What is Urinetown?
By Stephen Johnson


If you hate musicals, Greg Kotis feels your pain. The New York playwright is probably the last guy you'd expect to land on Broadway with a hit musical. After years of absurdist plays and temp jobs, Kotis now finds himself with a surprising Broadway smash, Urinetown, which is rivaled only by The Producers for pure buzz. In the past, he wrote plays like LBJFKKK, a sardonic play criticizing neighborhood watch programs. He wrote plays with names like the Raggedy Ann and Greg Show. He wrote a full-length play about a fisherman who comes back from the dead and from the bottom of the sea. Not exactly going for the bigger audiences, here.

A few years back, a cash-strapped Kotis wandered the cold, rainy streets of Paris deciding whether to use one of the pay-per-use toilets or to pee free. An idea struck him for a play about a city where all toilets are controlled by a malevolent corporation. "Corruption, oppression, class warfare, environmental degradation, all in a show where having to go to the bathroom was a principal motivating factor." Relieved and back in New York, Kotis created Urinetown with old friend, Mark Hollman (who wrote the music), strictly for laughs in a church basement on the weekends. After completing it, though, the show ended up in the New York Fringe Festival in 1998, and became the hit of the Fest. Through surprising backing, the show made it to Broadway in May 2001.

We're on our way with the first line of the musical spoken to the audience directly from the dank sewers of the city: "Hello, and welcome to Urinetown. Not the place, of course. The musical." A crippling water shortage forces the poor citizens of a futuristic city to pay the ever-escalating fees of arch-capitalist, Caldwell B. Cladwell, president of UGC (Urine Good Company). The punishment for not paying the fee to pee is a long trip to the mysterious Urinetown. Revolt is soon begun by hero, Bobby Strong, who embodies all the clichés of the musical revolutionary hero. He also meets his true love, Hope Cladwell (daughter of the villain!). From there, the revolution begins.

The reflexive Urinetown pokes fun of musicals while reveling in what is great about them. It has the energy and feel of Mark Blitzstein's, The Cradle Will Rock, while sending up the political earnestness. It mocks West Side Story while using its amazing dances. There are old-fashioned, rousing songs and classic tear-jerking ballads with names like "Don't Be the Bunny" and "Snuff that Girl." After Bobby urges the rebel poor to run away from the police, he justifies it in a typical rousing gospel number, "Run, Freedom, Run": "That freedom sun will shine someday, til then you better run run-a run run-a run, freedom, run away!" The story ends in America's obsession with feel-good politics (and musicals) with "I See a River." Will the people finally pee free? What is the place called Urinetown that we keep hearing so much about?

I asked Greg Kotis by e-mail what it's like to be the avant-gardist with a Broadway hit, why musicals might be good, and what the future of everything is.

I hate traditional musicals. Why should I see Urinetown?

My guess is that you just think you hate traditional musicals, which I can say with some authority because I used to think I hated traditional musicals until I started paying attention to them and realized I actually loved them.

Most people distrust traditional musicals because they seem to belong to another time, another generation, another sensibility, which at its worst, settles back into cheap sentiment, thin characters, and artless stories. This was my guess when I started working on Urinetown. I thought of the form as grand and self-important and silly, which was the pose I wanted to strike with our show. Fortunately, Mark Hollmann, my collaborator, was truly schooled in the form. He knew what a well crafted musical was, what it could do, and what should be done with it—
so the form was respected.

The end result is a show written as if by one man who loved musicals and one man who hated musicals, only to discover he actually loved musicals—
which is exactly how the show was written. So people who hate musicals should feel assured that at least one of Urinetown's creators understands their antipathy intimately, and fears above all creating the thing which they most loathe.

In recent years, we've gotten this Les Mis/Phantom of the Opera pop crap in musicals that many people just cannot relate to at all. There's a huge underserved population of people who like alternative art and theater. Were you guys thinking of this at all when you wrote Urinetown?

When I started doing theater, I felt the point of views I held and shared with my friends weren't really represented. Theater was a way of taking the culture into our own hands and it was accessible. For a relatively tiny sum, you could rent a space, get your friends together, put on a show, and for an evening your voice was heard—if only by a few people. This was how my style developed, from this ambition to do strong work that pleased the people I respected most—my friends.

Urinetown is sort of a special case because I didn't have much expectation of it being produced at all. It made me laugh, it made Mark laugh, it seemed honest in its own way and reckless and ridiculous and an obvious mistake, so it was a thrill to write. The spirit of the thing was "nobody's going to see this thing anyway, so let's do this thing or that thing and see what happens."

Given the odd title and the subject matter, are you surprised at its huge success or did you think sixty-year-old Broadway matrons would relate?

I am completely and continually surprised and really very grateful about the response the show has had. I didn't know what to suspect of commercial theater or commercial theater audiences, and I half-expected the hook to come out sooner or later. What I learned was the heart that beats in most fringe theater artists beats in Broadway audiences as well. It's the revelation you live for as a playwright.

I don't think people really understand how amazing it is for you to be on Broadway. When I saw your play, Jobey and Katherine, in 1997, there were twelve people in the audience. You've said in interviews that you never really wanted to even go into theater. Now this. Is it fate?

It seems to be. I'm a very, very lazy man who doesn't like to shave. I'm not good with money, I can't get a job to save my life, I'm not that fun at parties, I don't like shopping, I'm very near-sighted, and I'm not a particularly good conversationalist. But when I'm writing, when I'm in that sweet spot where you can't hear anything but the characters you're imagining and the dialogue they're spewing out and your hand is aching because you can't keep up with what they're saying, that's when I feel most happy and free. So I trust that.

The reflexiveness of Urinetown seems to come from your work while you were in the Neo-Futurists, an unusual theater group in Chicago (and creators of the long-running Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind). How would you describe their process?

Neo-Futurism is about presenting a very particular idea of what it means to be truthful on stage. Truth in theater is this very illusive, subjective ideal that's at the heart of what theater has been up to for the past century. Neo-Futurism's solution is to set about this effort literally. Specifically, the Neo-Futurist aesthetic requires that you play yourself onstage, that the stories you tell be true, and that the tasks you perform be real ones. What Urinetown borrows from Neo-Futurism is this spirit that a play must continually deconstruct itself in full view of the audience in order to maintain it's right to carry on. What's more, Urinetown was the perfect play to Neo-Futurize because there was so much that was so bad about it. The audience would see it, so the thing was to call attention to it from the stage before the audience called attention to it from their seats.

Some audience members I talked to after the show said Urinetown was not "deep" enough for them. I'm like, it's a musical! But there are those who take their musicials very seriously. Is Urinetown taking a little poke at these folks?

We chose the musical form because we wanted something big, something sweeping. But the form, or the people who love the form, weren't really our targets. Most mainstream fare is about good intentions and how they can save the day. This play presents a time after which good intentions won't do any good. There's this court jester principle that the messenger must first humiliate himself before his message may be spoken or heard—this was a guiding principle in creating this show.

What are your general thoughts about politics, theater, and musicals?

I think theater is more important than ever—indispensable, actually. We opened two days after the attack on the World Trade Center and during these first few shows the real role theater plays became very clear to me. It is about community, coming together, and bearing witness to how we live and how we hope to live to each other, in the moment, in each other's presence, both audience and performer alike. These days we live in are terrifying, and probably will continue to be so, but the simple act of congregating and telling and hearing stories is so soothing, so comforting, and filled with such life and hope as to be essential. It always has been, just all the more so now.

Urinetown is an allegory, it's a fable, so the substance could be mistaken for thin, but it's certainly not intended to be taken as such. Urinetown is about excess, waste, being blind to the consequences of your actions, and about the dishonesty of lazy, pandering plays, films, whatever. It's about the self-evident truth that our way of life is unsustainable and whether we like it or not, it will change. The hope is that we have some control over that change.

Musicals are about romance, but where does romance take us when it's used to move people politically? I think it could be argued that there are villains in the world today posing as heroes using romance to egg people on to their doom—what's more, these villains believe the romance just as much as the people they're manipulating. This, too, is the story Urinetown tells.

There's a strong reference in Urinetown to Malthus, who these days is highly thought-of in ecological-activist circles. I thought this reference was kind of weird since he's mostly of the belief that overpopulation is what causes ecological unsustainability. Is that really the issue in Urinetown?

Part of it, but not the only part. The cycle Malthus described was one of over-population leading to disasters leading to more over-population and so on. I believe there is a connection between the catastrophe we're suffering today and the planet's growing inability to sustain the people who live on it. This trend, of course, is matched in this country by over-consumption, which obscures the reality lived by most people in other places.

America is the hope of the world; I believe this deeply. But America must also eventually be honest with itself. It is not the source of all misery in the world—I reject this notion, but it can and must do more to shoulder its responsibility to be the source of more hope.

Any thoughts about how to navigate our way through coming "stink years" (as Urinetown might call it) of war and a slagging market?

Give us electric cars! Inaugurate a Manhattan Project of new sources of renewable energy. Be civic-minded. Believe in this country.

Seeing the IMF protesters in Seattle a couple of years ago was pretty remarkable. These are people actually politically engaged and not just swooning about feeling good about it (as your song parodies in "You are the River, I am the River..."). Are we going to see more of this?

Absolutely. I admire the IMF protesters, I admire the level of belief and commitment necessary to get people onto the street demanding to be heard. But I also believe that with political engagement comes the responsibility of knowledge, vision, and perspective. The people who threw bricks in Seattle should understand that empathy and the ability to educate is the hope of any movement.

Any thoughts on how 9/11 will affect the culture? Theater? You?

9/11 will intensify people's feelings about everything. Theater which wastes people's time will be more unwelcome—theater which works will be more celebrated. We will come to play our roles in this world one way or the other, and we will learn whether we are worthy of those who came before us. It might actually turn out to be a wonderful time to be alive, assuming of course that we continue to be alive.