Urinetown Leaves Us Laughing At the Most Unexpected Things

All is not lost, my friends-so long as we have a stirring musical about a mythical place where it’s no longer free to pee. That’s what we say! As the signature song of the dopey and welcome Urinetown: The Musical at the Henry Miller Theatre on Broadway puts it merrily:

You our humble Audience, You have come to See What it’s like when People can’t pee Free.

Why not? The innately escapist American musical has always covered solemn territory, from serial murder (Sweeney Todd) to miserable French people (Les Misérables). Still, peeing is new to me. The revolutionary idea for a musical about weeing struck Greg Kotis, the co-author with composer Mark Hollmann of Urinetown, when he was down and out in Paris and found himself unable to afford the price of entry to the city’s pay toilets. Thus inspired, the veteran of the Chicago fringe-theater scene conjured up the new anti-musical with a social conscience (sort of).

When he first discussed the idea, however, people looked at him with pity. The naysayers were no doubt thinking that a little wee goes a long way. They were mistaken.

Urinetown is all things to all people looking for some laughter and enjoyable silliness, some blessed relief, particularly in terrible times. It’s an unapologetic frat show, a parody musical and a demented parable about a drought-stricken town whose citizens are forced to pay prohibitive prices to use bathrooms owned by the evil Urine Good Company-geddit?

Then again, the giddy sophomore side to Urinetown is balanced for theater scholars by its debt to the fictional, corrupt capitalist cities of such music-dramas as the Bertolt Brecht–Kurt Weill The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny and Marc Blitzstein’s The Cradle Will Rock. The stage groupings of the angry mob, dying for a pee, recall and parody the endlessly whining French miseries of Les Miz. The thoughts of Urinetown’s cynical Officer Lockstock, the corrupt cop and our host and guide to the evening’s frolics, are simultaneously a Brecht tribute and satire:

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.

How can you pay homage to something and send it up? The answer is: Only when it works. It takes talent to be cool about the things we love, like the strange potency of cheap music. “The fact that self-referential irony is only now reaching the musical theater … strikes me as, well, amusing,” Kurt Andersen, the William Shatner of cultural critics, recently told The Times. Irony is said to be dead. But in his, well, amusing way, Mr. Andersen somehow managed to overlook the history of a musical theater that has had a lot of fun with parody since the days of vaudeville-from Cole Porter’s 1948 Kiss Me, Kate to the 1962 classic A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, to the camp of the rock-gothic Rocky Horror Picture Show 25 years ago.

A favorite show of mine, Forbidden Broadway, has been satirizing Broadway lovingly for a generation. One of its vintage parodies happens to be a hilarious send-up of the dizzying Sturm und Drang of Les Misérables, now taken much further by Urinetown. A more recent Forbidden Broadway sketch is a sidesplitting satire of the cutesy, sexless melodrama of The Lion King. One of the most inspired, lunatic scenes in Bat Boy, another of the recent new ”anti-musicals,” is its sentimental love duet that dissolves into a bucolic Lion King fairyland where all these cuddly F.A.O. Schwarz animals romp onstage to hump each other silly.

The creators of Urinetown belong to the generation that can’t buy into sappy Disney products or big social-conscience musicals like Miss Saigon singing and dancing to woe on Broadway. Baz Luhrmann’s frantic sendup of movie musicals, Moulin Rouge, is another example of the ironic genre, and a poor one. It’s MTV crossed with kitschy Bollywood. But when it satirizes The Sound of Music, it’s behind even the times of the sing-along version that’s heaven to affectionate parodists and fancy-dress nuns. And when it plays it romantically straight, Moulin Rouge turns to good old middle-of-the-road, saccharine Elton John.

But irony allows Urinetown to be charmingly bad deliberately. It’s a deft strategy, a preemptive defense made clear from the outset, when Officer Lockstock says to Little Sally, the intolerably kindhearted waif, that audiences are happier with simple messages-”and it’s easier to write.”

Urinetown is therefore a classically structured musical that reverses the usual polite rules. In one spiraling Act II section, it takes mocking (and self-mocking) aim at Jerome Robbins’ immortal finger-snapping “cool” from West Side Story and the ludicrously contorted poses of Bob Fosse musicals, and segues into a show-stopping revival meeting to rival Guys and Dolls. It has its pro forma romantic subplot, with gooey lyrics to match. Yet the people’s uprising to restore justice and free peeing for all is doomed to an unhappy end.

LOCKSTOCK: Well, now, Little Sally, dreams only come true in happy musicals-and a few Hollywood movies-and this certainly isn’t either one of those. No, dreams are meant to be crushed. It’s nature’s way.

LITTLE SALLY: This may not be a happy musical, Officer Lockstock, but it’s still a musical. And when a little girl has been given as many lines as I have, there’s still hope for dreams!

Irony or no, Urinetown, in other pleasurable words, is fun. I hope we don’t project too much onto it. The theme of good and evil, and its small, internal debate about vengeance, were meant to be lighthearted, and parodiable at that. At heart, this modest, loopy ecological morality tale is seriously unserious, and vice versa.

Urinetown’s nimble director is John Rando, and the witty musical staging is by John Carrafa. Among the first-rate ensemble, special mention must be made of that delightful Broadway veteran, John Cullum, the two-time Tony winner hoofing it here as evil Caldwell B. Cladwell. The more the gifted Nancy Opel kept a straight face as Penelope Pennywise, keeper of the lavatories and slut with a heart of gold, the more I laughed. Jeff McCarthy’s Officer Lockstock had the same happy effect. I’ll settle for that any day in this cockeyed caravan.