Privilege to pee

“Urinetown,” a musical by Greg Kotis and Mark Hollman, is much like any other musical. There’s a hero, a pair of young lovers, a bad guy who gets overthrown and big, bold final numbers. It has all the makings of an average musical, yet it is this very adherence to the unwritten but understood “rules” of a good musical that makes “Urinetown” stand out from the rest.

As if an endearing title like “Urinetown” isn’t enough to grab one’s attention, the musical takes on the conventions of the American Broadway musical genre and parodies them until the cast takes its final bow.

A meta-musical, “Urinetown” acknowledges to its audience that it is indeed merely a musical, poking fun at each conventional form of the stereotypical musical in every way possible: through lines, lyrics, movement, sets, costumes, lighting and–most importantly–narration.

Thomas Marcus, a recent U graduate in theater studies, plays Officer Lockstock, the character behind the driving force of the show’s satire. As Lockstock tells the audience in the opening number, “Nothing can kill a show more than too much exposition.”

While “bad subject matter” and “a bad title” are further addressed in the scene as issues that may put a damper on a musical’s success, the characters of “Urinetown” wait in line at Public Amenity #9–a public toilet for those who are able to scrape up enough cash to relieve themselves.

With a water shortage so severe that private toilets are not an option, laws were passed to charge people in this respect. And for those who try to sneak around the system, it’s off to Urinetown, “the place.”

“Suffice it to say that in ‘Urinetown’ (the musical), everyone has to use public bathrooms in order to take care of their private business. That’s the central conceit of the show!” Lockstock says to the audience.

Erica Richardson, a sophomore in the Actor Training Program, plays Penelope Pennywise, the owner of the town’s nearest amenity.

“She’s like the head honcho, the one who bosses everybody around,” said Richardson of her character.

Choosing to go against the convention of modeling Pennywise from the standard Broadway portrayal of the character–butch and worthy of a lumberjack costume–Richardson embraced the history of Pennywise’s past love affairs and consciously added a touch of femininity to the already tough character, she said.

Not alone, Richardson noticed her fellow cast members taking their characters into their own hands.

“The way the cast plays each character, it’s just brilliant,” she said. “Even down to the last person in the ensemble with one line, they are really invested into who their character is.”

This attention to detail brings to life the truthfulness of “Urinetown,” Richardson said, in that it validates the characters’ situations, adding to the comic effect that arises from the already absurd setting of the musical.

Sam Wessels, a junior in the ATP, plays Pennywise’s young custodial assistant, Bobby Strong. Though poor, “it’s actually a pretty good position because he gets to pee for free, and no one else can,” said Wessels of his character.

In approaching Strong, Wessels worked with director L. L. West in creating what he refers to as an “oh-my-god” sort of na’vety, in which the character thinks he knows what is going on, yet does not actually have a clue, Wessels said.

“It’s like (Strong is) coming out of innocence into knowledge, but he still has no idea what’s going on,” he said. “It’s like when you first realized what sex was, and you were like, ‘Oh my god?OK.'”

Wessels’ character, while perhaps clueless to the workings of the world around him, manages to stir up a rebellion against the Urine Good Company, the major corporation that “keeps the pee off the street and the water in the ground,” as declared by the company’s president, Caldwell B. Cladwell.

“It’s sort of like the generic, socialist hero story; where a revolution started, everything seems like it’s going to be great and the evil guy’s dead, but in the end, the evil guy–even though his means were horrible–(would have ensured that) the world was going to continue,” Wessels said.

With Strong changing the ways of the world alongside his socialist revolution, he ends up changing it for the worse, Wessels said.,leading to the realization that a capitalist world led by Cladwell would have resulted in the better situation.

For a musical that pokes fun at all other musicals, a less-than-happy ending comes as a surprise, yet still comes in the vehicle of satirical comedy.

“Something that our director was really huge on was that we can’t play the jokes–we have to play it very serious; play it as if it’s actually happening,” said Wessels. “And that’s what made it really funny.”

In this respect, it is different than most comedic musicals, he said. “These people could actually be real.”