In “Urinetown, the Musical,” which plays for three more nights at Stephens College’s Macklanburg Playhouse, political issues take center stage for many of the audience members. Questions of environmental responsibility interlace with upbeat musical numbers and pithy jokes about necessary bodily functions.
The musical focuses on a community suffering from a 20-year drought. In this fictional, futuristic town, the solution to the problem is a pay-as-you-pee chain of public toilets.
The poorest townspeople, those who can’t or won’t pay, have little choice. Public urination is against the law and can get you deported to Urinetown, a faraway town that officials call an even more horrible existence.
There’s another, even darker twist best left a surprise for the audience, and in the mounting political tension, the citizens finally revolt.
Although the musical entertained, its obvious messages of environmental awareness and social justice provoked some audience members. Jack Grate, who called himself a “former revolutionary” from the 1960s, said seeing “Urine
town” brought back memories of marching on Washington and protesting the Vietnam War.
“Now, my son and daughter are more the rabble-rousers,” said Grate, who drove from Kansas City for the Saturday night show. “I’m 57, so I’d probably be more cautious at this stage in the game.”
Cindy Lear found a variety of underlying messages. Mostly, “Urinetown” struck a chord with her newfound feelings of environmental consciousness. With Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” stuck in her mind, Lear said she’s excited this issue is finally a focus.
“I think it’s both a fiscal and social issue,” said Lear, who drove from Springfield to see the show.
She also said the “Wal-Mart-izing” of the community is a big concern the musical brought up. “I think they (large corporations) have an immense responsibility,” Lear said. “But we purchase all those products, we depend on those products. We have to say, ‘I’m not going to buy that stuff.’”
Diane Booth hopes no one ever has to be in the position in which the musical’s characters find themselves. However, she said the subject matter could stand for anything, such as gasoline.
“It’s all highly representative of other things that are going on and have been going on for many, many years,” said Booth, who lives in the Columbia area. “It (the musical) took to the extreme what is typical and routine certainly in our government here, in the United States and in Missouri.”
Booth called the musical “stark” but was glad for the commentary. “I go to the theater to be entertained,” she said, “but I also like to be challenged.”
Grate said he thinks protests for change are young people’s work. “Remember what Bob Dylan said, ‘If you ain’t got nothing, you ain’t got nothing to lose,’” he said.
Said Lear: “We all need to take individual responsibility.”
Lamby Hedge, the musical’s director, has been proposing “Urinetown” for inclusion in the Stephens production schedule for a few years. In 2002, it was nominated for nine Tony awards and won three: Best Director, Best Original Score and Best Book of a Musical.
Hedge said she’s happy to produce a piece that has such an edgy and contemporary score. “At the heart of the story,” she said, “is an environmental message about the management of diminishing resources and what that can do to a population.”