It’s fun to come back to an old favorite, even more so after you’ve grown a little older and wiser. I saw Urinetown on Broadway during the first G. W. Bush term. At the time, I was completely enraged by three years of right wing cynicism, war mongering, crony capitalism, and the vast, feckless, left wing conspiracy that allowed such perfidy to pass for policy. I cheered with Little Sally and Bobby Strong as they took down the evil Mr. Cladwell; I reveled in the quirky, postmodern, multi-layered, self-reflexive irony; and I applauded what seemed like its liberal take on environmentalism.
If you never saw the musical the first time around, the story depicts a dystopian future where water is strictly rationed and citizens have to pay to urinate. This reads as the intrusion of a vast crony-capitalist police state, and the play invites you to take part in the narrative convention that elicits sympathy for the hero, Bobby Strong, who wants to smash the corrupt state and make water free for all.
I didn’t realize exactly how much of a piece with its time Urinetown was until I saw the revival of it currently running at The Secret Theater in Long Island City. You may remember that Urinetown is an anti-musical: it parodies the conventions of big Broadway productions, particularly Les Misérables, by foregrounding the theatrical devices they use to elicit our sympathy, engaging our sense of justice, and evoking nostalgia for a mythical past of heroes and great deeds. (Les Misérables’s recent cinema release proves that the old, romantic tales of revolution die hard.) But Urinetown’s theatrical forebears are actually Goldsmith’s Beggar’s Opera and Brecht’s appropriation of it, The Three Penny Opera – satires on the foolishness of crowds, the close connection between criminals and revolutionaries, and the credulity of romantic peaceniks. Urinetown’s lack of sympathy for the bleeding-heart left is underscored by the last line, a salute to the dismal nineteenth century economist and naturalist Thomas Robert Malthus.
Malthus speculated that blind appetite leads species to extinction, and humans, he argued, are no exception. It was he who caused the humanist essayist and critic Thomas Carlyle to dub economics “the dismal science,” and Malthus’s speculation on the overpopulation of species was an outgrowth of his right-wing critique of liberal economics, with its faith in technological and social progress. Of course, in 2003 Neo-Liberalism, the right-wingification of liberal ideas from Malthus’s adversaries Adam Smith and David Ricardo, was the order of the day, so Urinetown’s glorification of Malthus didn’t appear so obviously conservative.
But the evidence was there. Urinetown’s creator Greg Kotis’s theater company, the Neo-Futurists, were named and designed after the Futurist movement whose founder Marinetti famously said in 1915 that patriotism and war are “the hygiene of the world.” In the years before the first World War, artists felt stifled by liberal bourgeois conventions promoted as “social science,” and in 1988, when the Neo-Futurists were founded, the world was embarking on the longest expansion of the classical liberal project (free markets, laissez faire governments, and total faith in the wonders of science) since the 1880s. The Great War put the kibosh on war-as-hygiene talk, and the Great Recession has brought us popular left movements like Occupy Wall Street. For better or worse, Urinetown argues that Mr. Cladwell was the lesser of two evils.
The realization that Urinetown is a prescient satire on Occupy didn’t reduce my enjoyment of this production one jot. In fact, I think I enjoyed the musical more this time, now that the social and political upheavals of the last few years have given it a new spin. The actors — particularly Will Sevedge as Bobby Strong, Lindsay Naas as Mrs. Pennywise and Brandon Schraml as Officer Lockstock — were first rate, and the singing and dancing, while not perfect, more perfectly captured the original, subversive, DIY feel of the musical’s Fringe Festival roots than its Broadway incarnation that I remember from BITD (back in the day). The energy in the theater was palpable, and if only the enviros and peaceniks could find a way to harness that kind of spunk, global warming and wage stagnation would truly be a thing of the past!