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Evil corporations, young lovers, pay toilets ... only in Urinetown

photo courtesy of dodger shows
"Urinetown: The Musical" makes fun of the cheesy sentimentality and melodrama one usually finds in musicals and instead turns a story about an evil corporation and body fluid into a postmodern show.
By Mark Sussman
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Thursday, April 8, 2004
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Almost anything can be turned into a hit musical. Any cartoon ("The Lion King"), any novel ("Oliver!") or any historical moment ("Miss Saigon") can make it on Broadway given the right director, music and cast. "Urinetown: The Musical," though, is probably the first musical about a bodily fluid to grace Broadway.

The plot goes a bit like this: A small, fictional town experiencing a water shortage is forced to buy drinking water from a giant, evil corporation. Private toilets have been outlawed, and citizens are forced to pay to urinate in public toilets. Eventually, the town's poor rise up against the oppressive evil corporation in an attempt to wrest control of their God-given right to pee where they please.

If you go:
"Urinetown: The Musical" is playing at Centennial Hall April 13 to 18 Tickets range from $18 - $52 and are available at the UApresents box office at Centennial Hall.

But Richard Ruiz, who plays Officer Barrel in the touring company of "Urinetown," says the show is about far more than just pee jokes.

"There are laughs in every number, but I fell in love with the sort of human-struggle aspect of it," said Ruiz. "There's a sort of emotional struggle going on that's very real, that pertains to us today and pertains to different societies and cultures across the world. At the end of Act 1, there's this huge riot, and everybody's singing in this faux operatic style. While it's sort of mocking musicals for having these melodramatic moments, you realize you're actually looking at what you see in news footage every day."

While it may seem simply silly at first, the way "Urinetown" mocks musical conventions places it within a theatrical tradition founded by playwright, poet and essayist Bertolt Brecht.

"Originally, the whole Brecht theater was about making a political statement and making it sort of in-your-face, doing it unabashedly and using the theater as a springboard," said Ruiz. "Brecht was tired of seeing realistic kitchen-sink dramas and comedies of manner, where they are trying to totally recreate reality onstage. He wanted to make the theater a self-aware art form."

That self-awareness emerges immediately when Officer Lockstock introduces the show with the lines, "Well, hello there and welcome to 'Urinetown.' Not the place, of course - the musical." The show constantly draws attention to the fact that it is a musical, a constructed piece of art obeying certain conventions of the theater.

Yet there is another dimension, one which transcends the sometimes-restrictive boundaries of meta-theater.

"I feel like when we do the play, sometimes some people are missing the seriousness of the messages behind it," Ruiz said. "The fear of a water shortage or the fear of total chaos due to environmental collapse or political collapse isn't very real here in the United States, or doesn't seem like it could happen here. And so I think that people sort of take the messages that Urinetown is delivering at face value. Some people think we're trying to tell this story and it's a lot of fun, but it doesn't pertain to them. That's a mistake, I think. We've been very blessed here in the United States, but stuff like what's happening in the show has happened before in other parts of the world. It's happening now."

With all of those elements combined, it's easy to see how "Urinetown" won three Tony Awards in 2002 (Best Book, Best Music, Best Direction). Its self-awareness and social commentary, combined with truly funny lyrics, make it both immediate and applicable to a myriad of historical situations.

"It's certainly a new musical for our time," said Ruiz, "There's been nothing like it before, and I don't think there will be anything else like it again."

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