When I lived in Manhattan , the only time I considered the word “drought” was when I went to see a Tony Award-winning musical on Broadway, the central conceit of which was a drought. The name of that show?
Urinetown: The Musical!
The exclamation point is mine, not part of the title. It expresses my amazement that a show with such a name became a huge, popular hit. It succeeded because it’s a clever, tuneful, laugh-out-loud satirical look at a situation that on its surface looks impossible to sing and dance about: A severe drought and the townspeople it affects. For, you see, in Urinetown, there is such a terrible water shortage that private toilets have become against the law! Again the exclamation point is mine. Hard to imagine an entire show centered on a bodily function, but Urinetown showed it could be done.
So the show’s central conflict? Due to drought, private toilets are no longer permitted, and all bathroom activities are managed through a corporation called the Urine Good Company. To control water usage, citizens must pay for the privilege of using public toilets for their “personal business.”
Finally, with people shouting, “It’s no way to live, I tells ya! No way to live!,” trouble breaks out when one of the townspeople cannot afford admission to Public Amenity #9 and then protests by peeing in the streets. He’s arrested, and revolution erupts. In the end, the people win, but they don’t really, because when they let lose the flow of free water for all, their city is left more bereft of moisture than ever, and the future looks bleak.
It is not what you’d call a cheery show. But it is satirical, and it is funny.
Also, the songs by Mark Hollman and Greg Kotis, with titles like “It’s a Privilege to Pee,” “I See a River,” “Run, Freedom, Run,” and “Don’t Be the Bunny,” make the show fun to listen to.
Audiences adore Urinetown. I did when I saw it, even for the second time. As I sat in the environmentally designed theater (you’re made to feel part of the degraded squalor that is Urinetown’s), I laughed and cheered with everyone else when the townspeople fought for the right to freely pee whenever they needed to. And when they won that right, we all burst into huge applause. But by the end, as the realities of an even more dire water shortage dawn on the townspeople, audience laughter turned to a briefly shared fear for our collective futures.
I love a show that makes you laugh … and makes you think.
But, soon thereafter, leaving the safe confines of the theater, the basic serious premise of the show was forgotten. After all, we lived in New York City, where there was plenty of everything. In fact, in some cases, far too much.
But now, here we are. Here I am. Living in a place where water is lacking, and where laws are being passed to legislate its usage.
Somehow, that fact does not make me want to burst into song.
We’re being asked to contribute, in ideas and action, to help ease the situation. I’ve become acutely conscious of all things to do with water consumption, and of several things I might adjust to help: how uselessly I leave the water running when I brush my teeth or warm up my shower; just how much it takes to fill my electric tea pot in the morning (far less than I thought), and of course, how often we actually need to flush our own toilets.
I now observe how much water my front porch flowers take to survive. Now, I don’t do little loads of laundry to keep the bottom of my closet clear, I do large loads less often, darks and lights together. I shower every other day. And I’ve come up with small ways of recycling: When I order a drink with ice in a restaurant, I take the remaining ice home, and put it into my doggies’ bowl or my flower pot.
We do what we can, right?
But, finally, we all must do something to ease the situation, and aside from a daily rain dance in which we evoke the gods to let it pour, it’s the small efforts we make that could make a large difference. After all, we don’t want to one day sing, as the folks in Urinetown do: “It’s a privilege to pee!”
Because that truly would be “no way to live, I tells ya’!”
No way to live at all.