The Comedy of the Commons?

Or, Malthus: The Musical


"What kind of musical is this?" asks Little Sally, the adorable town waif in the new Broadway hit Urinetown: The Musical. The answer for most critics and audiences is that Urinetown is a downright funny and smart takeoff on the theatrical conventions of socialist 1930s theater, a sendup of musical theater in which Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill meet postmodern irony with a vengeance. The official slogan on the show's T-shirts is: "An appalling idea, fully realized." Actor Daniel Marcus, who plays Officer Barrel in the show, says, "I call it 'a love letter to the American musical'—in the form of a grenade."

Urinetown, which opened on Broadway in late September to rave reviews, is an ecological horror fable set in an unspecified future in which the water supply has been privatized as a response to a 20-year drought. As a result, "everyone has to use public bathrooms to take care of their private business," and pay a fee to the UGC (Urine Good Company) monopoly for the "privilege to pee" (as one of the musical numbers explains). If citizens try to avoid paying their toilet fees, say, by using the bushes, the omnipresent police seize them and take them away to the mysterious "Urinetown" from which no one has ever returned.

Preposterous? Of course. That's half the fun. Composer/lyricist Mark Hollman and author/lyricist Greg Kotis poke fun not only at Brecht and Weill, but also at America's most beloved musicals, ranging from West Side Story to Les Miserables, from Guys and Dolls to Fiddler on the Roof. Dance numbers blatantly reference the choreography of Jerome Robbins and Bob Fosse. Urinetown originally opened as part of the New York Fringe Festival two years ago, moved to off-Broadway this past spring, and is now playing at the Henry Miller Theatre.

Near the beginning, Police Chief Lockstock, who occasionally steps out of the action to narrate, explains that,

"It's the oldest story —
Masses are oppressed,
Faces, clothes, and bladders,
All distressed.
Rich folks get the good life,
Poor folks get the woe.
In the end,

It's nothing you don't know."

The show opens at Public Amenity #9, "the poorest, filthiest urinal in town," at which the downtrodden citizens dressed in 1930s style ragged dirty work clothes are trying to take care of their morning's private business. Amenity #9 is managed by the pitiless Penelope Pennywise (Nancy Opel) and her sweet, dumb assistant Bobby Strong (Hunter Foster). This particular morning, Old Man Strong, Bobby's father, doesn't have enough money to pay the toilet fee. Pennywise turns him away, so Old Man Strong just does what comes naturally, and is promptly taken away to "Urinetown" by the police. Bobby protests, but Pennywise gets him to see that disobeying the law would be futile.

Shortly after this incident, Bobby meets Hope Cladwell, the cute naïve daughter of capitalist Caldwell B. Cladwell, the owner of UGC. Hope has just graduated from the "world's most expensive university" and is now working as a fax copy girl in her father's company. Naturally the two fall in love and sing a sweet dopey duet in a style ripped off from West Side Story.

Meanwhile the evil Cladwell, played superbly by Broadway veteran John Cullum, is plotting with the corrupt Senator Fipp (John Deyle) to raise the pee fees even higher. Hope objects to the fee hike, but Cladwell advises her that the world can be divided into two types of people, hunters and bunnies. In a merrily menacing number, Cladwell warns Hope "Don't Be the Bunny" or it will be "good bye bunny-boo, hello, rabbit stew."

When the toilet fee hike is announced, Bobby, inspired by Hope's idealism, leads the poor in a revolt and kidnaps Hope to use as a hostage. Cladwell tries to bribe him to end the rebellion. Bobby nobly refuses and is taken away by the police to "Urinetown"—actually, merely to the top of the UGC tower where he is thrown to his death.

Hope then becomes the head of the revolution and leads the poor to triumph over her father. The revolutionaries drag Cladwell away to his death while he sings, "I'm the bunny now." The revolution has succeeded, and everyone can pee for free. The revolutionaries break into the anthem "I See a River" as they contemplate the future without greedy capitalists. A happy ending, right? Wrong.

With the anthem in the background, Little Sally asks Officer Lockstock if everything turns out happily. Lockstock reminds Sally that this is not a happy musical. He tells her that the citizens were not living sustainably. UGC's charging for the toilets prevented the people from using up all the water. So once Cladwell and UGC were overthrown, the people soon used up all the water and died. As the final production number ends, Officer Lockstock faces the audience and jubilantly shouts, "Hail Malthus!"

This is a reference to Thomas Robert Malthus' famous 1798 An Essay on the Principle of Population in which he predicted that some portion of humanity must always live in misery and suffer famine because of overpopulation. This view remains popular with knee-jerk ideological environmentalists to this day. Why did the creators choose Malthusianism as the message of their musical? Perhaps it is nothing more than the fact that, as Lockstock tells Little Sally, audiences are happier with simple messages "and it's easier to write."

However, an alternative, perhaps even postmodern, reading of the musical suggests that the unhappy ending was the result of a classic case of the tragedy of the commons, in which resources, available at no charge to anyone, are overexploited and destroyed. (Link to this essay by Jonathan Adler for more real world examples.) Cladwell, explains Lockstock, by rationing access to a scarce resource actually was preserving the lives of the townspeople. It turns out that a revolution motivated by the highest egalitarian ideals and best of intentions came to a disastrous end—a theme repeatedly played out by most of the revolutions of the past two centuries.

Enough policy wonkery masquerading as theater criticism—this sharp, smart satire of American musical comedy is guaranteed to keep you laughing. So if you're in town, go see Urinetown.