Monday, December 4, 2017

Urinetown: The Musical @ Blank Canvas Theatre

Daryl Kelly as Bobby Strong (Blank Canvas, 2017)
It is a well-known fact that the ground-breaking musical Urinetown: The Musical was set to open on Thursday, September 13, 2001. As events played out that week, it is no small feat that they only need to postpone the opening for one week, and opened instead on September 20.

What is less-reported is that I already had a ticket to see it two weeks later, on Saturday, October 6. Not only a ticket to the show, but also a plane ticket for LaGuardia. The emotional trauma of witnessing the events of September 11, even just on television, endowed the idea of flying with a newly realized dread, one which continues to this day.

Earlier that summer my wife and I took a transatlantic flight, international terrorism was furthest from my mind.

I had several reasons I really wanted to attend this new production, however. I knew some people who were deeply invested in it, and I had long been a fan of Greg Kotis from when he was a member of the Neo-Futurists.

My first impression of his work was a Too Much Light play called “Documentation” from 1991. Kotis stepped out onto the empty stage with a Polaroid camera and asked, "Will all the Jews in the audience stand up, please?"

People stood, the guy I came with stood. I’m not Jewish, I didn’t stand. Kotis took a photo of the audience, looked at the photo until the image was clear. He said, "Thank you." Curtain.

Simply told, haunting and cautionary. Our imitative company in Cleveland were always trying to reach the elegant impact of plays like that one. The idea that someone whose experimental work I had seen in a rented theater in Chicago ten years earlier had written the book for a Broadway musical was inspiring and I just wanted to see it.

My wife had written a play which was produced at that year’s New York Fringe at the old resent Company space, a mere two years since Urinetown had made its mark in the same venue. The Broadway producers of that musical were about, drumming interest and selling copies of original cast album, which I purchased.

So, I knew what the show was about, and frankly I was a bit concerned how it would be received. We were still, supposedly in an era of “post-irony,” SNL producer Lorne Michaels had only the weekend before my arrival asked Mayor Giuliani on the show if it was okay to be funny again. (The mayor’s response; “Why start now?”)

John Cullum as Caldwell B. Cladwell (Broadway, 2001)
Even Urinetown’s most experienced and lauded performer, John Cullum, didn’t get the show or think it was funny. In Backstage earlier that year he said he thought the show was “strange and crude and by the end of the first act I was angry and offended.” Later, I heard Cullum in an interview admit that it was his wife who read the script, thought it was hilarious, and encouraged him to take the role.

My first night in Manhattan I met and drinks with some friends. We were well uptown, far from Ground Zero. I had already seen it, however, from the sky. We arrived at dusk, the sky was dark, but the site of the former World Trade Center was lit as bright as day, crews working around the clock, the pit still actively smoldering. Everyone in the plane was looking out the window. Many literally gasped. The guy sitting next to me had a tourist guide, he was visiting his son at college, and good for him.

I asked my friends, should I go? Should I go downtown and see it? Was that the right thing to do? The wrong thing to do? These were early days. I didn’t want to be a ghoul.

They said, yes! You must! And so I was absolved. And I went. And what I saw there is a story for another time. It is enough to say at this time that all of this was hanging in the air the night I first saw Urinetown: The Musical at the Henry Miller Theatre.

Was the audience apprehensive? Perhaps they were. Maybe it was just me. And maybe it was just me, but the company seemed apprehensive. They were totally on, the show was funny, and it music popped. And we were appreciative. But even from the beginning, I felt as though some previous audience had mistreated them, and that they weren’t sure we were going to like them. And I wasn’t sure if we were either.

It wasn’t until "Run, Freedom, Run!" -- in the middle of the second act -- that the audience was, at last, entirely on their side, and it brought down the house. We liked the show. We liked it a lot.

The following spring, I returned to NYC with my wife. It had been less than a year. Driving into the city we were struck by the absence of the Twin Towers. We met our friends, we had a beautiful weekend in New York. And I took her to see Urinetown.

By this point, it’s success was apparent. The theater was buzzing with excitement which hadn’t been present the previous fall. This guy sitting near us said this was his third time. It was a hit. And maybe it was just me, but I could see it in the cast. They were relaxed, confident, hilariously confident. John Cullum, who seemed a bit above it all my first time, was now rolling in the production. He got the joke.

Dayshawnda Ash as Little Sally (Blank Canvas, 2017)
I was thrilled when Kotis won a Tony Award for Best Book, and disappointed when the show lost out on Best Musical to the more traditional Thoroughly Modern Millie. But a play as acidic as this one had never been bestowed that honor before … though such arch material soon would be. This is what I meant by “ground-breaking.”

This weekend, the entire family went to see Urinetown at Blank Canvas Theatre. Other parents take their children to Wicked, we take them to Urinetown. They were not unfamiliar with the show, the by has heard the about the girl saw a production at Shaker Heights High last year.

And yet, even today, even following the success of arch-satiric musicals that actually won a Tony for Best Musical like Avenue Q and The Book of Mormon, watching it again I was struck by how “strange and crude” the play still is, to its credit. If anything, its themes of greed, want and unsustainability are far more relevant now than they were sixteen years ago.

My daughter goes to Heights High, and she already knows who Thomas Malthus is, which is more than I could say when I first saw the show. Watching the corporate masters of the show's “Urine Good Company” raise fees on public amenities the same day our Senate passed their version of Trump’s tax plan was entirely not lost on our audience.

Or maybe that was just me.

Blank Canvas Theatre presents "Urinetown: The Musical" through December 17, 2017.

Sources:
John Cullum: A Real Pisser in "Urinetown: The Musical" by Simi Horwitz, Backstage.com (5/9/2001)
Weekend Edition, NPR (12/1/2001)

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