What did the musical “Urinetown” know that we don’t?

Urinetown the Musical “An Appalling Notion, Fully Realized”

Back in 2001 an amazing show opened on Broadway. Urinetown the Musical proudly proclaimed itself as “an appalling notion fully realized.” This unusual musical was based on a simple premise – faced with a severe drought – enterprising capitalists take control of all toilets – require all citizens to “pay for the privilege to pee” or pay the ultimate price-a trip to Urinetown, a place from which no man, woman, or beast had ever returned.  Urinetown was an unusual show in that it sought to satirize basic tenets of society such as our legal system, capitalism, social irresponsibility, bureaucracy, corporate greed and mismanagement and our own system of municipal governance utilizing a format that is extremely popular and accessible to the general populace.

Urinetown tells the story of Assistant Urinal Custodian Bobby Strong. The show opens with a grim acknowledgement that a twenty-year drought has created a terrible water shortage which has made the use of private toilets impermissible. In order to deal with this situation a mega-corporation “Urine Good Company” has been created to oversee all restroom activities, which must now be done utilizing public facilities.  People now pay to pee with harsh laws implemented to ensure that if these laws are broken, the offender is sent to a penal colony called “Urinetown”.  Of course there is a rebellion, led by the everyman hero Bobby Strong and the corporate bosses daughter, now girlfriend, Hope Cladwell.  They successfully roil up the “peeing poor” to overthrow the regulators and return their community back to the day where one could pee when and where they wanted with whom they wanted.  While Bobby was sacrificed in the process – being sent to Urinetown and tossed off the top floor of the Urine Good Company Headquarters – Hope uses Bobby’s martyrdom to inspire a new vision of peace, harmony and water.

Unfortunately, unlike most musical’s, Urinetown doesn’t end happily.  In the final monologue we learn that the harsh methods being enforced were actually needed – as a result of the less restrictive policies implemented by Hope, the water shortage returns, worse than before, people suffer and die from the lack of water, and Hope, meets the same fate as her Father and boyfriend, being tossed from the top of Urine Good Company Headquarters.

I wanted to use this unusual story to highlight what I believe is a serious problem that we as a society must begin to address.  Water, as a renewable resource, must be managed and managed wisely.  While we all know that 70% of the earth’s surface is covered by water only about 3% of that water is fresh water.  Of that, 70% (and shrinking) is found in the frozen icecaps of Antarctica and Greenland and most of the remaining water is found either in deep aquifers underground or in the soil.  Less than 1% of all water is directly accessible as in lakes, rivers and shallow underground aquifers.  This 1% is what keeps us alive – it is our renewable resource.

In 2010, Peter Gleick, a MacArthur Genius, introduced the idea of “Peak Water”.  This concept which is more often associated with “Peak Oil” posits that there is only so much usable water available for managed use.  Once we reach that “peak” the consequences become significant since Gleick notes that the implications of lack of water has far greater implications on humans that the lack of oil.  Gleick also notes that in many areas we have already reached peak water levels and without a willingness to address this growing issue that the implication for future generations will be catastrophic.

As a concerned citizen of the world I have to look locally.  Does this impact me here in the confines of the Treasure Valley?  Most assuredly it does.  Knowing that we are facing a growing uncertainty around our own water supply as a result of these changing climate patterns can’t be taken lightly.  Where are the planning champions willing to challenge the unbridled growth patterns that are creating mega-housing complexes far from the resources that will sustain them?  Where are the concerned voices of business clamoring for environmentally friendly options that support sustainable growth while nurturing economic viability.  Where is the community leadership who will champion a vision for the future not just for the rewards of today?

“Urinetown the Musical” was a satiric vision of what the future of the world could look like if we are unwilling to face the music and embrace change.  While it is very difficult for us to grasp the idea of “paying to pee” as something that could actually happen – yet – if we don’t accept the signs that are all around us – water shortages in India, droughts in Africa, Texas and the Midwest, Glaciers disappearing, icecap break-ups, lack of palatable water across the globe – then we are indeed fated to face this grim reality.  Lets hope there is still time to change as I would really like this “musical” to have a happy ending.

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About Rick Jung

Rick Jung is the Director of Development for the College of Social Sciences and Public Affairs at Boise State University. He graduated from Boise State University in 1994 with a degree in Theater Arts. He has a strong interest in the role that the arts play in the creation of progressive vibrant communities. When he isn't creating - he can be found swinging his tennis racket around on one the many public courts found throughout the Treasure Valley.