URINETOWN: The Musical?

URINETOWN: The Musical?

URINETOWN Official LogoDon’t let the title put you off. By the end of this show performers and audiences alike will be laughing so hard they’ll… fall off their chairs. Sorry, couldn’t resist.

In all seriousness, URINETOWN is pretty much your typical musical. Boy meets girl, who happens to be big baddie's daughter, they fall in love, lead revolution againstevil oppressors and live happily ever after… oh wait. Wrong show.

URINETOWN, is in fact, a satire of almost every musical you can think of. More than this it parodies the traditions of musicals as a whole in terms of style, structure and story. It also jabs at the legal system, capitalism, corrupt corporation, waste in terms of the environment and our sense of entitlement (amongst other things). Yes, URINETOWN is the most irreverent show you’ve ever seen and that’s probably why it’s such a big hit with high school students. Although the title might initially deter high school administrators, once they get to know the show they’ll become fans themselves and will be singing “It’s a privilege to pee” in the hallways. For evidence of this, check out a conversation on MTI SHOWSPACE from a high school teacher who got approval for a production.

At this year’s Educational Theatre Associations’ Thespian Festival,Denver (Colorado) School of the Arts, have been chosen to perform a main stage production of URINETOWN, one of five MTI shows that will be performed. We’re going to explore, in more detail, what exactly makes schools like Denver chose URINETOWN and how it enriches their lives in unexpected ways. We wish Devner School of the Arts all the best for their performance. Click here to continue reading.

Hunter Foster as "Bobby Strong"

URINETOWN, is it a place or a musical?

So what exactly is URINETOWN? URINETOWN, the Musical, with music and lyrics by Mark Hollmann and Book and lyrics by Greg Kotis started life in the New York International Fringe Festival in 1999 and was one of the first shows to successfully make the transition from fringe to Broadway. It opened on Broadway in September 2001. The writers could not have foreseen the significance of that date, and no doubt, the context of the time played a huge part in how the show was perceived. But more of that later. The show went on to earn 10 Tony nominations and won three, included Best Book, Original Score and Direction.

URINETOWN takes place in a time of desperation and desolation. A massive water shortage (caused by a twenty year drought) means that private toilets have been outlawed and the public now have to pay “for the privilege to pee”. These public amenities, as they’re known, are run by the evil Urine Good Company (or UGC) headed up by the villainous Caldwell B. Cladwell. If citizens relieve themselves in public or refuse to pay the fee, they’re sent to the infamous Urinetown.

When our hero's, Bobby Strong, father is carted off to Urinetown and never heard from again (except in ghost form ala Hamlet) he conspires to lead a revolution against the corruption and oppression. Unfortunately he ends up being taken to Urinetown himself, which as it turns out is not a place. Being sent to Urinetown means being thrown off the roof and killed.

Original Broadway Cast. Photo by Joan Marcus
Original Broadway Cast. Photo by Joan Marcus

From Broadway to the Blackboard: A history of musicals and theatrical traditions.

The term satire is often bandied about without proper concern given to its real meaning. The Miriam Webster dictionary defines satire as “a literary work holding up human vices and follies to ridicule or scorn and trenchant wit, irony, or sarcasm used to expose and discredit vice or folly.” It is fair to say, therefore, that URINETOWN is a satire in the truest form. By satirizing musicals from LES MIS, WEST SIDE STORY, CHRISTMAS CAROL (one character is called Tiny Tom) to FIDDLER ON THE ROOF, URINETOWN not only pokes fun at itself but allows the audience to laugh at the follies of the characters it portrays.


URINETOWN is an encyclopedia of musical forms and traditions, throughout the ages. The musical styles range from gospel “Run, Freedom, run” to Broadway ballad “Follow your Heart” and is indebted to the works of Bertolt Brecht, Kurt Weill, Kander and Ebb to name but a few. Thus, it provides rich pickings for a classroom curriculum studying what could loosely be called URINETOWN’S source material. It allows students to enter into the cultural cannon of musicals and theatre in a retro, trendy way. Students who would normally have no interest in shows like The Threepenny Opera may now regard it in a new light.

The show actively encourages the audience not to take it too seriously. URINETOWN opens with Officer Lockstock talking to Little Sally (co-narrators of the show), debating the subject matter and the actual title. Nothing can kill a show like bad subject matter “Or a bad title even? That could kill a show pretty good”. Officer Lockstock and Little Sally continually break the forth wall, reminding audiences repeatedly that this is just a silly musical, don’t give it too much thought. Thus the audience and performers are always in on the joke. Even the characters names let you know this is a parody. The woman in charge of the Public Amenity No 9 (where the revolution occurs) is called Penny Pennywise. Yes, you have to give Penny your pennies in order to spend a penny. The heroine of the show (who happens to be the big baddies daughter) is called Hope and went to “The Most Expensive University in the Whole World” and seems to have learnt nothing. Something I’m sure no student can relate to…

Relevant themes delivered in a relatable manner: “ You don’t want to over load them with too much exposition, huh?” [Little Sally, Act 1 sc2.]

As with all well constructed comedies and satire, UNRINETOWN has a heart and has a message. It invites you too look at your own actions and question the actions of society today but in a non-threatening manner.

For example, at one point near the end of the show Little Sally even says “I don’t think too many people are going to come see this show.” To which Officer Lockstock replies “Why do you say that, Little Sally? Don’t you think people want to be told that their way of life is unsustainable?"

Jeff McCarthy at the final bow of Urinetown. photo by Aubrey Reuben
Jeff McCarthy (Officer Lockstock) at the final bow of Urinetown. Photo by Aubrey Reuben

As mentioned above the show opened in September 2001 and the context cannot but have informed the content. The shows looks at innocent people effected by the greed and corruption of government and capitalism. It examines the way humans waste natural resources without a second thought, thus raising the timely topic of environmentalism, that is in all our minds following the Gulf oil disaster. Those watching in 2001 discovered a show that, in a gentle and comedic manner, dealt with topics and thoughts that would have been swirling round the heads of native New Yorkers. Yet, the show is still thought provoking and relevant today. The clever part is, the comical and satirical tone of the show will get students thinking about controversial and political issues almost without realizing it. They’ll be so busy having fun that they wont bat an eyelid to the fact they’re debating the notion of capitalism, human rights and greed. URINETOWN has layers and depth and you can delve in as far as you feel comfortable.

URINETOWN is also good clean fun. It may deal with a somewhat distasteful subject matter (humans needing to pee) but it’s never crude, rude or lewd. It really is PG rated.

At the end of the day, what do high school students want?

Looking at the musicals that have been selected to be performed at the Educational Theatre Association's Thespian festival this year, from URINETOWN to DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS , there are many common elements. They’re all tongue-in-cheek shows that gently parody themselves and subjects matters from corporate ambition to public sanitation. They all deal with issues that are relevant to students today. Furthermore, none of them are sappy love stories with corny music and lyrics. What they have instead are characters with real human follies, non are perfect but who we non-the-less love and care about and want to succeed. High School students today are savy and want to perform in shows that are smart, slick and clever with characters and subject matter they can relate to. Simple really.

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