Urinetown, the Musical – never has a Malthusian story been so entertaining

Urinetown, the Musical – never has a Malthusian story been so entertaining

Music by Mark Hollmann, lyrics by Hollmann and Greg Kotis, and book by Kotis

“… with Hope as their hostage …”

Set in a time after a severe drought had dried up the water table to an extent that it was impossible to allow private toilets any longer, local government has allowed itself to adopt the community self-hating option of privatizing the city’s toilets (“amenities”). Of course this has developed into a monopoly situation where the well-dressed Caldwell B Cladwell, owner/operator of Urine Good Company, runs the show, legalized by an obviously bought legislature (“It wasn’t just cash, it was an awful lot of cash”).    It’s been two decades now and while the ‘stink years’ are in the past and the water table has not disappeared altogether, the community is getting restless waiting for the ‘long term solution’.  Of course, Cladwell has no incentive for a long term solution; he is doing as well as can be.

‘Well’ (as the Narrator keeps saying), the ‘peeple’ do begin rebelling at Amenity #9 under the leadership of young Bobby Strong, an Amenities Assistant, after the legislature approves another fee hike (the wee fee?). Coincidentally (or not) Bobby has met Hope, the beautiful daughter of Caldwell, and they seem to have fallen in love right away (sharing the realization that “all people have a heart” whether rich or poor).  While it is clear that this Broadway cliché is being sent up, the audience is probably not yet aware of how many send ups there will be throughout (However, I expect there is high expectation of send-ups after the bunny scene).  I won’t try to outline them all; I’m sure I missed some, anyway, even though I saw the show twice.

Apparently when this show was written (around the turn of the millenium) there was more than one send up of Broadway on Broadway. But fans of musical theatre would be especially delighted in this one by the many references to iconic shows, perhaps the most recognizable being the finger snapping chorus dance number reminiscent of West Side Story.  (I eagerly await someone pointing out all of them to me someday.)

But the highlight of the show is the marvellously constructed finale to Act One bringing all the drama of the finale of ‘Les Mis’ to this stage. A surprizing (or not) turn of events has occurred where Bobby has decided the ‘peeple’ of Amenity #9 need to take Hope hostage in order to escape from the police, clearly failing to impress Hope.  The Narrator captures it by describing it this way:  the rebels run off “with Hope as their hostage”.

This got me to thinking later after the story had reached its end in disaster (the story, not the production).  Were the peeple holding on to a real ‘hope’?   Is this the writer’s hint at their fundamental inspiration for the many turns and send-ups of political and (im)moral positions in the show? If the peeple respond to ‘freedom’ by resuming outdated habits of consumption which (they clearly can see?) do not take into account the fundamentally changed circumstances of the twenty year drought, then perhaps hope as we normally would think of it was never what they had in mind.  Was holding ‘hope’ as ‘hostage’ more a desperate attempt to cover up a more potent desire to prevent change?  Are there some things somehow more important than a genuine hope for the future?

I can only hope not.


Analysis after shows by Repertory Theatre production at Gryphon Theatre, Wellington, September, 2016 (14-24). Apologies for no review of individual performances or of the production.

Richard Keller





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