Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 2397

Urinetown: Musical that’s making a big splash gets its aim wrong

This article is over 10 years, 2 months old
London’s critics love musical comedy Urinetown for its satire—but behind the crude gags lurks a whiff of something nastier, writes Mary Brodbin
Issue 2397
Urinetown is at St James’ Theatre, London, until 3 May

Urinetown is at St James’ Theatre, London, until 3 May

The setting for this musical comedy is a grimy Gotham-like city where a 20-year drought has brought on a chronic water shortage.

Home toilets are banned and the only way to legally have a pee is to pay the Urine Good Company (UGC) to use their privatised Amenities.

UGC boss Caldwell B Cladwell has the police and politicians in his pocket. And if you are caught peeing in the street you will be shot or carted off to a mysterious place called Urinetown.

After a run of big-name musicals that have performed poorly there have been a lot of hopes invested in Urinetown.

The excellent cast and small band deliver a show that has been a big success on Broadway and is playing to packed audiences in London. It has clever parodies of other musicals, and a rousing gospel choir sequence with really witty choreography.

But while critics have praised its “sharp satire” that’s “at the expense of corporate greed” the dialogue is alarmingly banal and the message, when it is finally flushed out, is a disappointing let-down. 

The story follows Cladwell’s expensively educated daughter Hope when she returns home to work at UGC headquarters. She naively photocopies extra votes for her father to fix a price hike.

This leads dashing young toilet cleaner Bobby to organise a “Pee for Free” campaign, and kidnap Hope.


Of course, they fall hopelessly in love. After much gory bloodletting Hope offers to lead the rebellion. 

The much brighter and feistier original rebels unaccountably agree, and sink into the background or are bumped off by sinisterly comic police officers Lockstock and Barrel. 

Hope takes over UGC, making the toilets free. But eventually the water runs out again and we are back to square one—a disappointingly bleak outcome after all the militant hoo-ha. 

Co-writer Greg Kotis, claims to take inspiration from Marxist dramatist Bertolt Brecht.

But Urinetown owes more to 18th century economist Thomas Malthus, who argued that helping the poor would lead them to breed and waste resources. 

His ideas were rotten and his maths wrong—yet Urinetown ends with the line “Hail Malthus”.

“The cycle Malthus described was one of over-population,” Kotis said. “Boss Cladwell is cruel and heartless, but he also knows what must be done to maintain the system as it exists.

“Bobby is idealistic and brave, but his plan doesn’t go past relieving the people’s immediate needs.

“Both are well intentioned in their own way, the trouble is there aren’t enough resources for everyone regardless of the outcome of the story.”

Kotis is a member of the theatre company Neo-Futurists, named and designed after the Futurist movement. 

Its founder Marinetti joined the fascist party, and famously said that patriotism and war are “the hygiene of the world”.

Urinetown is at St James’ Theatre, London, until 3 May


Sign up for our daily email update ‘Breakfast in Red’

Make a donation to Socialist Worker

Help fund the resistance