“What is Urinetown? It’s a town where people live in fear. Welcome to Urinetown, a town not far away from ours.” Urinetown is the first musical Macalester put on this semester. It is a satirical musical comedy written by Greg Kotis that mocks American wastefulness, bureaucracy, the legal system, corporate mismanagement and indulgement of shortsighted citizens in their delusional dreams of freedom. Having not seen a musical for so long, and having heard that it mimics Les Miserables, I became intrigued by Urinetown.
Due to a 20-year drought, the government of a small town has colluded with the monopoly Urine Good Company to charge the poor for using public toilets. As UGC hikes the price, the poor starts a revolution led by the hero of the musical, Bobby Strong, played by Benjamin Rubenstein ’17 from University of St. Thomas. Bobby Strong is a cleaning custodian who falls in love with the UGC CEO’s daughter, Hope Cladwell, played by Kavya Shetty ’19 from Macalester. The two narrators, Little Sally, played by Sasha Hixson ’19, and Officer Lockstock, played by Michael Karadsheh ’18, guide the audience as the story unfolds. By showing the mismanagement and oppression of the poor, the show mocks how the legal system fails to protect people’s basic rights.
But the show does more than mock the failure of bureaucracy. In my opinion, the show is first and foremost satirizes American capitalism. By showing the wastefulness and environmental neglect of Urinetown, the play urges the audience to see how these realities impact American society. In the show, citizens who are too poor to pay for the use of public toilets are sent to Urinetown, a town not far away from their own town. No one knows what awaits them in Urinetown, but no one in this town seems interested in figuring out where Urinetown is either, just as no one is addressing the devastating drought, which is the true reason that they are paying to pee.
The show ends with the people of the revolution successfully crushing the monopoly and winning their freedom. Yet this is far from a happy ending. What makes the show unusual is the anti-climactic destiny of the people who regain their freedom. This makes the story a mockery of high ideals and their impracticality. Eventually, though the musical seems to praise the idea of revolution for freedom, it paints this revolution as a failure to create a sustainable future.
I was most impressed by the lively music and terrific vocals of the cast, and especially by the subtle and flexible soprano vocals of Hope Cladwell and Bobby Strong. The costumes are designed in a way that fits the characters and their specific social status well. The torn, ragged clothes contrast with the fancy suits. Looking at the stage, we are presented with a forest, a public toilet where the poor hope to pee, an elevated office of UGC that overlooks the poor and a tower where Little Sally, the narrator, collects coins and gives enlightening comments from time to time.
That said, the great performance and vocals can’t make up for the script’s excessive repetition, straightforwardness and the lack of substance in the lyrics. Urinetown claims to be a pastiche of Les Miserables, but it does not do the play justice. For example, Hope’s “Follow Your Heart” mimics Fantine’s “I Dreamed a Dream,” and the rebels singing “Run Freedom Run” parodies the crusaders singing “Do You Hear the People Sing” in Les Mis. However, I find the lyrics in Urinetown to be dull and kitschy. There are few powerful moments that make one feel deeply moved, and I believe a good musical should have something that touches your heart. With this standard, Urinetown is a show that probably entertains you for a little while, but lacks real substance.
The repetitive narration requires no effort from the audience to understand, and thus one is given little opportunity to contemplate the characters or the plot. Every plot-point is delivered straightforwardly to the audience. Sitting there, all one needs to do is be entertained by the singing or dancing and laugh when laughter is needed. But this all makes sense when one discovers that the musical is a self-mockery as well. The narrator even reveals the intention of the show with utter self-awareness such as, “dreams only come true in a happy musical, and this is not a happy musical.”
Overall, Urinetown is a show that features great live music and funny performances with unusual self-awareness. It will for sure entertain you with its dark sense of sarcasm, and make you ponder your own role, behavior and beliefs.