PV High’s “Urinetown” goes with the flow
Director (and Hermosa native) Nicole Thompson had challenges aplenty
by Bondo Wyszpolski
One might have wagered that a musical called “Urinetown” would have a strike or two against it from the start, let alone little chance of reaching Broadway (and pulling in three Tony Awards). It’s a wager that would have been lost, and in fact the show has been embraced by high schools left and right. Currently it’s being tackled by the drama department of Palos Verdes High School, directed by long-time drama instructor Nicole Thompson.
This in itself would be of minimal interest in a non-plague year, except for the technical mastery involved for creating an ensemble production of 21 cast members who each performed their role separately before being edited in a manner where they all seem to be on stage together. A little more about that in a moment, but first let’s look at the work itself. Why “Urinetown,” and why is it relevant today, in 2021?
Pea soup, anyone?
“‘Urinetown’ is definitely not your traditional musical,” says director Thompson. “It’s a satire, and I love a good comedy; but it’s more important than that. Through humor, it forces us to look at ourselves and our society. Most importantly, it makes us think. That’s part of what theater is for, to get us to think.”
The story and plot of “Urinetown” is a bit Orwellian, perhaps with a touch of “Bladerunner.” It takes place 20 years from now and there’s been a two-decade drought. This — and here, let me read part of the press release to you — “has forced corrupt city officials to come up with a unique way to conserve water: all private bathrooms are banned and the citizens must use public pay toilets regulated by a monopolistic company.” The penalty for not complying is harsh: those arrested are hauled off to Urinetown, a dubious place, clearly, since no one who goes in ever comes out. Later in the show there’s a custodian who leads a revolution. After all, you can only hold it in for so long, right?
No mention is made of chamber pots or bushes in the park. And if there’s no water for a good flush or two then surely there’s no water for a shower before leaving home or after a workout at the gym.
“Urinetown,” Thompson continues, “uses theater to examine corporate control, corruption, environmental conservation, and the growing divide between the rich and the poor—so it has all these real issues that we’re still dealing with today,” and she names corporate greed as well as overpopulation and Thomas Malthus, who wagged his finger knowingly about all this back in 1798.
Greg Kotis, who wrote the book and co-wrote the lyrics (with Mark Hollmann, who also composed the music), probably wasn’t thinking about Malthus and the dangers of too many people on this planet when he found himself in Paris and needing to answer nature’s call — a call that was halted at a pay-to-play, or fee-to-pee, public restroom. During this 1995 trip Kotis was on a shoestring budget, and during one of his moments of extreme urgency “Urinetown” was conceived.
“It sounds so depressing,” Thompson adds, “but it’s a comedy; it’s not depressing.”
Even so, anyone and probably everyone unfamiliar with the show will pause as soon as the title is mentioned. “People go, what is this about? Is it inappropriate with that title?” Thompson says. “And I laugh because it’s probably the cleanest show I’ve ever directed: It doesn’t have a sexual context, it doesn’t have (foul) language, it doesn’t have any drug or alcohol use. I’ve directed ‘Footloose’ a couple of times and (referring to “Grease” as well) those are way more inappropriate. And no one’s said anything about those. But really, in terms of content, it [addresses] real-life issues but not inappropriate issues.”
Thompson knows of what she speaks. “It was written in 2001, but I directed it in 2011, 10 years after that — which was one of my favorite shows I’ve ever directed.”
Was that also at PV High?
“It was. Very different then because we were all on stage. So I don’t feel like I’m directing the same show. Of course every cast makes it so different, but this is as different as they can be.” She adds that her first encounter with “Urinetown” was when she saw it performed at Peninsula High, directed by Jim Bell. “I was just floored. It was so much fun and so well done, very inspiring. I said someday I’m gonna direct this show.”
“Urinetown” also pays homage to (or parodies) other musicals like “West Side Story” and “Les Misérables,” but more importantly it tips its hat to Brechtian theater of the late 1920s, early ‘30s, by breaking the fourth wall. Or, in this case, the virtual fourth wall. In other words, there’s a narrator who addresses the audience and characters who know they are actors in a play and don’t mind discussing the work with one another while they’re on stage. The idea is to make clear that theater isn’t real life (but is “real life” theater?) and we’re all participants in this performance together. Again, it’s a little less palpable in a streamed rendition, but the era of pandemic being what it is…
When the asteroid struck
Scheduled concerts, art shows, plays, musical, sports events, you name it, were postponed or cancelled en masse in the middle of March, 2020. Palos Verdes High also had a show that was ready for lift-off.
“Just two weeks before ‘Crazy for You’ opened,” Thompson says, “the school shut down for the pandemic. That set is still sitting on a stage, costumes and props are laid out, ready to go, but we can’t perform on a stage yet and we can’t sing on campus. So it’s stuck there until we can.”
This writer pictures the aftermath of Chernobyl, broken windows, beams fallen from the ceiling, foot-deep layers of dust, mutant rats scurrying about… presumably it’s not that bad.
“As the months went by and kept going,” Thompson continues, “I thought, oh my gosh, these students need theater, they need to be able to come together and express themselves. We can’t just keep waiting.”
Thompson had to do a sales pitch, of sorts. If the students weren’t going to be on a real stage…
“They’re on computers all day zooming for classes, and so they weren’t really excited at first. They didn’t want to be on a computer for more rehearsals and record on a computer.”
So, like a dark horse coming out of nowhere, “Urinetown” took “Crazy for You” out of the spotlight. Now, if you’re wondering what the status or prognosis is for the earlier work, it’s kind of like this: the rights for “Crazy” don’t permit it to be performed virtually. At present it’s a wait-and-see proposition, still tentatively scheduled for June, but that’s iffy. Next question: Won’t most of the original cast have graduated? After all, a lost year in high school equates to about 10 years in the adult world. “Much of the cast will have graduated,” Thompson concurs, “but many of them are coming back to do the show.”
Anyway, “Urinetown” probably sounded more fun and edgy, and definitely the pandemic restrictions seem to mirror the regulations that are clamped down on the citizens who now have to pay to pee or are penalized. Curtailed freedoms in both cases.
The challenges were huge. “It sounds crazy,” Thompson told her students, “but we’re going to film each one of you separately and then put you all together in the same film.”
One by one, they came in to enact their parts in front of a green screen but had to record their lines and vocals at home. In February, the cast was allowed to return to campus and do some blocked-in rehearsals, still keeping at a distance from one another. Then they were filmed individually with each person imagining that whomever they were talking to was right there beside them. Sort of like those 1950s monster movies where a guy’s jabbing a spear in the air and only later is the dinosaur added to the shot. If the sightlines are off the production loses brownie points on Rotten Tomatoes.
So, lots of pieces, which students have been busy editing. Even so, the process can move only so fast. “Urinetown” was delayed by one week because more tech work needed to be completed. I’ve seen a couple of clips and had to shake my head in amazement. That’s one big reason I’m writing about the show.
Apart from the students, who seemingly went beyond the call of duty, Thompson credits Melissa Mallo, creative director and production designer, and Michael Sprengel, lead digital content editor as well as the cinematographer. Mallo, says Thompson, “had a storyboard like a film and turned the (play) script into a film script.”
And if not for this pandemic this whole experience would not have happened.
“No, it wouldn’t have,” Thompson replies. “[The students] learned a whole new art form and technique and so did I. I’d never directed for film, so this was a whole new experience for all of us. They’re going to leave high school with some skills that high school students haven’t had before, and so that’s really exciting.”
Like a feature film director, Thompson got to look over the “dailies,” and sometimes shots needed to be redone or tweaked. “But I definitely wouldn’t have been brave enough to take on a project like this had it not been for the drama teachers all around the South Bay who helped pave the way.” She mentions Melissa Staab at Redondo Union, Jonathan Westerberg at Mira Costa, Seth Cohen at Peninsula, and Nigel Williams at Chadwick (Thompson herself, a native Hermosan and current resident, attended Redondo Union). “We would all meet on Zoom to say, What works? What didn’t? What would you change?”
In the end, all the pieces — in what could be likened to a jigsaw puzzle made from scratch — came together, and now, metaphorically, the curtain’s going up: “Urinetown,” now playing on a home computer near you.
The six performances of “Urinetown” stream at set times so, like in real theater, you have to “be there” on time. “It’s the closest we can get to live theater,” Thompson says. “It’s an event that is happening then and if you don’t see it you’ve missed out. I felt it was important to still have that kind of performance aspect to it. It’s going to be totally different watching it from your home than (seeing it on) the stage, but I think it was worthwhile.” That’s an understatement, I’m sure.
Urinetown, presented by the Palos Verdes High School Drama Department, streams online at 7 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, May 14 and 15, 21 and 22, plus 2 p.m. on Sunday, May 16 and 23. Tickets, $15 single viewer or $40 family viewing, are available online at pvhsdrama.com. ER
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