Urine America: Can’t You Tell?

I wish I were in the room when Greg Kotis decided he was going to create a musical about a drought that led to a complex story of public urination and subsequent punishment. I’ve had some pretty outlandish shower thoughts, but Kotis’s level of creative genius in producing Urinetown is something that I’ve never come close to. The musical, with music and lyrics by Mark Hollmann and Book and lyrics by Greg Kotis, began in the New York International Fringe Festival in 1999 and was one of the first shows to successfully make the transition from fringe to Broadway in 2001. The show went on to earn 10 Tony nominations and won three, including Best Book, Original Score and Direction. Needless to say, Urinetown left its mark on Broadway. 

Urinetown tells the story of a city plagued by a twenty year drought. Water is scarce and the existence of private toilets is a distant memory. A privately owned firm called Urine Good Company swindles the town into a contract with them, ultimately giving the company exclusive rights to run the bathrooms, called “public amenities”, which citizens have to pay a fee to use. In simpler terms, Urine Good Company lobbies the ability to grant people the privilege to pee. If citizens want to use private bathrooms, they have to pay a fee. If citizens are caught urinating in public or refusing to pay the company’s fee, they’re sent to the infamous Urinetown as punishment. 

My first introduction to Urinetown was in middle school. As a field trip, my seventh grade class watched the high school theater company perform the seemingly irreverent show. The playbill read “Pee for Free” and to say I was confused by the show would be an understatement. I appreciate the sentiment of bringing thirteen year olds to a musical production to support the high school arts program, but when I tell you that the message of Urinetown went right over the heads of myself and my classmates I mean it came nowhere near resonating. In rewatching Urinetown, it’s clear that the show is about far more than hygiene.  

Although at a surface level the show may seem like nothing more than a comedy, Urinetown’s exploration of hegemonic relationships between people and government, corruption, and the ills of capitalism makes the show one of the most comprehensive theatrical critiques of American society to ever grace the Broadway stage. Sure to make most Economics majors want to cover their eyes or storm out of the theater, Urinetown utilizes satire and draws parallels between America and the on-stage society to effectively highlight the inherent flaws of a capitalist society. The show could not possibly be more culturally relevant than it is in America today a country in which thousands of people consider universal health care to be radical socialism, and where lobbyist groups wish happy birthday to the politicians who support them over Twitter. 

The show’s creators weren’t subtle about drawing parallels to American society in their effort to critique capitalism. The symbolism is almost painfully intentional, as if the creators are begging viewers to understand the message of the show just shy of having to explicitly say it. Truly, satire is the gift that keeps on giving. The show utilizes examples of hegemonic governing that may have seemed extreme during the  time it was written, but wouldn’t seem unrealistic to anyone living in 2020. A corporation holding a monopoly over people’s most private and basic needs. The government exploiting society’s poorest individuals for their money to profit the wealthy. Criminalizing an action that will inevitably be disproportionately committed by poor people. Sound familiar? It should, because these are all realities for American people in 2020.  

Take a look at the tyrannical corporation that takes control of the town: Urine Good Company. It feels wrong to continue this paragraph without giving credit to the writers for the pun in this name. If only corporations today would be so creative – it’s really the least they could do. But I digress. Urine Good Company represents all of the corporations that control nearly every aspect of American life through their influence on the government, that shamelessly exploit workers and customers alike. Corporations whose business models rely on exploitation and manipulation. In Urinetown, Urine Good Company’s control of the town’s bathrooms grants them the power to control when and where people can relieve themself. This deal between the Urine Good Company and a local senator by the name of Senator Fipp  resembles all too closely the arrangements that exist between the public and private sectors to control water, gas, electrical power, internet access, fuel, and virtually every necessity of life up to the air we breathe. Corporations like General Electric have lobbied politicians to vote against the right to abortion for decades (prospect.org); they may not be lobbying to control when and where people use the bathroom, but the sentiment is the same: they are exercising wealth-based hegemony to control people’s bodies. 

It’s hard to listen to the song “It’s a Privilege to Pee” without thinking of how the song reiterates the sentiment of so many Americans who are opposed to universal health care. The common American sentiment that “Healthcare is a privilege” appalls a majority of the rest of the world, and the way Urinetown satirizes this argument to mock it is just as powerful as it is comical. In “It’s a Privilege to Pee,” Penny, the woman in charge of one of the bathrooms, sings “So, come and give your coins to me. Write your name here in the record book. The authorities will want to look. If you’ve been regular with me. If you’ve paid the proper fee. For the privilege to pee.” Essentially, what she’s saying is: give me your money so that the government knows you deserve to pee, because it is a privilege, not a right. In this moment of viewing the show, I realized how valuable it is that the writers chose to use peeing as the aspect of life that the government controls, because it’s clear to everyone with a bladder that you can’t really control when you need to use the bathroom. Similarly, you can’t really control when you get sick or injured and need to seek medical care, so the fact that healthcare is inaccessible to people because they can’t afford it is just as absurd as a government depriving someone the right to pee is. 

Beyond Urinetown’s commentary on hegemonic relationships between a government and their people, the show provides an incredibly effective commentary on the criminalization of certain actions and how this criminalization is strategic in the way it targets low-income individuals. Living in a capitalist society, every aspect of business revolves around money and profit. This is the main concern of corporations; the means of achieving such profit are not concerned with ethics or morals or, quite frankly, the lives of others. Just profit. This is the root from which the inherent ills of capitalism grow. One of these ills is government corruption and the injustices that occur as a result of this corruption. In Urinetown, spectators witness injustice take place on stage as the Public Health Act prohibiting public urination leads to local authorities disproportionately exiling poor people from the town. Because lower income individuals in the town do not have the dispensable income to pay to use the public amenities, their desperation leads them to urinate publicly. This dynamic is not shocking to the local authorities or Urine Good Company; it’s intentional. This is a very direct commentary on the practice of the United States justice system and the war on drugs in America in the 1970s. By criminalizing crack but not cocaine despite the almost identical chemical makeup of the drugs, authorities targeted lower income black communities where the use of crack was more abundant than the use of cocaine. It wasn’t a war on drugs, it was a war on black people and low income communities. In Urinetown, it’s not a law against public urination it’s a law against desperation and poverty. These laws ultimately facilitate the gentrification of communities, pushing out low income families and encouraging expensive storefronts and unaffordable real estate to take the place of previously livable areas. In both Urinetown and in modern American society, we see how people and communities are subject to becoming victims of capitalist processes and government corruption. 

Urinetown functions as an effective critique of capitalism, government, and the criminal justice system, utilizing a powerful mix of irony, sarcasm, and comedy to create an equally entertaining and thought provoking show. The goals of the musical aren’t subtle; but their deliberateness serves to keep the audience engaged and promotes further consideration of the show’s messages once the curtains have closed. Even as someone who doesn’t quite grasp the concept of why the government can’t just “print more money” (queue die-hard wolf of wall street fans mansplaining the economy), I found immense value in the viewing process of Urinetown. Urinetown may not convince you to flush capitalism down the drain entirely, but at the very least you’ll be guaranteed to gain a newfound appreciation for free restrooms. 

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  1. These are all great points about Urinetown! This has always been a bit of a polarizing show for me just because I’ve seen productions that are very good and clearly understand the show, and some that just fall flat and far off the mark. But the work do you here in identifying the prominent themes and messages of the text feels spot on, and I’d agree that this show has only grown in its relevance to our contemporary American society since its debut. I also think your anecdote about having seen Urinetown in middle school reveals an important point about how this show especially needs to be aware of its audience. With such a ridiculous premise, it’s easy for younger audience members or more casual theatergoers to miss the metaphors or greater thesis of the show. That’s why it’s so important for a show like Urinetown to have an artistic concept that firmly grasps these central metaphors and confidently presents them in satire.

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