There is so much expertise involved in "Urinetown" - musical, choral, directorial, technical, to say nothing of the expert cast - that it would be easy to overlook the fact that it is basically stupid. "Urinetown" takes place in a city plagued by drought. Since water is in short supply people can only urinate in public toilets, for which they have to pay. When the rates go up, the lower orders, already the hardest pressed, rebel. It is possible that Tom Lehrer might have turned this premise into something witty or telling. Mark Hollmann and Greg Kotis, who wrote the book, music and lyrics, have consciously parodied standard musical genres. Doubtless they imagine they have created a series of images of a repressive society. In fact they haven't gotten much beyond the parody phase. Although their parodies are often quite skillful, the basic idea is too strained to support any serious images. Urine, after all, isn't blood. It doesn't lend itself to a lot of metaphorical gliding. One's natural response to talk about it is to laugh - but it's hard to sustain that laughter for more than two hours. The first act, which parodies Brecht and Weill, musically quite sophisticatedly, has more consistency. It also has a lot of self-conscious humor about musicals, often poking fun at itself. "Nothing can kill a show like too much exposition," the narrator tells a Depression cartoon character called Little Sally. "How about bad subject matter?" she asks. "Or a bad title? That could kill a show pretty good."
"Urinetown" has a lot of funny lines and smart lyrics ("Let the blood flow/Like Campari/We're not sorry"). Hollmann's music is quite sophisticated, especially his choral settings. The cast, full of artful character actors, makes an excellent ensemble. John Cullum is in great form as the villain, Hunter Foster has a natural nobility as his valiant opponent, Nancy Opel is perfect as a tough broad with a dark secret, Jeff McCarthy sets just the right tone as the cop-narrator and Spencer Kayden is wonderfully unsettling as the seemingly dumb but wise Little Sally. Director John Rando moves them around the space masterfully, but ultimately the show is an overextended skit.
Remember that song from "Mame" that merrily carols, "We Need a Little Christmas"? Right now, Broadway definitely needs a little Christmas, and with any luck, it found it last night at the agreeably and suitably dilapidated Henry Miller Theater, where "Urinetown . . . the Musical" officially opened.
This is a musical with an almost legendary history already - from a humble beginning at the New York Fringe Festival more than two years ago, to a later professional workshop, then this summer a wildly successful off-Broadway production with a suspiciously Broadway-looking cast, an original cast album by RCA Victor and now the hoped-for transfer to Broadway.
The show is a wild and happy mix of biting satire and loving parody. It looks better on Broadway than it did off, for it was always a big show cheekily posing as a little show. Now it has clearly come home.
The story - or "conceit," as the show itself helpfully tells us - is simple. There's been a disastrous drought, and "everyone has to use public bathrooms to take care of their private business." (Absurd? Of course it's absurd. It's a satire.)
Trouble is, the toilets are all under the control of a money-grasping monopoly, the Urine Good Co., better known as UGC and controlled by evil capitalist dictator Caldwell B. Cladwell.
Book writer Greg Kotis and composer Mark Hollman, who combined forces on the wonderfully witty and resourceful lyrics, lampoon the old social commentary musicals of Kurt Weill, Bertolt Brecht and later Marc Blitzstein, plus those contemporary pop operas "Les Miz" and "Miss Saigon," even "West Side Story."
To keep us up to speed, two of the chief characters, Police Chief Lockstock (his deputy, naturally, is called Barrel - it's that kind of humor) and an attendant waif, Little Sally, also act as commentators, spelling out the show's intent with viciously knowing irony.
What is wonderful about "Urinetown" is not the title - as even Little Sally observes, "A bad title could kill a show pretty good" - and not even the obviously and hopelessly contrived story of poor boy/rich girl in a doomed love affair against a background of pay-toilet revolution.
It's the energized spirit of parody that flashes through the show like lightning.
Kotis and Hollman take no prisoners. The music, shrewdly orchestrated by Bruce Coughlin for five talented musicians, starts with a wicked takeoff on Weill and Blitzstein, but soon moves to skewer its more general musical comedy victims.
In a sense, as I said when I first saw it, it is a sophisticated follow-up to such camp takeoffs as "Dames at Sea."
But it is also a good deal more.
The songs and anthems, the gospel touches, the Sondheim glances and the pop-opera pretensions are strangely attractive and effective. It has a good score. It has a lot in common with that other parody - no, it's not as funny - "The Producers."
And the staging and performances are simply superb. The director, John Rando, and John Carrafa, cited for "musical staging" (presumably that's just fancy for choreographer), have welded the cast into a seamless ensemble.
There are standouts, yes, but at some point in the evening, everyone gets a moment or two to shine, and everyone glitters like blazes.
That said, I must single out the consummate artistry of John Cullum as the evil Cladwell, who seems to have sprung top-hatted and complete from a Monopoly game board, and Jeff McCarthy as the avuncular but ambiguous Police Chief.
Then there is Spencer Kayden as the cutest Little Sally, Jennifer Laura Thompson and Hunter Foster as the sweetest and dumbest of musical comedy sweethearts, Nancy Opel as the embittered public-convenience guardian with a past, Ken Jennings as a psychopathic revolutionary . . . but, to hell with it. All the cast is terrific.
If you want to spend a penny - or even a few bucks - you'll get your money's worth at "Urinetown." Not in spectacle - but in sheer fun.
Context is crucial in the theater, which only pretends to exist in a world of its own creation. Most mundanely and tangibly though not insignificantly, a show cannot escape its physical environment. It generally takes place on some kind of stage in some kind of building, the properties of which (size, location, condition) have a palpable effect on the show's artistic strategies and intent, not to mention the expectations of an audience.
Exploring that idea was the spur for my revisit this week to ''Urinetown,'' the marvelously self-conscious satire of the musical theater's social conscience, which focuses equally on human rights and body waste and has steadily gnawed its way from the theater's sardonic, scofflaw fringe into its most challenging mainstream marketplace.
The show, which remains a zesty and full-bodied original, began life in fact as a participant in the New York Fringe Festival, and given its toilet-centric plot, it was a reasonable level of entry. It became a surprise Off Broadway hit last spring, when I first saw it. And it opened last night as a full-fledged Broadway show in a sporadically used and somewhat dilapidated theater (the Henry Miller on West 43rd Street), which has been modified (but with atmosphere in mind, not really spiffed up) for the purpose.
Even in its previous incarnation, ''Urinetown'' was a show that resisted easy description, both a homage to and an outlandish spoof of the Brechtian theater of outrage and provocation. The title is emblematic, so thumb-in-the-eye unpleasant that it elicits an automatic question: Are you kidding? To which the answer is yes and no.
On the one hand, with a plot that defends the human right to void one's bladder without monetary charge, the show makes a mockery of the drama of social conscience and especially the grandiose musicals that take advantage of its easy sentiment. (To that end, ''Les Misérables,'' in particular, takes several pointed jabs.) It concerns a grass-roots revolution in a city desiccated by drought; private toilets have been outlawed and public ones are controlled by a corrupt alliance between the government and a corporation whose sloganeering propaganda is delineated in an early song, both waggish and menacing, called ''It's a Privilege to Pee.''
On the other hand, as in all good satire, there's a sober point lurking in its heart, in this case amounting to a kind of admonishment of American wastefulness. It's a fair, allegorical point -- we don't adequately appreciate what we have -- if delivered gently and under a tsunami of show-biz good cheer. For any theatergoer until now, what has been most serious about ''Urinetown'' is its unseriousness. From the opening curtain, it goes out of its way to defuse any encroaching earnestness with self-mockery.
''Well, hello there and welcome to Urinetown,'' a character greets us after the overture. ''Not the place, of course. The musical.''
It's only a show, we're told again and again, and isn't it swell?
In its former home Off Broadway, the American Theater of Actors, a warehouse-like room on the second floor of a midtown building with 135 seats on risers, I found ''Urinetown'' audacious and exhilarating, riotously and intelligently arch. And my intention was to assess how well the show has accommodated its step up in physical dimensions (at 635 seats, the Henry Miller is far bigger, though far from Broadway big) and also to assess the visibility that its notoriety and success have engendered.
The short answer is that smaller is almost always better for an audience and that the show has suffered incremental losses in intimacy from such things as acoustics that are still palatable but not quite as crisp as they were and auditorium (as opposed to stadium) seating that makes the audience look up at the raised stage now, rather than down onto a stage floor.
Under current circumstances, however, such observations seem critically trivial. For one thing, I first arranged for seats at ''Urinetown'' on Sept. 11, the day the world changed, for theater critics and everyone else. By the time the show reopened for preview performances and critical viewing, any interest I had in the revision of the show's physical plant was eclipsed by more profound and more elusive matters of context.
For another thing, ''Urinetown'' remains a sensational piece of performance art, one that acknowledges theater tradition and pushes it forward as well.
The individual elements of the show are extraordinary in themselves: the mordant, savvy score in the Kurt Weill vein by Mark Hollmann; the bold, jab-in-the-ribs book by Greg Kotis, which makes burlesque of melodrama and undermines linguistic cliché; the exuberantly satirical choreography of John Carrafa; the gregarious direction of John Rando; the efficiently witty (as opposed to showy) work by all the designers; and an ensemble cast that is full of grand voices precisely attuned to the score.
Further, with John Cullum as Caldwell B. Cladwell, the jaunty personification of avarice and brutality; Nancy Opel as a sellout to the forces of evil whose brassy manner hides a broken heart; Hunter Foster as Bobby Strong, the handsome leader of the revolution; Jennifer Laura Thompson as Hope Cladwell, the innocent lass torn by loyalties to her father and Bobby; Jeff McCarthy as Officer Lockstock, a charming but corrupt cop; and Spencer Kayden as Little Sally, a street urchin wise beyond her years, ''Urinetown'' is populated by actors who have pitched their skills and ideas to a uniform hyperbole that at almost every moment risks childishness but somehow never succumbs.
What is, in fact, most striking here is how well everything fits together in the collaborative creation of something that feels entirely original. There simply is no show I've ever seen that gives off such a sense that the creators and performers are always on the same page of an elaborate, high-spirited joke, that they are the proud members of a cabal that knows what it takes to make the world a better place and that they are thrilled to share what they know.
And did I mention that ''Urinetown'' is hilarious? That, for example, the courtship scene between two young lovers is conducted as a musical number (''Follow Your Heart'') that is sung (by Mr. Foster and Ms. Thompson) as both a sweetly melodic duet and acted as a howling parody of innocence -- without once resorting to a sex joke? That a dance number spoofing a revival meeting (''Run Freedom Run'') has the best slapstick gag about a cripple that you're ever likely to see? That whether deadpan or giddy, drawing from the Three Stooges or the history of Broadway choreography, the humor is consistently sharp and smart?
All that being said, however, it is impossible to ignore the solemnity of current events, from which the show is not entirely a distraction. Not that ''Urinetown'' lands with both feet on the subject of terrorists or references to the circumstances of the last 11 days, but it now seems to have been created with inadvertent prescience nonetheless. Beneath its cartoonish surface it tiptoes thematically along the edge of the grave issues that are now consuming everyone.
It tells a story, after all, that presents innocent people victimized by conscienceless evil, kills off characters by having them thrown from a skyscraper, debates the appropriateness of murderous vengeance, illustrates the rage of those who suffer in poverty and perceive cruelty in capitalism and in the end decries the presumption and wastefulness of people who don't recognize that they are privileged.
In virtually the last word, the show offers a salute to Thomas Robert Malthus, the English economist of the late 18th century, who theorized that without calamity, man made and otherwise, the world population would grow beyond the earth's ability to support it. Indeed, though the political worry the show wears on its sleeve is environmental (a water shortage provides a backdrop for its sendup of human behavior), its vision of ideological adversaries in a duel for pre-eminence and control on earth is apocalyptic, and who hasn't entertained that nightmare lately?
The result of all this is that watching ''Urinetown'' right now is simply the most gripping and galvanizing theater experience in town, equal parts visceral entertainment jolt and lingering provocation. The context of the historical moment makes us ask ourselves going in: Can we laugh and thrill to a musical at a time like this? And amazingly, here is a show that dares to ask that very question.
In fact, it does so almost literally, in a moment that left me shivering. Throughout, ''Urinetown'' always has one eye on itself; Officer Lockstock and Little Sally serve as informal narrators, and they intermittently discuss such unexpected matters as whether audiences will be put off by too much narrative exposition or whether anyone is going to want to see the show at all given its awful name and depressing conclusion. Near the end, their dialogue goes like this:
LITTLE SALLY: I don't think too many people are going to come and see this musical.
LOCKSTOCK: Why do you say that, Little Sally? Don't you think people want to be told that their way of life is unsustainable?
It's an exchange that was once merely smart mouthed and a little smug but now seems like a bold if brutal bit of sarcasm. And though it is, of course, only a fortuitous parallel to the sobering reality outside, the lines could easily have been removed by nervous producers.
That they weren't made me consider them as keenly calibrated to the momentary spirit of both the show and the world, as if the art achieved by ''Urinetown'' gave it license to confront a subject that cruel enemies had apparently fenced off. To me it felt as if accident and design had conspired for a defiant declaration of the power of theater.
And in the huge ovation that followed shortly thereafter, the audience agreed. When every individual spirit as well as the national one can use all the bolstering it can get, ''Urinetown'' is not just a recommended tonic. Its reopening under the glare of lights on Broadway places it beside ''The Producers,'' another great musical that makes us laugh at tyranny, as a stanchion -- no, a twin tower -- of pure American vibrancy.
Is the age of irony over? In the wake of the deadly terrorist attacks on the U.S., many pundits seem to think so. Even David Letterman, who has made a career of sardonicism, dropped the mocking mask last week, acknowledging that his brand of humor may be out of tune -- at least temporarily -- with the tenor of the times.
This may pose a problem for "Urinetown," a musical that is opening on Broadway at a time when the stock of its cheerfully sarcastic humor is plummeting faster than box office grosses. "Urinetown" skewers the kind of shows in which good triumphs over evil and ardent young lovers sing songs about following their hearts and looking to the sky for inspiration. It kids the kind of moral simplicities that, in the wake of the recent tragedy, aren't so easily dismissed, and pokes fun at earnest sentiments that now have painfully authentic currency.
Whether audiences will be able -- or willing -- to set aside their new perspective remains to be seen. The audience at a recent preview seemed to take pleasure in the show's energetic mocking of the corny tropes of showbiz, even if some of them might almost have been transposed from recent news reports -- for example a somber ballad, "Tell Her I Love Her," based on a young man's dying words.
Sensibilities are not reshaped overnight, after all. But a musical comedy featuring a pair of evil cops who throw the hero off the top of a skyscraper may have a tough time drawing an audience into its make-believe world at the moment. Actor Jeff McCarthy, who intones most of his lines in a booming baritone in his robust performance as one of those nasty cops, seemed intentionally to swallow the line that follows this bit of business, in which he turns to his partner and says, "A shovel and a mop ... you know the drill." (Surely those words, at least, should be excised.)
Set in a post-apocalyptic world in which everyone must pay to pee -- the logic of its workings are best left unexplored -- "Urinetown" uses the stylistic hallmarks of agitprop musicals like "The Threepenny Opera" and "The Cradle Will Rock" to tell a story of oppressed masses rising up against ruthless capitalist overlords.
The production is a replica of the Off Broadway version from the spring, and the semi-decrepit Henry Miller Theater makes an apt home for it. The show's surface virtues are still intact: It's been directed with flashy comic flair by John Rando and features cute choreography by John Carrafa that riffs on various styles, from Fosse to Robbins.
The performances are strongly etched caricatures that poke fun at the snarling villains and dewy young innocents of melodrama. They are, across the board, vivid and stylish, from the grand guignol excesses of Nancy Opel's Penelope Pennywise and John Cullum's suavely rapacious Caldwell B. Cladwell to the pitch-perfect wholesomeness of Jennifer Laura Thompson and Hunter Foster as the class-crossing young lovers Hope and Bobby. The supporting players each make a distinct impression, too.
Composer Mark Hollman is indisputably talented; on second hearing, his clever pastiches of Kurt Weill, Tin Pan Alley, gospel and other musical styles are even more impressive. Some of the unabashedly uplifting ballads and energetic anthems might be affecting on their own if plucked out of the show's self-conscious framework: the tinkly piano ballad "Follow Your Heart," for example, featuring lyrics like "When darkness surrounds you/And you lose your way/You have your own compass/That turns night to day..."
But we are forbidden to take these and other earnest sentiments seriously; the show keeps reminding us it's just a silly old musical, and we're suckers if we fall for its manipulative charms. That winking tone grows monotonous quickly -- it's hard to muster sustained interest in a cast of characters stalking the stage with ironic quotation marks around their ears.
"Urinetown" trades in a kind of humor that is essentially destructive: It's about poking holes in silly conventions, tearing down sacred cows, exposing the clunky mechanics of melodramas and musicals.
Deconstruction is, after all, just a benign form of destruction. And the producers may find that audiences have faced too much destruction in recent days even to look fondly on the aesthetic kind, however affectionately it is rendered.