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Urinetown Redux By Peter Filichia

Why have so many years passed since I played the cast album of Urinetown?

Back in 2001, I had the disc on my CD player at a non-stop clip that threatened the claim that these silver slivers never wear out. T.S. (Cats) Eliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock measured out his life in coffee spoons; I was determining mine in how many times I could listen to all fifty-six minutes of Urinetown.

The album achieved the ultimate compliment that any recording hopes to get. Once a song ended, dead-air space followed – while I immediately started hearing in my head the vamp of the next song before it actually began.

Urinetown stayed in the home and car CD players for months, but, as it must to all recordings, the day comes when it must yield to another.

The Urinetown is dead! Long live the Hairspray!

So more than a decade had passed when I said on a whim, “Hey, let’s hear Urinetown again!” And when I played it last week, it started a renaissance that may go on for a long, long while.

In the original movie of The Producers a theatregoer makes the observation, “Did you ever think you could love a show called Springtime for Hitler?” Well, did any of us ever think we could love a musical called Urinetown?

I recall seeing the discomfort on Reba McEntire’s face when she read the title as one of nominees for the 2000-01 Drama Desk Awards. In the ensuing sixteen years, people have been saying Urinetown as if the title were as blithe and innocent as Hello, Dolly! It has more than 100 productions coming in the next year, mostly because it does what all great musicals have done.

It makes an art form that’s awfully hard look awfully easy.

 Urinetown emerged as the grandchild of The Threepenny Opera. Bruce Coughlin provided the heavy and somewhat dissonant brass orchestration to the expert score that Mark Hollmann and Greg Kotis gave him.

The original production resembled Threepenny, too. Miserable down-and-outers wore rag-tag costumes. Hey, none of us would look happy if we weren’t allowed to urinate in our own homes and had to go outside and pay for the privilege.

As the lyric goes in the very Weillian opening song: “Better hope your pennies add up to the fee. We can’t have you peeing for free.”

Thus is the ruling of Caldwell B. Cladwell and his Urine Good Company. He’s cornered the market on pissoirs, so we have more than six characters in search of an amenity.

The Sondheim Theatre is quite beautiful now, but when Urinetown was there, it was the Henry Miller’s and on its very last legs. More woeful still was the American Theatre of Actors, one of the town’s least attractive venues. Both were perfect fits for the distressed nature of the show.

At the earlier venue, the show originated as an entry in the New York International Fringe Festival. For years afterward, many a musical’s writers would enter the festival with the thoughts that “If Urinetown can do it, so can we.”

That turned out to be much easier said than done.

Every time I hear Nancy Opel’s voice in “It’s a Privilege to Pee” (where she demands “So if you got to go, you got to go through me”), I can only think of our running into each other at the posh party Cameron Mackintosh threw to celebrate the 4000th performance of Miss Saigon. “I’ve left the business,” Opel told me, “and I’m perfectly at peace with that decision.”

I was crushed. Someone of her stature? There ought to be a law that if you played Evita on Broadway, you should get work whenever you want it.

That was Nov. 2, 2000. Six months and one day later, I saw her at the festival in Urinetown. After the performance, I caught up with John Rando, who’d staged the show (and would eventually win a Best Direction Tony for it). I mentioned Opel’s retirement, and he told me, “Nancy called me from an office job and screamed ‘Get me out of here!’”

(Aren’t we lucky he did?)

You can’t see Jeff McCarthy’s Bogie smile on the recording, but you can hear him and Daniel Marcus bursting with confidence in the militant “Cop Song.” If it goes over the top, it only means that it’s gone over the rainbow – and you know what a great place that can be.

John Cullum originated Mr. Cladwell, a younger version of the little man with the mustache and the hat in Monopoly. Those who weren’t yet seeing theater in the late ‘70s may not fully appreciate how wonderful he was in his two Tony-winning roles in Shenandoah and On the Twentieth Century. With those recordings and this one, too, they can get a sense of it.

Hunter Foster starred as Bobby Strong, the young man who’s said to have his “head in the clouds.” Maybe Foster was typecast, for he also wrote the book for the musical version of Summer of ‘42 — and one could effectively argue that one must have a head in the clouds to take on the daunting task of writing a musical.

In recent years, we’ve spent a lot of deserved time and attention praising young composer-lyricists with three names, but here we were glad to meet two two-named songwriters. Mark Hollmann and Greg Kotis displayed a marvelous sense of melody, style and wit. Let’s all look forward to their musicalization of The Sting next spring at the Paper Mill Playhouse.

Usually after I listen to a cast album endless times, I’ve made my decisions on which songs I love and which I don’t. I start programming my favorites and listen to four, five or six songs over and over again. But that didn’t happen with Urinetown, because I adored each and every song.

Part of the strength of the score is that it encompasses so many different styles of music. When’s the last time we heard a genuine gypsy romp? Fifty-three years ago in Bajour? What an inspired idea to use a Romany-flavored, tambourine-slamming song as a second act-opening.

You can now hear it after the march that began the first act finale, and before a boogie-woogie (“Snuff That Girl”) and a hot gospel number (“Run, Freedom, Run!”). The jaunty “Mr. Cladwell” and the haunting but amusing “Don’t Be the Bunny” are true winners. And to think that among the many measures of irony that there’s room for a genuinely beautiful waltz in “Follow Your Heart.”

I loved the Marc Blitzstein and Kurt Weill homages, but let’s not overlook the Rodgers influence, too. Oh, not Richard Rodgers; I mean his wife Dorothy, who invented the Jonny Mop, which was an important prop in the show. You won’t see it on the album, but you’ll be so entranced by what you’re hearing that you won’t miss it for a minute.

Peter Filichia also writes a column each Monday at www.broadwayselect.com and each Friday at www.mtishows.com. His book The Great Parade: Broadway’s Astonishing, Never-To-Be Forgotten 1963-1964 Season is now available at www.amazon.com.