‘Urinetown’ looks to shine a satirical light on capitalism and climate change
Picture this: A massive drought cripples a city. In a mad attempt to regulate water consumption, the government outlaws the use of private toilets. Instead, citizens must use public pay toilets owned and operated by a corrupt businessman. Yes, that’s right—citizens must pay to pee. If they refuse or are caught peeing in private, they are arrested and sent to a mysterious place, never to be seen again…
That’s the basic plot of “Urinetown, The Musical”—the production being performed by the CU Boulder College of Music BM/MT program from Nov. 11-14. The department was originally going to produce it last spring, but they weren’t able to secure streaming rights to perform it during the COVID-19 shutdown. Instead, they performed “The Threepenny Opera,” a show that “Urinetown” is based on. However, after “Threepenny’s” run, stage director Justin Johnson still felt a pull to perform “Urinetown.”
“We chose ‘Urinetown’ for numerous reasons,” Johnson says. “It’s funny—it’s so funny—and it’s very fun to do for the performers. But it’s challenging, too. The songs are not easy. [There’s] lots of four-part or five-part harmonies at times with the whole chorus, and we want to hear all of it.”
Junior Annie Carpenter echoes the humor as a cornerstone of the play.
“It’s super funny—the entire thing is funny all the way through,” she says. “I actually didn’t know very much about it when they announced we were doing it… but now that I’m working on it, I realize it’s a lot more clever than I thought it would be.”
Carpenter plays Penelope Pennywise, a urinal warden who the people must pay in order to access a restroom.
“She’s kind of a mean old lady,” chuckles Carpenter, “and she’s really fun because she’s the only character that’s actually kind of neutral—all of the other characters are either [with] the poor people or [with] the rich people… She’s kind of in this middle ground where she isn’t necessarily with the wealthy people who work for this big company, but she’s definitely not with the poor.”
Another important character in the show is Officer Lockstock, who serves as the main narrator and is also the police officer in charge of finding guilty pee-ers. In this production, he is played by senior Michael Gaven.
“[Officer Lockstock is] interesting because he has two modes where he’s either in ‘narrator mode’ or ‘Officer Lockstock mode,’” says Gaven. “So when he’s in ‘narrator mode,’ he’ll be more out of the show and he’ll just be very full of himself and very serious about what he does, and that’s exactly how he wants to come off to the audience. And then ‘Officer Lockstock [mode]’—most of the time playing the character in the musical—is more about following orders and just making sure he does his job right and does what he can to survive.”
In the midst of this pay-to-pee plot, “Urinetown” also pays homage to other musicals. The references bring familiarity while also embracing a story that’s completely original.
“[As part of my preparation for directing this show, I looked] into all of the different musicals that get skewered in ‘Urinetown,’” Johnson says. “The Act One finale is a shout-out to ‘Les Mis.’ They create a little barricade with the whole ‘flag in the background, marching forward and backward’ scene. And then, of course, the first scene in Act Two is a tribute to ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ and the song ‘To Life.’ And then you’ve got ‘Snuff That Girl’ which is a tribute to ‘Cool’ from ‘West Side Story.’ It’s so fun to do all of these different styles of musical theatre in one shot.”
At the end of the day, though, “Urinetown” is a satirical melodrama. While it is chock-full with over-the-top funny moments, it also has some serious undertones surrounding capitalism, the wealth gap and climate change.
“It has something to say about social inequities with the rich and the poor,” says Johnson. “The drought has been going on for 20 years and just the idea that the government had to step in and outlaw private urination and defecation and put up these facilities that you have to go to curb the water consumption… It kind of feels ridiculous and at the same time, with the way that we’re destroying the planet and how quickly we’re destroying it, it’s not that far-fetched.”
“It’s a story about people who feel like they aren’t being heard or people who feel like their needs aren’t being met, which is something we’re hearing all over the world lately,” adds Carpenter. “That’s something that we’re starting to talk about now so obviously that story is always going to be relevant which is why it’s such a timeless piece because stories like that—stories about people rising up—are always going to be told.”
“I think it does such a great job of making fun of the control and power abuse and misdirection that we see in today’s world,” says Gaven. “The way that those serious moments can blend with the comedy, and kind of just flip into funny moments as quickly as they do, somehow gets the message very clearly across to the audience. And it’s very efficient in its storytelling.”
“We’re still going to be playing it for the humor and the ridiculousness of the situation,” Johnson confesses, “but underneath we have something to say: We’ve got to start doing a better job of taking care of our planet. I always like shows, personally, that have a lot of humanity in them. They’re not just for fun.
“I think that art is supposed to question the way we move through the world. Is there something different or better that we could do or be? And so that’s kind of always what I try to do.”
“Urinetown” opens on Thursday, Nov. 11 at 7:30 p.m. in the CU College of Music Theatre.