmony). He believed that the pretense of naturalism was the biggest lie of all. Therefore, acknowledging the act of singing onstage is more honest, more real, and connects the actor to the audience more fully because he’s not trying to "fool" them. This isn’t an approach that works with Brigadoon, but it’s absolutely required for Urinetown.

Urinetown also takes much inspiration from Marc Blitzstein’s 1937 political musical The Cradle Will Rock, which was itself heavily influenced by Brecht and composer Kurt Weill. After writing Cradle, Blitzstein would go on to write a new American translation of The Threepenny Opera, which would star Weill’s widow, actor Lotte Lenya, and become the longest running off Broadway musical up to that point. Blitzstein was devoted to Brecht’s theories of theatre, going so far as to give every character in The Cradle Will Rock "label names" like Mr. Mister, Editor Daily, Dr. Specialist, Reverend Salvation, Harry Druggist, and Larry Foreman. Greg Kotis did the same thing in Urinetown, with the heroic Bobby Strong, the well dressed Mr. Cladwell, the optimistic and rich Hope Cladwell, the amoral but practical Ms. Pennywise (and pound foolish?), and the cops Lockstock and Barrel.

The last pair is perhaps the most fun, since audiences usually don’t catch the joke until Act II, the first time the two names are spoken together. It sneaks up on us partly because we’ve heard Lockstock’s name so many times already that we’ve stopped registering its strangeness. It’s also fun the way their paired names play with the phrase’s meaning, a cliché originally referring to the parts of a gun, but now used metaphorically to mean everything. The cops’ names are funny in relation to both the literal and the metaphorical meanings of the phrase. But it’s also why the original staging of "The Cop Song" was ill-conceived; if Lockstock and Barrel are the only two cops on the force, if they are the whole police force, "lock, stock, and barrel," as the show reminds us over and over again, then where did all the other cops (the ensemble) come from in that song?

Other names in the show follow the Dick Tracy School of Naming Characters, with Robbie the Stockfish, Billy Boy Bill, Soupy Sue, Little Becky Two Shoes, Tiny Tom, and Hot Blades Harry. All of this operates as yet another Brechtian device to distance the audience emotionally, to force them to look at this world as a foreign place, to make this place and these people "other," so that the audience can think critically about the events unfolding before them.

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Copyright 2007. From Scott Miller’s upcoming and still hopelessly untitled book. All rights reserved. Miller is also the author of Strike Up the Band: A New History of Musical Theatre, Deconstructing Harold Hill, Rebels with Applause, Let the Sun Shine In: The Genius of HAIR From Assassins to West Side Story, and Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll, and Musicals.