Sunday, October 21, 2007

Relevance of Theatre in the Modern World

{spoiler alert - this article reveals the ending of Urinetown, the Musical}

A common cry against musical theatre is that it's not relevant to our lives. Of course, no one makes that argument against AMERICAN IDOL, or SURVIVOR, but what can you do?

My first realization that theatre is actually relevant to our lives came in 1986. I was in rehearsal for a production of Arthur Miller's post-war drama, All My Sons. The play was written in 1947; so at the time the play was 40 years old. The play is a dramatization of a true story: an Ohio woman had turned in her father after learning that he had sold faulty parts to the US military during WWII.

In a climactic scene in the play, the father finally admits that the cylinder heads his company made were flawed: he ordered that cracks in the blocks be welded over, and sent the defective engine components on to be installed in airplanes. Ultimately, the engines failed under the strain of combat, resulting in the deaths of 21 pilots. He tries to defend the decisions, saying that failure to deliver would have forfeited his contract, and the business would have folded. He claims that he believed that the Military would discover the flaws, and he could replace them when the inspectors rejected them. By that time, he knew that they would have corrected the manufacturing process. Instead, the parts are installed and sent into combat.

The son is enraged: "Men's lives were HANGING on those engines!"

One week into rehearsal, the shuttle Challenger exploded during launch. The ultimate cause was poorly engineered seals on the engines. The problem had been identified by an engineer working for the manufacturer, but the company decided that it was up to NASA to determine if the engines were up to specification.

The lives of that shuttle crew were hanging on their engines, and they failed only because someone failed to act in order to save their company some money.

Right about now you're saying, "HEY. All My Sons isn't a musical! It's MUSICALS that aren't relevant! All My Sons is a drama, and dramas ARE relevant."

And that brings us to Urinetown, the Musical, which is now playing at Actors' Playhouse.

Urinetown is set in a place where there has been severe drought; no rain has fallen for twenty years.

And currently, the US is suffering from a drought. Maryland and Pennsylvania are under drought watches, and California is experiencing its driest year since 1878. The levels behind Hoover Dam have dropped 100 feet, leaving a huge "bathtub ring." Entire lakes have dried up in Georgia. Water restrictions have been set in many places, including South Florida.

Lake Lannier in Georgia
is currently 15 feet
below its usual levels

Lake Mead, behind
Hoover Dam, is
100 feet below its
normal level!

In URINETOWN, the solution is draconian: after years of fighting over the dwindling resource, a company proposes that the government take the drastic step of eliminating private plumbing altogether. The government hires this company, UGC, to run public amenities. Every citizen will have to use these amenities, and the UGC collects a fee for that use. The company's chairman promises "to keep the pee off the streets, and the water in the ground!"

Of course, the company is corrupt; the rich get richer, and the poor are struggling to collect every penny to pay for their relief. And those who can't pay, or won't pay; those who are caught 'peeing for free?" They are dragged off to exile in Urinetown. No one EVER comes back from Urinetown. Ever.

The play is also a scathingly funny parody of musical theater. From the very beginning, the Narrator tells us "this is a small town, not unlike any other small town [that you'd find in a musical.]" Choreography and stage direction is blatantly stolen from some of the most successful musicals in history.

From the Brechtian opening number to a revolution balanced between EVITA and Les Mis, Urinetown rips into the very fabric of musical mythology. The revolutionaries break into West Side Story as they threaten their captive: the protagonist leads them into a number from Guys and Dolls as he tries to 'save their souls.' Meanwhile, at UGC headquarters, the villain is aping Annie.

The people eventually break free of the tyranny of the UGC and its pay-to-pee system. In a Brave New World run by The People, everyone pees for free. And a short time later everyone single one of them dies when the last of the water disappears. Ironically, the draconian system of tyranny was in fact the only thing keeping them alive.

Urinetown2At the very end, Little Sally (the play's voice of innocence) says "I don't think that very many people are going to come to see this musical!"

"Why not?" retorts the Narrator, Officer Lockstock. "Don't you think that people want to be told that their way of life is unsustainable?"

"No!," she retorts. "Because it's so UNHAPPY! C'mon, the people WIN, and they all die anyway? What kind of musical is this, anyway?"

He reminds Little Sally - and the audience - that he warned us from the start that this musical isn't a happy one.

"But the MUSIC is so happy!" she wails.

Cherilyn Franco as "Little Sally
Jim Ballard as "Officer Lockstock
in the Actors' Playhouse production
of Urinetown, the Musical
Photo by Alberto Romeu

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