Urinetown on Disc
Brooke Pierce pays another visit to Urinetown courtesy of the show's new RCA Victor cast album.
Urinetown overcame the obstacle of its wince-inducing title by forcefully embracing its subject matter, and audiences responded so enthusiastically that producers dared to transfer the musical to that bastion of good clean fun, Broadway. Just a few weeks before it reopens in its new home at the Henry Miller Theatre, the show's cast recording has become available from RCA Victor for all to hear. Fans of the cult sensation will want to grab the album immediately, as the score seems even more striking on disc than on stage. And those who think a show called Urinetown just isn't for them would also do well to pick up the CD, because it might allay their fears. The vulgarity of the musical is minimal, the songs are extraordinarily funny, and the recording makes for an all-around enjoyable listen.
Much of Urinetown's humor is derived from its simulation of the style of a Brecht/Weill show, with great big nods to Marc Blitzstein's The Cradle Will Rock. This is plainly clear from the start; note the Weillishness of the overture (emphasized by Bruce Coughlin's orchestrations) and the exposition-and-metaphor-laden opening scenes. The first few numbers are all expository, such as "It's A Privilege to Pee," in which Nancy Opel admirably belts out the show's conceit: that, in this town, one must pay to use a public amenity if one wants to pee.
Theater veteran John Cullum is arguably the star of the show. In his big number, "Mr. Cladwell," he reveals himself as the bad guy--it's his Urine Good Company that is robbing the poor folks of their money and their right to pee for free. A young fellow named Bobby Strong, encouraged by Cladwell's daughter Hope to follow his heart, leads a revolt against the tyrant.
Greg Kotis (book and lyrics) and Mark Hollman (lyrics and music), aided by director John Rando, triumph by blending styles in Urinetown. A Brecht/Weill parody would almost certainly grow wearisome in short order, especially if you're not a huge fan of the work of those icons; but Hollman uses this approach merely as a jumping-off point, and his music quickly comes into its own. Though many of the other numbers also parody something--"Follow Your Heart," the love duet between Bobby and Hope, sounds like the most saccharine of Broadway love songs--Hollman displays his own voice in items like the pulsing, rap-like "Cop Song," the first-act finale, and the climactic "Look at the Sky." He even gets a couple of great gospel numbers in near the end with "Run, Freedom, Run!" and "I See a River."
While the show's skewering of all types of musical theater works astonishingly well on stage, some of the hilarity can't be detected on the album. "Snuff That Girl," a favorite of many Urinetown enthusiasts, is an elaborate parody of West Side Story's "Cool" that's funnier to see than hear; Rando and the cast draw a great deal of laughter from clever staging and posturing that can only be imagined when listening to the recording. On the other hand, the beauty of cast albums is that they give you an opportunity to appreciate all the stuff you don't catch on first viewing and hearing a musical. It turns out that Kotis' and Hollman's lyrics are jam-packed with witty lines and riotous rhymes. Album producer Jay David Saks was smart enough to feature plenty of audio contributions from Urinetown's greatest assets, Jeff McCarthy and Spencer Kayden as Officer Lockstock and Little Sally. These two deliver the show's funniest dialogue, and much of it is included on the CD.
The disc also succeeds in capturing the spirit of Urinetown; chalk that up to the energy of an impressive ensemble whose masterful command of the libretto's subversive humor transfers nicely to record. Notably, Jennifer Laura Thompson and Hunter Foster as Hope and Bobby carry the show forward with their comical optimism and naiveté. Urinetown actually has a message--nothing earth-shattering, but enough to give it resonance--and that message is conveyed through the score. The poignancy of Bobby's "Tell Her I Love Her," despite its detours into the darkly funny, still gives one goosebumps.
Irony is the basis of satire. But, while most satirists merely hint at the ambiguities of life, Urinetown openly celebrates them. This is a fully realized musical full of intelligence, wit, heart, and melody. It can now boast of a fine cast album.