Sunday, November 12, 2006


If you've been reading this blog long enough to remember my infrequent posts on music, you probably won't expect me to be a fan of musicals. And for the most part, you'd be right. But there are a few exceptions, one of which is Urinetown, which I saw on Friday.

Urinetown, perhaps the most unlikely Broadway hit ever, was conceived as a parody of Brecht-Weill type political musicals, with a deliberately ludicrous premise: a city where you're not allowed to pee except in public pay toilets, which are controlled by a corporate monopoly. It also parodies musicals in general. The hero and heroine are impossibly idealistic and naive. And the narrator, who is also involved in the action, is well aware that he's in a musical: at one point he explains to another character that nothing can kill a musical quicker than too much exposition, only to have that character retort that a bad concept, or a bad title, can also kill a musical pretty quick. The music, too, is a pastiche of other musicals. The biggest influence, naturally, is Weill, but there are also imitations of other genres of musical numbers, such as the jazzy, Fosse-type number; the faux-gospel number, the love duet, the Les Miz-type anthem, and more.

All this provides a lot of laughs. But the secret of Urinetown is that under all this parody and postmodern tomfoolery, it's actually a good musical. The book, for all its absurd elements, is artfully constructed and well-crafted. And though it started out as a parody of political musicals, beneath the laughs it turns out to examine serious political issues in an intelligent and unpreachy way.

And in addition to being clever pastiches, the songs can stand on their own as good songs. Mark Hollmann, who wrote the music, not just a skillful pasticheur, but a very good composer in his own right, with a gift for catchy, insinuating melodies. Particular highlights include the very Weill-ish opening (and title) number, the Brechtian "Don't Be the Bunny," the love duet "Follow Your Heart," and the show-stopping "Snuff that Girl" (the Fosse-ish number mentioned above). The clever lyrics (co-written by Hollmann and Greg Kotis, who wrote the book) make an equal contribution.

Friday was actually the third time I'd seen Urinetown: my first two times were during the New York Fringe Festival run which was its very first outing, and the first off-Broadway run. What I saw Friday was a community theater production put on by the local community college, and I wasn't sure what to expect; but I needn't have worried. The performances were generally professional level (despite a couple of muffled lines and some difficulties with projection). I thought two actors were particularly noteworthy. Brad Baillio plays the hero, Bobby Strong. Though Strong is impossibly pure-hearted, Baillio managed to find the humanity under the parody. And Michael Steen plays Officer Lockstock, the corrupt cop who is also the narrator, and in a sense the linchpin of the show. Steen fulfills this role admirably, and strikes the right balance between charm and viciousness. It's not just me: most of the audience appeared to be having a great time. If you live in Champaign, IL, you still have an opportunity to see it, next Thursday through Sunday (Nov. 16-19), and if I were you I'd jump at that chance. (I should point out that, despite the title and subject matter, aside from a few silly pee jokes there's nothing offensive in the show, not even any swearing.)

If you don't live in Champaign, you can still buy the original off-Broadway cast album. Though the lyrics are clever and often witty, as I mentioned above, the songs by themselves generally aren't laugh-out-loud funny, but they are very good: Hollmann's music alone makes the cast album a worthwhile purchase. You can also read the playscript (there are inexpensive copies available from Abebooks, if your library doesn't have it). This also includes a very interesting introduction by Kotis and Hollmann describing the show's history and development.

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