ON THE RECORD: Urinetown and The Secret Garden

News   ON THE RECORD: Urinetown and The Secret Garden
I suppose that some readers out there will not appreciate Urinetown, the unconventional new musical soon to arrive at Henry Miller's Theatre. "It's not as good as they said it was," they'll complain, or "I don't find that funny" or "it's just too weird."

I suppose that some readers out there will not appreciate Urinetown, the unconventional new musical soon to arrive at Henry Miller's Theatre. "It's not as good as they said it was," they'll complain, or "I don't find that funny" or "it's just too weird."

I can see how Urinetown might not be to everybody's taste; still, it is far more tasteful than a musical like The Producers. And I can see how some might find the premise — a water shortage so severe that private toilets are outlawed, leading to a "pay-as-you-go" policy — ridiculously far-fetched. Meanwhile, the folks in Washington are battling to add arsenic to the water supply.

A show like this is best discovered as a surprise, sitting in a darkened theatre with no idea what you are about to see. But how many theatregoers, unless they have been assured in advance that it was very good, would buy a ticket to a musical called Urinetown? (The CD cover features the logo with a copy editor's query in red ink, asking " ? — is this really the title?") I discussed Urinetown in this column back in April, just after it started previews at an off off-Broadway hole-in-the-wall; while it was then a long-shot for a commercial transfer or recording, I thought it was too important for musical theatre fans to miss. And now — just as Broadway previews are about to commence — RCA has brought us a superb original cast album.

As you might have heard, Mark Hollmann (composer/lyricist) and Greg Kotis (librettist/lyricist) have written a Threepenny Opera for our times. The show starts with an Overture that sounds just like Kurt Weill's — not melodically, but in every other way — and prepares us for what is to follow. The Threepenny/Weill flavor continues until midway through the first act, at which point the authors switch to Marc Blitzstein. (Urinetown's crusading hero Bobby Strong is cousin to Larry Foreman, of The Cradle Will Rock.)

As a champion of both Weill and Blitzstein, let me say this: copying these guys is not, in any way, a formula for success. Weill's final four Broadway musicals failed, while Blitzstein's only box office success came with his off-Broadway adaptation of Weill's Threepenny. Hollmann and Kotis are successful because they use their models carefully and purposefully. As in the unlikely "It's a Privilege to Pee," a song which needs to get us past the novelty of the situation and into the story. The authors are guided by Peachum's "Morning Anthem" (from Threepenny), in which the scoundrel cloaks his philosophy in what sounds like an old hymn. In Urinetown, the evil keeper of the lavatory keys — a Mrs. Lovett of the slops -- is similarly backed by a religious chorale. "The good Lord made us so we'd piss each day," the ensemble sings, and who can argue with that? The rapid-fire "Cop Song" seems to come from "The Army Song" or maybe Der Silbersee, while "Follow Your Heart" — the closest thing the show has to a ballad — sounds like something out of Blitzstein's Reuben, Reuben; the melody is so tentative and the harmony so dissonant that we know these lovers are ill-starred. The "Act One Finale" — which combines Threepenny and Cradle — is absolutely nifty; sixteen voices interweave four different melodies, singing their collective hearts out about going to the "toilet Judgement seat." (The vocal arrangements — and they are good — are by composer Hollmann.) As the second act rolls into view, the authors are canny enough to change their tune, taking inspiration where they find it. "What Is Urinetown?" seems related to Fiddler on the Roof, and leads head on to the irrepressible "Snuff That Girl." This last, a real finger-snapper, is purloined from West Side Story's "Cool." ("Bing! Bang! A-bing bang boom!" they sing.) But there are wonderful numbers throughout.

John Cullum, who received Best Actor Tony Awards for his last two musicals, Shenandoah (1975) and On the Twentieth Century (1978) — gets the juiciest material. Like a luscious ditty about shooting friendly bunny rabbits, in which he warns that whatever you do, "Don't Be the Bunny." He also has an introductory number in which he hails himself as the "Duke of ducats who brings in bucks by the buckets." Buckets of what? you might well ask. (See the title.) Cullum is the last (apparently) in a line of musical comedy leading men going back to Alfred Drake, John Raitt, and Richard Kiley. He has always known how to deliver a song, and he is at his comic best here, Simon Legree mixed with Snively Whiplash.

Jeff McCarthy — who gave a memorable performance in Side Show — serves as the tongue-in-cheek narrator, a policeman named Officer Lockstock. (His partner, needless to say, is named Barrel.) McCarthy skillfully straddles the fine line between too much and way too much. He is assisted at every turn by Spencer Kayden, who gives a remarkable performance as Little Sally. (Lockstock: "Nothing can kill a show, Little Sally, like too much exposition." Little Sally: "How about bad subject matter? Or a bad title?") Kayden seems to have wandered in after twenty-odd seasons in an undernourished bus and truck of Annie, wearing her original costume wrapped in a layer of dust. Nancy Opel displays a strong voice in the aforementioned "Privilege to Pee"; Hunter Foster and Jennifer Laura Thompson play the beset lovers, serious and farcical in turn. Even the people in the smaller roles shine in their solos, most notably Ken Jennings and Megan Lawrence who lead "Snuff That Girl." (Jennings still has the dangerously odd gleam in his eyes that he displayed at the original Tobias in Sweeney Todd.) The score is deliciously and cleverly orchestrated by Bruce Coughlin, who keeps up with Hollmann's shifting styles. Musical director Edward Strauss has everything well in hand, balancing the harsh Weill/Blitzstein sound with the cornier musical comedy material; his vocal direction is especially precise, giving full value to the jokey-yet-flavorful lyrics. These are good lyrics, by the way, brim-packed with ideas. Hollmann and Kotis make an impressive mainstream debut, I'll say.

The CD more than lives up to the show, happily, and it makes me want to rush and see it again. For those of you who have already decided to give Urinetown a try, a word of advice: Go early and catch the original cast. These folks — specifically including the ensemble — have grown along with the show, and add extra punch to an uproarious evening.


It is easy to like a good musical, and easy to dislike a bad one. ("Good" and "bad" being based on your own personal tastes, naturally.) Sitting in the theatre, a certain moment occurs — usually in the first half of the first act — when you decide that you like it, or not. Your mind can be changed after that point; but most musicals either "grab" you, or they don't. Thereafter, you either sit forward in your chair, eagerly awaiting what comes next; or lean back against the cushion, hoping for at least a good song or two and some interesting performances.

Once in a while you come across a different sort of musical, one that is intriguing and admirable but never quite pulls itself together. You find yourself liking and admiring what the authors are trying to do, but being disappointed when the results fall short. This was the case for me with Marsha Norman and Lucy Simon's 1991 musical The Secret Garden. (Other shows in this category include The Robber Bridegroom and Baby.) I pretty much liked most of what they did in The Secret Garden; but by curtain's fall, on three viewings, the show seemed hazy and cluttered and disappointing. I was, however, very impressed with Norman's work. A strong dramatic playwright with no musical theatre background, her lyrics were clear and straightforward, while her libretto was far richer than that of most musicals.

You can't judge a production by its cast recording, certainly, and I've not seen the Royal Shakespeare Company's The Secret Garden (which opened in London in February). However, they seem to have solved the weaknesses of the Broadway production. Suddenly, the score has an emotional impact that it didn't have on stage or on the unfortunate Broadway cast album. (Unfortunate in that it was cluttered with thirty six tracks, half of them consisting of thirty-to-forty-five seconds worth of dialogue in awkward accents.)

The RSC's Adrian Noble directed, and I suppose that he has made much of the difference. (That is, if the production is as good as it sounds on this CD.) It also seems to help that the actors are speaking and singing in their native tongues. The piece calls for all sorts of accents, but they are all English (circa 1911), and this is the RSC, after all. The Broadway cast members were generally good, but seemed restrained by their dialect. The RSC leads — Philip Quast (Archibald Craven), Meredith Braun (Lily), Linzi Hateley (Martha), Craig Purnell (Dickon), Luke Newberry (Colin), and Natalie Morgan (Mary Lenox) — all give strong performances on the CD. Musical director Chris Walker seems firmly in control, and William David Brohn's original orchestrations sound more impressive than before. Yes, I miss a few of the New Yorkers, especially Rebecca Luker and John Cameron Mitchell; but this is a CD that you can listen to and enjoy, unlike the earlier one (which I find a chore to listen to). Most importantly, the songs come across, one after another: "A Girl in the Valley," "Winter's on the Wing," "The Storm," "Round Shouldered Man," "Lily's Eyes," "Wick," "Race You to the Top of the Morning." This score is, after all, pretty good — which this new CD of this new production of The Secret Garden finally makes clear.


-- Steven Suskin, author of "Broadway Yearbook 1999-2000" and "Show Tunes" (both from Oxford University Press) and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books.

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