The musical Urinetown made its long-awaited London premiere a decade after it took its Tonys in New York, running for ten months between March 2014 and January 2015. I saw it in London with that production's final cast. When compared the runs of juggernaut shows like Les Mis and Mamma Mia ten months may sound like a bomb, but it's actually a fairly good showing for a musical of this type— enough, for example, to make Urinetown Olivier-eligible.
Outside of Fringe offerings, there's not a glut of science-fiction theatre (Wikipedia only acknowledges twenty science fiction musicals— that said, how good's a list I had to add Urinetown to myself?). What little there is is often treated as theatre, rather than as both theatre and SFF, which I feel is an oversight. In its SFFnal capacity, Urinetown has a lot to offer. It's thoroughgoing catastrophe-and-social-effects, political-commentary-on-our-own-world sci-fi. The musical's environmentalism and its critique of corporate power and governmental collusion with same are largely sharp and necessary contributions.
In Urinetown, decades of extreme drought have destroyed America's civic infrastructure and civil society. In their wake, a new order has emerged. A megacorporation (Urine Good Company, UGC) strictly controls and profits from public water use, including the use of restrooms. The company, in collaboration with the police, ensures that people pay to use their facilities, and prohibits private means of taking care of business. Failure to pay or illegal disposal of the limited water-resources your body contains are both severely punished.
After his father runs afoul of the law and is "banished" from the city (that is, sent to the eponymous Urinetown), urinal attendant Bobby Strong is left angry and disaffected. An encounter with an idealistic young woman (actually Hope Cladwell, heiress to UGC, who doesn’t understand how morally corrupt her father’s work is) energizes and radicalizes Bobby, who attempts to fight back against UGC's latest price-hike. Unfortunately for her, Hope is then caught up in the violent standoff.
Obviously, as the show itself points out, urination is only one of the many facets of life such a profound drought would affect:
Little Sally: Say, Officer Lockstock, I was thinkin'. We don't spend much time on hydraulics, do we?
Lockstock: Hydraulics, Little Sally?
Little Sally: You know, hydraulics. Hydration. Irrigation. Or just plain old laundry. Seems to me that with all the talk of water shortage and the drought and whatnot, we might spend some time on those things, too. After all, a dry spell would affect hydraulics, too, you know.
Lockstock: Why, sure it would, Little Sally. But . . . how can I put it? Sometimes— a musical—'s better to focus on one big thing rather than a lot of little things. The audience tends to be much happier that way. And it's easier to write.
Urinetown is, as may be evident, a self-aware, effective parody/invocation of Broadway clichés and Brechtian theatre alike. It has a strong comedic sensibility, and its fourth-wall-breaking narrator, the sinister Officer Lockstock, is simultaneously delightful and awful. Urinetown is also willing to employ a startling amount of violence and gore, more in service of its political points, I think, than for shock value (at least in this production— can see how the balance might shift in another director's hands).
Urinetown offers actors several good characters to get into (you can see Lockstock, Mr. Cladwell, and Penelope Pennywise being particularly fun), and the West End Lockstock and Pennywise were especially well done. The set design, blocking, and musical elements are all consistently strong. The music does a lot of plot work (music that doesn’t further the story and which could be easily excised is, sadly, a hallmark of the poor Fringe musical), though it’s difficult to think of standout songs. My girlfriend disagrees— thought "Run, Freedom, Run!" was standout— she’s a sucker for a whiff of gospel, so what does she know (a lot, actually— this isn’t her review, and I can’t remember so much as the chorus of that one now).
When I saw the show, Mr. Cladwell was played by Phill Jupitus of Never Mind the Buzzcocks fame (and several other fames besides). Jupitus is an entertaining performer. I’ve seen him do many kinds of live work at this point, from QI appearances (I was in the studio audience) to Edinburgh Fringe shows Porky the Poet and Making News. He's always good, but also always himself. When Jupitus appears as an actor rather than as a Personality, he doesn’t seem to quite draw on the resources that some of the actors around him can command, probably because it’s not his core skill-set or background. I wouldn't call him miscast here, and I like Rex Harrison (for his work, not his casual anti-Semitism et al.), so I mustn't mind an actor pointedly speak-singing while the rest of the cast gets on with business around him. Actually, aforementioned girlfriend was surprised that Jupitus could sing, and that he managed to hit some quite difficult notes (I wouldn’t know a difficult note if it hit me, but this is what she says). But there was a slight friction to Jupitus's casting that, surprisingly, I didn’t really feel with, say, Stephen Fry's Twelfth Night.
Everything about Urinetown announces the show’s Fringe and off-Broadway beginnings. Several Tonys later, it's still palpably a bit feral, and doesn’t feel like other major shows. There's a tension and an irony in the juxtaposition of its crass subject matter and its politics with the fact that it is now a Broadway/West End production, that most commercial and complacent of theatrical categories. Even with famous actors and a sewer-set the equal of London Les Mis's revolving barricade, there's still something rocky and amateurish about Urinetown.
I'm forced to wonder, though, whether Urinetown's any better, really, than Hamlet the Musical or A Very Potter Musical, or the many other good Fringe productions I've seen that do not have major awards et al. This is what any of them might be, with this kind of budget. I wonder then whether Urinetown won its Tonys for being good, or for feeling different and Having Themes? This is doubly problematic, as I actually don’t think Urinetown successfully executes its political content. Since the fail-condition of criticism is reification (as Strange Horizons critic Ethan Robinson pointed out elsewhere, I’m just borrowing his formulation), I find Urinetown ultimately complacent and comfortable. Thanks to a botched ending, this musical props up the very institutions it claims to critique. As such, it’s “safe” to reward Urinetown for the daring it doesn’t actually show.
Urinetown totally fails to stick its dismount. The show winds its way to a bloody climax, and the rebels turn violent themselves— far, so French Revolution. Hope joins the rebels as their leader. (Insert questions about the awkwardness of this upper-class girl leading the class-struggle here, no matter how valuable the educational resources we’re told Hope possesses are.) But after the rebels execute Mr. Cladwell and earn the right to do what they like, their unfettered freedom results in the total ruination of the fragile ecosystem. The show offers a false binary between an imagined Pollyanna leftism (which is largely a right-wing bogeyman) and a very real oppressive, paternalistic, and exploitative megacorporation, and in effect comes down in favor of the latter. Ultimately, it tells us, all we can do to be safe is allow ourselves to be screwed by the megacorporation, because they do know best and are concerned with our long-term interests, somehow.
I don't think the show means to so thoroughly betray its political content and its Brechtian form. It's not evil; it’s just stupid. In trying to "blow your mind" with this final turn and add another layer of cynicism, Urinetown manages to undo every scrap of work it’s done thus far. Then it has the nerve to sneer that:
Little Sally: I don't think too many people are going to come see this musical, Officer Lockstock.
Lockstock: Why do you say that, Little Sally? Don't you think people want to be told that their way of life is unsustainable?
It's rich to say that people won’t hear this story and change, when the musical itself has pretended to be a revolutionary text and then said change is too dangerous, the workings of power too mysterious and wise (however corrupt), and that thus the wisest thing one can do is nothing. This is like that shitty Doctor Who episode "Stolen Earth," where Davros tells the Tenth Doctor that his problem, as a character, is that he "makes people killers!!" Now that character, at this point in the run, had a score of serious issues, and none of them were that? So the show burns a straw man and tells itself and its audience that it's gotten to the heart of the matter, that it’s done its repentance. Again, the fail-condition of criticism is reification. In misdefining a problem and/or not offering possible ways to fix a problem while dwelling on that problem in your art, you can just reinforce said problem. Radicalism has issues and is capable of failing itself and those it advocates for, but not quite in the boring, simplistic way depicted herein. Rather than attacking the culture of overweening corporate power and its control over our lives and how that control is redefining our ideas of privacy, the body, etc. (which would be fairly apropos right about now), suddenly Urinetown is talking about vague ideas of personal responsibility, but not in a tangible, useful way. Shit, was the last act written by a Republican?
As a final, crowning insult, the show lacks even the courage of its convictions. We're told:
Well, that's our story. Hope eventually joined her father in a manner not quite so gentle. As for the people of this town? They did as best they could. But they were prepared for the world they inherited, weaned as they were on the legend born of their founding father's scare tactics. For when the water dried up, they recognized their town for the first time for what it really was. What it was always waiting to be.
As I said, we just saw them all die. That was the point. This is a vague, annoying, weaselly about-face. If I had a res potion I would give it to Brecht and take him to this musical and then he could punch everyone, just everyone. Brecht would.
And the thing is, even if I can forget how politically botched it is, I still don't think this ending dramatically adds anything. If the play wanted to convey that revolutionaries aren’t all ABC Club sweeties and that they can be murderous fuck-ups too, I think we definitely got the message when Bobby’s ragtag crew almost tortured and killed Hope. And then when the mob went after Cladwell and his cronies and nastily executed them. Point made. What’s this limp coda adding?
If you want a complex political musical that says everyone is wrong and all power is pretty much bullshit, maybe you want Elisabeth, the hit German musical about Elisabeth of Austria. It’s a brutal deconstruction of central Europe's Sissi-mania, even as it’s an absorbing story of her life, and, above all else (and because it is those things), an excellent musical.
Urinetown has a lot going for it intellectually— it manages to mostly squander and unmake, but there we are. It remains a good piece, working through and with various forms of musical, and is well-made theatre. It just also feels rough, like an am-dram Little Shop of Horrors production had a baby with Rent, and even layabout, faux-radical/actually-insipid Rent was disappointed in how it turned out.