By Peter Filichia —
This week, all of us wish that we wouldn’t have to mark the ninth anniversary of Urinetown’s Sept. 20th opening.
How much better the world would be if we could have celebrated it nine days earlier.
Alas, Urinetown had originally been set to open on Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001 at the Henry Miller’s Theatre. We all know why it didn’t.
As someone who attended the final preview on Monday, Sept. 10, I can attest to the show’s triumphant reception. Granted, the standing ovation Urinetown received that night couldn’t be much of an indication that the audience judged the show to be excellent. After all, many audience members traditionally stand simply because others have already done so; those who remain sitting feel guilty and worry that they’ll disappoint or anger the actors who can plainly see them during their curtain calls. So they stand.
But on Sept. 10, 2001, the capacity crowd stood AND applauded and cheered for a substantial length of time. An audience doesn’t do that unless it’s really pleased.
Urinetown won us over right from the start. A police officer brought a doleful-looking man on stage. Where was he escorting him? To the piano, in fact. The “criminal” was the show’s musical director, and already we were laughing.
The overture began, and many of us knew from its first five dissonant notes that Kurt Weill’s music, a la The Threepenny Opera, was being homaged. But Weill and early collaborator Bertholdt Brecht even in their most radical moments wouldn’t have dared to write a show in which urination was a central issue .
Specifically that people had to pay for the privilege to pee. Enforcing the law were Officers Lockstock and Barrel – some nice wordplay there — and Penelope Pennywise, who insisted “If you got to go, you got to go through me,” which offered even better wordplay. Penelope worked for Caldwell B. Cladwell, another pun that suggested clothes do make the man.
Of course a champion for the people would emerge, and that was Bobby Strong. But Bobby didn’t even last until the final curtain – to our surprise and to the agony of Hope Cladwell, the mogul’s daughter who had fallen in love with Bobby to her father’s consternation.
A little Romeo and Juliet there? The authors admitted it. “In the end, it’s nothing you don’t know,” Lockstock sang in the opening number. But composer Mark Hollmann, who wrote the lyrics with bookwriter Greg Kotis, gave us a score with such bite it’s a wonder that the CD case doesn’t have a life of its own and snap shut on our fingers.
To be sure, there were a couple of gospel numbers and a march, but who expected a Hungarian czardas to show up in a Broadway musical? “Follow Your Heart” sounded inspirational, but its three-quarter waltz tempo was more careful than swirling. The number where Cladwell’s victims celebrated him was a good example of the Stockholm Syndrome. It all sounded as if it were written by a post-modern Tom Jones are Harvey Schmidt. But, as Cladwell said himself, “Live long enough, and you see many things.”
Afterwards, as we all filed out on that lovely, innocent Sept. 10, I saw big smiles on the faces of my friends who are critics (and my enemies who are critics, too.) At that very moment, I recalled an opening night party I’d attended a few years earlier. The theater’s artistic director got up to make the usual thank-you speech, but then went on to say that his job wasn’t easy, because he got so many unsolicited scripts to terrible shows. “Like this one called, if you can believe it, Urinetown,” he said, holding the script between his thumb and forefinger, as if he were holding a skunk by the tail. Then he let loose his fingers so that the script dropped into the trash can next to him.
True, getting past that title isn’t easy. It’s worse than Illya, Darling and even Home Sweet Homer (the musical version of The Odyssey). Hollmann and Kotis have often admitted that they did try to find another name. The best they could ever come up with, however, was You’re in Town. Ultimately they felt that that title would be unfair to the public, who wouldn’t be able to infer from You’re in Town what was really on the authors’ minds: a musical about “A Gotham-like city sometime after the Stink Years” when people had to pay to urinate.
Kotis admits that he got the idea when he was on a trip to Europe and only ran into pay toilets. What would happen if the entire world were like that – even down to the bathrooms in your own home? Of course, someone would get rich from the pay-toilet franchise, but what about the people who couldn’t afford to pay?
965 performances on Broadway is pretty good for a musical that started its life two years earlier on Stanton Street, a spot that most New Yorkers wouldn’t be able to find. The show was part of the 1999 New York International Fringe Festival, which still takes place each summer. Ever since the success of Urinetown – Tonys® for book, score, and direction — the show has become the poster child for the musical that goes from long-shot to long run. I’ve heard many a theatrical hopeful say “I’m writing a show (or doing a show) that’s part of the New York International Fringe Festival – where Urinetown started.”
It’s certainly continued — even to Berlin, where it was called Pinkelstadt.
There’s an irony to what happened after Urinetown had been running for two years. Real estate moguls (who might have something in common with Cladwell) forced the show out of the theater in order to build a skyscraper. I’m sorry that all of us didn’t get together one Monday morning and carry what little set Urinetown had to a new theater so it could run a couple of more years. But it lives on in its terrific original cast album.
Peter Filichia writes a column each Monday, Wednesday and Friday at www.theatermania.com/peterfilichia