The Sun Valley Community School Upper School theatrical department is preparing for the fall musical, “Urinetown,” with nightly performances set for this weekend.
“Urinetown” is a satirical, comedic musical that takes place in a dystopian future. In the midst a devastating water shortage caused by a 20-year drought, a municipal government imposes a city-wide ban on private toilets, forcing citizens to pay tithes to pee and lending a new literalism to the old British euphemism “spend a penny.”
Of course, this system allows the wealthy to relieve themselves at leisure and forces the impoverished to “hold it” indefinitely, especially as laws against public urination have become even stricter. Eventually, a plucky posse of piss-poor peasants decides enough is enough and mounts a revolution.
At face value, “Urinetown” may look like a juvenile romp through potty-humor standards, but the musical was an instant success both commercially and critically. Its original 2001 off-Broadway run garnered nine Drama Desk Award nominations before being scooped up onto Broadway where it swiftly won two Tony Awards, three Outer Critics Circle Awards, a Drama League Award and a Theatre World Award.
All these accolades speak to what is a remarkably thoughtful musical that is almost entirely about urination. Although not exactly subtle, the satire in “Urinetown” is nonetheless effective, taking aim at bureaucracy, municipal politics, capitalism, populism, environmentalism and the musical form itself.
“I have always loved this show since the first time I saw it during its original Broadway run,” said director Kevin Wade, The Community School’s Upper School theater teacher. “I love the Brechtian nature of it, the way it breaks the fourth wall. It’s very self-aware and yet there’s no pretense.”
Thirty-four students fill out the musical’s enormous cast—the largest Wade has yet directed in his time at the Community School. Once the stage crew is counted, the total number of students involved begins to approach 50.
Jasper Mott, Laine Allison, Julia Ott, Rye Fruehling, Ethan Hunt and Sophie Harder lead the cast in the most prominent roles, but as Allison pointed out, “Everyone is equally important in this show. The ensemble is just as instrumental as the lead characters. Everyone contributes their own storylines, their own struggle. It’s really cool to have everyone be so important through the whole play.”
Hunt echoed Allison’s sentiments.
“Something that Kevin has said to me, and other directors have as well, is that there are no small roles, only small actors,” he said. “That’s especially true with this show. Everyone has a job to do and a role to fill.”
The size of the ensemble is not the only boundary this production has pushed for The Community School high school troupe this time around, with many cast members noting the political undertones as being particularly challenging—but also rewarding—to get just right.
“The scope of this show is something we’ve never tackled before,” Mott said. “We’re working so hard and carving out every moment, every little scene. We’re not taking a political stance or anything, but the show does speak to a lot of issues we’re facing today.”
Although “Urinetown” opened in 2001—and is therefore older than most of the students involved in this production—the cast noted that many of the issues it explores and positions it espouses remain pertinent.
“It’s interesting that the issues back when this play came out are still just as prevalent today, 18 years later,” Allison said. “Looking forward, a lot of us are applying to colleges and are about to go into this ‘real world’ and the workforce. We’ll be voting soon and our opinions, our jobs and our education are about to really matter.”
In perhaps an unexpected fashion, this comedy musical about bathroom injustices is serving a role in prepping the students for the next phase of life, and many have found rehearsal an empowering process.
“It’s kind of a bold show to do, because it pulls the curtain back on a lot of topics that grown-ups don’t feel comfortable discussing with their children,” Ott said. “I think that’s fantastic, because personally I think theatre is such a crucial vessel and tool to voice your opinion and voice things that matter to you. It’s awesome that we, the youth of today, get to talk about this topic and hopefully the people in the audience will listen and feel a little uncomfortable.”
That said, and for all of the grim topics targeted in the story, the name of the game is still song and comedy. “Urinetown” has both in excess. The songs drill into the brain and latch on unshakably, and the sidesplitting jokes pile up so quickly one scarcely has time to finish laughing before the next one comes punching in.
“It’s a lighthearted way to approach heavier subjects,” Allison said.
“In keeping with the Sun Valley Community School guiding principle of environmental stewardship, we are really digging into ‘Urinetown’ as a cautionary tale,” Wade said. “Of course, it’s still a broad comedy. We hope audiences will fall out of their seats laughing, but also feel a sense of renewed urgency about caring for our planet.”
The best satire inspires laughter and critical thought in tandem, using entertainment as the vessel, and “Urinetown” promises to do just that.
“It’s been a hoot and a half to put on,” Ott said. “The songs are whacky, the dancing is crazy, and we’re fortunate enough to have amazing directors and facilities to create this big musical.”
Tickets are on sale now at $10 for students and $17 for adults. The Community School will present nightly showing at 7 p.m. this week, Thursday through Saturday, Nov. 7-9.