But, God, that title. Its eccentricity (foolishness perhaps) can't be ignored. Even savvy theatergoers have mistakenly interpreted the musical's name as You're in Town. Wisely, creators Mark Hollmann and Greg Kotis deflate the odd name in the self-referential opening number, when Little Sally, a pigtailed resident of Urinetown (played by a grown-up woman), says with tongue in cheek, "A bad title even? That could kill a show pretty good."
Urinetown's closest relatives include Les Miserables and the social-reform musicals of the 1920s and '30s, such as Marc Blitzstein's The Cradle Will Rock. The show encompasses a successful revolt of the disenfranchised over corporate baddies who have turned a water shortage into a profitable pay-toilet industry. So what if the people are fighting for "the privilege to pee"? It's a movement.
Tom Hewitt -- who earned a Tony nomination for his Dr. Frank N. Furter in the Broadway revival of The Rocky Horror Show and headlines Urinetown's touring cast as Officer Lockstock -- admits the title is "a marketing nightmare." But he says the show's weirdness is consistently outdistanced by its warmth.
"Presenters are hesitant to book the show because of the title," Hewitt says from a recent tour stop in Philadelphia. "We have a lot of one-week stands because people weren't sure how it was going to sell. But I can't tell you how many times we've heard from audience members, 'We're subscribers because we wanted to see Lion King or Hairspray or whatever and didn't want to see Urinetown. But I love it.'"
He says he can sense the audience's antipathy melting during the show. "They're sitting back with their arms crossed and not quite sure at first, because the set is dark and strange and industrial looking and there are policemen lurking around before the show starts. But you can feel as the show progresses that they're completely sucked in and having a great time. They feel like they've gotten past the password of the title and discovered this little treasure."
The show's Broadway run (costarring Kansas City's Don Richard) ends early next year -- a corporate redevelopment project will raze the building where the theater is housed. Next week, though, local audiences can embark on the journey to an odd little town indeed in a Theater League production at the Music Hall. The fact that the show began at the 1999 New York International Fringe Festival and eventually moved to Broadway is itself an unprecedented leap, raising the stakes for every subsequent Fringe Festival.
In more ways than one, the show gives hope to the little people.