backstage (2006-35)

Yellow Humor

In Urinetown: The Musical , it’s a privilege to pee

by Trace Bateman

At its core, Urinetown: The Musical is heavier than a ton of toilet paper, and less squishy, too. It’s a gripping tale of love, loss, corporate oppression, and rebellion, but, like a good roll of Angel Soft, the (t)issues are quilted together with something far less abrasive: humor. Like Donald O’Connor so eloquently put it in Singing in the Rain , “Make ’em laugh.” After all, we are talking about a play that chooses to call itself Urinetown .

The production’s director and the artistic director for the Theatre Guild of Morristown, Micah-Shane Brewer, is the first to admit that a title can be a hard thing to overcome, but he insists that the true merit of a musical comedy comes from the aching sides that follow a couple of hours worth of smiles and laughter—not the marquee outside the theater.

In 2001, Brewer was living in New York, when a friend suggested that they check out a musical comedy called Urinetown that was getting buzz off-Broadway. Brewer was wary of both the title and the premise, but his curiosity ultimately yielded courage, and Brewer took a chance. Instantly, he became an early enthusiast for a production that would quickly claim many more souls. After moving to Broadway, Urinetown found itself nominated for 10 Tony Awards, and at the end of the night, it took three of them home.

Now, Brewer and the Theatre Guild of Morristown are bringing the critically acclaimed musical with the weird name to East Tennessee for the first time.

The setting is a Gotham-like city in the midst of a 20-year drought and on the verge of bankruptcy. Water is the commodity of the time, and the city’s premiere corporation has turned to generating funds from the basest of human needs. To put it simply: take a leak, pay a fee—an absurdly logical solution for the need to simultaneously conserve water and drum up income. Sidestepping the logistic difficulties of monitoring such an act, the corporation preys on the fear of the town; the penalty for peeing without paying is death. Unfortunately for the fat cats patting themselves on the back, the poorer classes will not stand for such a financial assault on a fundamental necessity.

Spurred forward like any good hero—by a woman—Bobby Strong is a manager of the public amenities, as they put it, and has the hots for Hope Cladwell, whom he doesn’t realize is daughter of the Urine Good Company’s corrupt corporate head. His desire to win her heart morphs into an effort to lead the lower classes in a rebellion against their oppressors. Then he realizes who Hope’s daddy is, and realizes that he’s screwed. The only thing left to do, as is tradition in all musicals worth their salt, is sing.

Brewer’s enthusiasm for this particular production is obvious, but when it comes to the music, which earned a Tony Award for “Best Score,” he sounds downright childlike. Stumbling over a long list of music-theater classics— Chicago , Fiddler on the Roof , West Side Story and Les Miserables —Brewer delights in the mocking references Urinetown offers, right down to its Bob Fosse-esque choreography. The production’s orchestration, however, remains simplified, rounding things out with a piano, trombone and percussion.

Continuing in the spirit of minimalism, the cast covers as much territory as possible. With the exception of the lead characters, each player adopts two or three roles apiece over the course of the show.

Recently, Brewer brought in a test audience to rehearsals to prepare his 16 players for live response. For a director who’d exhausted himself studying the script, the test audience reminded Brewer of the multiple layers of humor Urinetown contains, cheap laughs fueled by deeper intellectual jokes to be consumed on second and third viewings.

In admiration of German theatrical reformer Bertolt Brecht, Urinetown chases down the absurd for a laugh and manages to be supported by an underlying intellect. It draws the marrow of man-versus-corporation out from what amounts to toilet humor, connecting opposite ends of theater’s vast spectrum. How then can one take it seriously? The response from Brewer is simply, “You just have to see it.”

What: Urinetown: The Musical