by Sarah Jane Schostack
Urinetown, the Musical tells you what it is. It does not hide nor mask itself, but embraces its quirks, bad title and all. Originally on Broadway in 2001, Urinetown turned the theater world on its end. Everything about it seemed to ensure a flop.
As Little Sally and Officer Lockstock will explain to you almost as soon as the lights come up, the show had bad subject matter, a bad title, and so much more. Broadway was going for bigger budgets, bigger casts, and revival after revival after revival of the classics. Musicals were glitz, glam, and smiles. Urinetown was the opposite. And more to the point, it was met every single night with uproarious laughter and applause.
Urinetown was a contemporary, black musical comedy, not the first and not the last but certainly one of the only in its time. Tackling the hypocrisy of capitalism, socialism, environmentalism, and just about every other “ism” you can name, no one was safe from the wry, deadpan wit of its writers. Moreover, in our then recently post 9/11 world, it was an excuse to laugh. Standing next to happy, traditional musicals such as Mamma Mia! or Oklahoma!, it did not shy away from the darker themes the theater was avoiding.
Much like the first episode of Saturday Night Live! after 9/11, when producer Lorne Michaels asked then-Mayor Rudy Guiliani “Can we be funny?” and receiving laughter and applause, Urinetown was funny despite and in relief of our pain. It mocked the big hits of Chicago, West Side Story, Fiddler on the Roof, and Les Miserables as only the underdog can. It fearlessly embraced bathroom humor as a central plot point.
It was narrated by a slick cop and a 40-year-old woman dressed as a savvy seven-year-old. It made absurdity its brother-in-arms and fought the battle for laughs with a straight-faced stare, leaving audiences wondering if the actors even thought their own work to be humorous. Most importantly, beneath all of its irony, sarcasm, and word play, it had a set of heart and morals only realized when seen in its entirety. Young lovers fell in love and were torn apart by misjudgments and insurmountable circumstances.
The morality of money versus lives was subversively questioned on a minute-to-minute basis. The disenfranchised only rose so far and the greedy were not entirely wrong. It was something to chew on, a point of view lacking from the romantic comedies surrounding it.
And, after all these years, it remains current. For satire, when done well, is always remembered and ideally learned from.
Thank you to these writers for their satirical little monster of a show: without it, our theater would be more predictable than exciting. Thank you to this company for doing the good work to honor the complexities as well as the simplicities of every character. Thank you to this team for their imagination in putting our own twist on this icon. And thank you to you—for without an audience, a comedy is an empty room of clowns laughing at their own jokes. I hope, with your permission of course, we will be funny, even if we aren’t trying to be.
Sarah Jane Schostack is the director of Urinetown. Urinetown runs until June 17 at Lost Nation Theater, with performances Thursdays–Sundays
Urinetown by the numbers
- 50+ costume changes in the show (with at least 1 onstage!)
- 14 Actors playing 28 characters
- 5 Musicians playing 8 instruments
- 3 Directors
- 2 Assistant Directors/Choreographers
- 5 Designers
- 3 Stage managers
- 5 Run crew
- 7 Scenic/Props technicians
- 8 Costume crew
- 400 Light cues
- 150 Costume pieces and glitter