To pee or not to pee
Broadway asks Chicago's Urinetown to hold it.
We’re going to climb out on a limb, and guess these were the words uttered by members of the creative team behind Chicago’s now-shuttered production of Urinetown, when they were slapped with legal papers on November 13, claiming the Chicago production plagiarized the original in direction, choreography and design.
For that matter, it was probably also the phrase spewed by New York’s Urinetown director John Rando and choreographer John Caraffa when they saw a production still of the Chicago version and realized that, in both look and attitude, it directly mimicked their work on the most unlikely Broadway hit of the last decade.
And shit may be, indeed, the best possible metaphor for the legal battle surrounding the musical (written, ironically, by former Chicago storefront theater artists Greg Kotis and Mark Hollman) about a future corrupted government that charges its citizens to tinkle and defecate. But it’s not a crock of it for the obvious reasons.
The waters are naturally murky here, but only to a point. Even if Mullen and Loeffler stayed true to the writers’ vision, without question they both followed Broadway’s footsteps as if Rando and Caraffa went into the rehearsal room and laid down shoe-shaped dance-lesson stickers on the floor. Director Tom Mullen’s staging replicated Rando’s Broadway blocking from the first love duet performed on a fire-escape staircase to the final number in which scrubwoman heroine Miss Pennywise is pushed around on a piece of scaffolding.
Meanwhile, Brian Loeffler’s choreography echoed New York from the first-act finale—in which two torn lovers are hoisted in the air by rioting peasants and spun around holding hands—to the famous second-act gospel number in which the cast sits on stools and pivots from the waist up. In fact, it’s hard to argue that Loeffler should hold onto the Jeff he recently won for his work, especially considering he was pitted against choreographers who presumably created their work relatively from scratch. (Though the Jeff committee can hardly be blamed in this case, as many of its members might not have seen the New York version.)
Meanwhile, Chicago theater lovers who’ve seen Urinetown in any form know that its seeds were first sown above a funeral home at 5153 North Ashland Avenue, where former Neo-Futurist Kotis honed his ironic parody chops (the show satirizes most of the Broadway catalog), and, before that, at the University of Chicago, where composer Hollman (Kotis’s fellow company member in the comedy troupe Cardiff Giant) did the same.
The subject of intellectual copyright looms large: Can the interpretation of a text be replicated the way a text itself can? Yet the problem no one acknowledges (save humble Kotis and Hollman) is that Urinetown could not exist unless unironic musicals from 1927’s Showboat to 1975’s Chicago existed to begin with. Urinetown shamelessly riffs on all of them. The new Urinetown quagmire will spark an overdue public conversation about directorial responsibility, but don’t look for content to factor into it.
And so welcome to the new performance discipline of the 21st century: the Theater of Amnesia, in which we’re so far removed from the original artifacts of entertainment that it doesn’t occur to us to ask our artists where they got their ideas. (There may a glib retort for this concern, but dollars to donuts it’ll sound like Aaron Sorkin wrote it.)
As long as theatrical bankability depends on our ability to remind theatergoers of things they’ve seen before—from popular Disney films that spawn Broadway replicas to “hip” Chicago storefront plays that require a working knowledge of NBC Thursday nights or Marvel comics to get the joke—we’ll be remembered solely as a consumer culture, defined not by what we made but what we bought.
This is not to blame A-list parodists Kotis and Hollman. Both artists have long since moved on to new projects that draw on their original voices. But considering a score so heavily (and openly) influenced by Kurt Weill and a plot that draws on any prior musical you can name, the Chicago Urinetown wasn’t even, ahem, No. 2.
If we’re truly going to have a theater of our own, we have to enter a pact—artists, audiences, educators and critics included. Unless we agree not just to generate and foster new work and fresh ideas, but to call shenanigans on those who don’t, we’ll likely find ourselves up shit creek with someone else’s paddle. And he’ll probably want it back.