In a world where people have to pay to pee, can anyone be truly free?
For the characters in Urinetown, The Musical — which closes Skylight Music Theatre’s 2017–18 season — the answer is a little less “fluid” than you might think.
The Tony Award-winning satire, which opened on Broadway in 2001, creates a dystopian future with a world so environmentally damaged that water must be severely rationed. Consequently, home toilets have disappeared and that most necessary of human functions has become, if you will, a profit stream for a single large corporation, the Urine Good Company.
Violators of the law — many just people too poor to pay to pee — are sent to Urinetown, a penal colony, never to be seen again. A rebellion ensues and, in the manner of all musical comedies, the free-to-pee movement wins the day.
Everyone lives happily ever after, at least until the water runs out. But until then, the humor flows freely.
“This is a really, really funny and sharply pointed satire that’s frighteningly relevant today,” says Skylight artistic director Ray Jivoff, who directs the show. “A rich, corrupt corporate guy raising fees to use the restroom strikes a chord with our current situation.
“It might actually be too relevant,” he adds.
Playwright Greg Kotis wrote the show’s book and, with composer Mark Hollman, also wrote the lyrics, many of which are sendups of other musicals, including Les Misérables and The Threepenny Opera.
But there’s also a very serious message contained within. Talking from his New York City home, Kotis recounted the show’s origins and purpose in a conversation with the Wisconsin Gazette.
WiG: It’s well-known that your encounter with a pay toilet in Europe sparked the idea for Urinetown. Is there more to the story?
Greg Kotis: My reaction was influenced by two things in particular — spending a week in Romania prior to bumming around Europe, where I found the pay toilet, and moving to New York City.
I was in Sibiu, which is in Transylvania, in 1995 with (Chicago-based experimental theater troupe) The Neo-Futurists to perform at a theater festival. Some of the worst horrors of World War II happened in Romania and the Ceaușescu regime was only five years in the past. The weight and grimness of that history felt very present to me.
Ceaușescu imposed severe austerity measures on his people and maintained power with a brutal police state. He fell victim to a popular uprising, much like Caldwell B. Cladwell, the villain at the center of Urinetown.
The New York I then moved to was a city of extreme wealth and extreme poverty, very public homelessness, a big police presence, and a squalid sprawl that went on forever in every direction. These elements are also present in Urinetown.
So, while the bathroom idea was the show’s spark, the realities of Romania and New York City shaped the story in important ways.
Is there a reason you chose the absence of free bathroom privileges as your satiric platform?
Plenty has been written about every other bodily function, except this equally essential one. Hunger has been a motivator, as has lust, and heat or cold, but not this. I suppose if I had any inkling of a career or a reputation to protect, I would have ignored the idea. But in a strangely lucky way, I didn’t have much to lose.
What’s the lesson here?
Urinetown is, among other things, a plea for sustainability. The central question of our time, I believe, will be whether or not we manage the consequences of our success as a species. Everything else hinges on how we respond to that question.
Historically speaking, we live in a moment of relative power and comfort, and yet still we’re unable to check our excesses. The Paris Accord was the latest and perhaps most ambitious — albeit insufficient — effort by those who govern to address these issues, and the response of the governed was to throw them out of power.
This is a gross oversimplification of the last few years in politics, of course, and one that ignores every other issue and assumes the good intentions of those who govern. That’s a big assumption!
We the governed know what’s coming, and we choose to ignore it.
What is the application of these lessons to the current presidential administration?
A reporter who covered the opening of Urinetown in Mexico City last year pointed out to me that the show was about both environmental and political sustainability. This struck me as a sharp insight into the show, one that hadn’t really occurred to me before.
What we have in America right now does not feel sustainable, politically speaking. Moneyed interests control politicians, who enact laws that enrich the moneyed interests who pay the politicians, and so on. One explanation for the 2016 election is that it was a sloppy, ill-informed, bone-headed, manipulated, potentially disastrous revolt against that cycle. It’s not a complete explanation, but may be worth taking seriously.
What would political sustainability look like? How do we, the governed, find our way toward some kind coherence and unity and direct those who govern us to lead us toward a sustainable future?
These are also questions inherent in the play, and they’re much easier to ask than they are to answer.
Does Urinetown sufficiently address these issues?
It seemed like a new and fun way to explore all the realities of how we organize ourselves socially and politically. Thinking up dystopian worlds is my idea of fun, I guess.
Skylight Music Theatre's production of Urinetown, The Musical runs May 18 – June 10 at the Cabot Theatre in the Broadway Theatre Center, 158 N. Broadway, Milwaukee. Tickets are $28.50 to $73.50 and can be purchased by calling the box office at 414-291-7800 or visiting skylightmusictheatre.org.