A great musical with a terrible name comes to the Skylight with "Urinetown"
Closing out your season with a fairly recent Tony-winning production, one adapted heavily by high school and college theater programs across the nation, shouldn't seem like a risk. But talking to Skylight Music Theatre artistic director Ray Jivoff, he seems interested to see how their season-closing show plays with the crowd. For one, it's a musical that goes into some dark places, following an oppressed group of people fighting desperately for a basic right against its corporate overlords.
Also, it's called "Urinetown" – and it's about exactly what you think it is.
"We've gotten some response from patrons questioning it and what it is," laughed Jivoff, who is also directing the Skylight's finale. "I continue to compare it, in terms of patrons response, to when we did 'Avenue Q' back in 2012."
And, also like "Avenue Q" – aka the R-rated puppets show – "Urinetown," premiering at the Skylight on Friday night before running through June 10, is a musical that's infinitely better than it sounds.
Even the script – a Tony winner back in 2001 for Best Book – knows the title sucks, for one, breaking the fourth wall to crack jokes about it within the first five minutes before leaping into the plot of a draught-plagued people forced to pay for the right to … well, relieve themselves. Their dignities and bladders stretched to their breaking points, the peasants decide to rebel against their piggish corporate oppressors, happily sitting in their golden towers and raising the fee on the citizens' golden showers.
So yes, it's silly – we haven't even discussed the villain's diabolical number, sung with bunny slippers on his feet – but when done right, "Urinetown" manages to be painfully funny, poking fun of other iconic musicals like "Les Miz" and "Fiddler on the Roof" almost as much as itself, while painfully poignant about the realities of revolution. It's definitely the only show out there where bladders bursting and people singing about needing to pee share the stage with grim violent coups and a shout-out to the famed economic theorist Thomas Malthus.
"When we talk about ("Urinetown"), it sounds like it's going to be really dark with people suffering and this tortured draught, but the show is hysterically funny and the music, as Little Sally says, is so happy, and there's dance number after dance number," Jivoff said. "We talk about the draught and the politics, but then you actually see it, and the characters are funny, and the language is witty. That's the dilemma of the show: You talk about it and it sounds dark and gloomy, but it's actually really fun and entertaining."
In addition to tip-toeing the show's beloved balance of grim political philosophy and cartoony, self-effacing humor, there's also the challenge of making "Urinetown" the Skylight's own and updating it for our modern era. To do so, Jivoff and his team of designers have transporting the production out of its typical, vaguely Great Depression world – often inspired by the Kurt Weill-esque notes in the score – into a more current day setting. Gone is the Dust Bowl vibe and art deco, traded out for a set made of plastics, storage containers and industrial metals. Less newsies and more "Mad Max."
"We, to try to see it from a fresh point of view, decided to approach it as if the draught started now and, 20 years from now, what would the world be like if the issues with the environment continue or get exacerbated," Jivoff explained. "It wouldn't be a lot of wood or something that could be sustained with water or moisture. It would be plastic and things that will never go away."
And while Jivoff and his scenic designers didn't want to hit the audience over the head or overplay references to today's political climate, it's hard not to connect dots to the modern day inspiration for the villainous Mr. Cladwell's gold-obsessed, bigger-is-better, monolithic headquarters.
"I think there will be a fairly obvious resonance in terms of contemporary look," Jivoff said. "The audience will see, say, a CVS bag used as shoes and recognize it from crumpled up in the backseat of their car, as opposed to having 'Urinetown' feel like a period piece."
Overall, however, the Skylight artistic director doesn't want to change much about "Urinetown," a risk he's more than eager to make and more than eager to show viewers familiar and new.
"You can put a twist on it or a view, but really you want to value and trust the material," Jivoff said. "I really like the show. I think it's really funny, a great pointed satire and it's a great contrast to 'Annie' (the Skylight season's centerpiece show). And I've also gotten a lot of excitement from – and I don't want to necessarily couch it in a generational thing – younger people, and all arts organizations are talking about developing new audiences and bringing in young people."
OK, maybe he'd change the name of the show – but then again, probably would the creators of "Urinetown."
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