Urine America: Can’t You Tell?

I wish I were in the room when Greg Kotis decided he was going to create a musical about a drought that led to a complex story of public urination and subsequent punishment. I’ve had some pretty outlandish shower thoughts, but Kotis’s level of creative genius in producing Urinetown is something that I’ve never come close to. The musical, with music and lyrics by Mark Hollmann and Book and lyrics by Greg Kotis, began in the New York International Fringe Festival in 1999 and was one of the first shows to successfully make the transition from fringe to Broadway in 2001. The show went on to earn 10 Tony nominations and won three, including Best Book, Original Score and Direction. Needless to say, Urinetown left its mark on Broadway. 

Urinetown tells the story of a city plagued by a twenty year drought. Water is scarce and the existence of private toilets is a distant memory. A privately owned firm called Urine Good Company swindles the town into a contract with them, ultimately giving the company exclusive rights to run the bathrooms, called “public amenities”, which citizens have to pay a fee to use. In simpler terms, Urine Good Company lobbies the ability to grant people the privilege to pee. If citizens want to use private bathrooms, they have to pay a fee. If citizens are caught urinating in public or refusing to pay the company’s fee, they’re sent to the infamous Urinetown as punishment. 

My first introduction to Urinetown was in middle school. As a field trip, my seventh grade class watched the high school theater company perform the seemingly irreverent show. The playbill read “Pee for Free” and to say I was confused by the show would be an understatement. I appreciate the sentiment of bringing thirteen year olds to a musical production to support the high school arts program, but when I tell you that the message of Urinetown went right over the heads of myself and my classmates I mean it came nowhere near resonating. In rewatching Urinetown, it’s clear that the show is about far more than hygiene.  

Although at a surface level the show may seem like nothing more than a comedy, Urinetown’s exploration of hegemonic relationships between people and government, corruption, and the ills of capitalism makes the show one of the most comprehensive theatrical critiques of American society to ever grace the Broadway stage. Sure to make most Economics majors want to cover their eyes or storm out of the theater, Urinetown utilizes satire and draws parallels between America and the on-stage society to effectively highlight the inherent flaws of a capitalist society. The show could not possibly be more culturally relevant than it is in America today a country in which thousands of people consider universal health care to be radical socialism, and where lobbyist groups wish happy birthday to the politicians who support them over Twitter. 

The show’s creators weren’t subtle about drawing parallels to American society in their effort to critique capitalism. The symbolism is almost painfully intentional, as if the creators are begging viewers to understand the message of the show just shy of having to explicitly say it. Truly, satire is the gift that keeps on giving. The show utilizes examples of hegemonic governing that may have seemed extreme during the  time it was written, but wouldn’t seem unrealistic to anyone living in 2020. A corporation holding a monopoly over people’s most private and basic needs. The government exploiting society’s poorest individuals for their money to profit the wealthy. Criminalizing an action that will inevitably be disproportionately committed by poor people. Sound familiar? It should, because these are all realities for American people in 2020.  

Take a look at the tyrannical corporation that takes control of the town: Urine Good Company. It feels wrong to continue this paragraph without giving credit to the writers for the pun in this name. If only corporations today would be so creative – it’s really the least they could do. But I digress. Urine Good Company represents all of the corporations that control nearly every aspect of American life through their influence on the government, that shamelessly exploit workers and customers alike. Corporations whose business models rely on exploitation and manipulation. In Urinetown, Urine Good Company’s control of the town’s bathrooms grants them the power to control when and where people can relieve themself. This deal between the Urine Good Company and a local senator by the name of Senator Fipp  resembles all too closely the arrangements that exist between the public and private sectors to control water, gas, electrical power, internet access, fuel, and virtually every necessity of life up to the air we breathe. Corporations like General Electric have lobbied politicians to vote against the right to abortion for decades (prospect.org); they may not be lobbying to control when and where people use the bathroom, but the sentiment is the same: they are exercising wealth-based hegemony to control people’s bodies. 

It’s hard to listen to the song “It’s a Privilege to Pee” without thinking of how the song reiterates the sentiment of so many Americans who are opposed to universal health care. The common American sentiment that “Healthcare is a privilege” appalls a majority of the rest of the world, and the way Urinetown satirizes this argument to mock it is just as powerful as it is comical. In “It’s a Privilege to Pee,” Penny, the woman in charge of one of the bathrooms, sings “So, come and give your coins to me. Write your name here in the record book. The authorities will want to look. If you’ve been regular with me. If you’ve paid the proper fee. For the privilege to pee.” Essentially, what she’s saying is: give me your money so that the government knows you deserve to pee, because it is a privilege, not a right. In this moment of viewing the show, I realized how valuable it is that the writers chose to use peeing as the aspect of life that the government controls, because it’s clear to everyone with a bladder that you can’t really control when you need to use the bathroom. Similarly, you can’t really control when you get sick or injured and need to seek medical care, so the fact that healthcare is inaccessible to people because they can’t afford it is just as absurd as a government depriving someone the right to pee is. 

Beyond Urinetown’s commentary on hegemonic relationships between a government and their people, the show provides an incredibly effective commentary on the criminalization of certain actions and how this criminalization is strategic in the way it targets low-income individuals. Living in a capitalist society, every aspect of business revolves around money and profit. This is the main concern of corporations; the means of achieving such profit are not concerned with ethics or morals or, quite frankly, the lives of others. Just profit. This is the root from which the inherent ills of capitalism grow. One of these ills is government corruption and the injustices that occur as a result of this corruption. In Urinetown, spectators witness injustice take place on stage as the Public Health Act prohibiting public urination leads to local authorities disproportionately exiling poor people from the town. Because lower income individuals in the town do not have the dispensable income to pay to use the public amenities, their desperation leads them to urinate publicly. This dynamic is not shocking to the local authorities or Urine Good Company; it’s intentional. This is a very direct commentary on the practice of the United States justice system and the war on drugs in America in the 1970s. By criminalizing crack but not cocaine despite the almost identical chemical makeup of the drugs, authorities targeted lower income black communities where the use of crack was more abundant than the use of cocaine. It wasn’t a war on drugs, it was a war on black people and low income communities. In Urinetown, it’s not a law against public urination it’s a law against desperation and poverty. These laws ultimately facilitate the gentrification of communities, pushing out low income families and encouraging expensive storefronts and unaffordable real estate to take the place of previously livable areas. In both Urinetown and in modern American society, we see how people and communities are subject to becoming victims of capitalist processes and government corruption. 

Urinetown functions as an effective critique of capitalism, government, and the criminal justice system, utilizing a powerful mix of irony, sarcasm, and comedy to create an equally entertaining and thought provoking show. The goals of the musical aren’t subtle; but their deliberateness serves to keep the audience engaged and promotes further consideration of the show’s messages once the curtains have closed. Even as someone who doesn’t quite grasp the concept of why the government can’t just “print more money” (queue die-hard wolf of wall street fans mansplaining the economy), I found immense value in the viewing process of Urinetown. Urinetown may not convince you to flush capitalism down the drain entirely, but at the very least you’ll be guaranteed to gain a newfound appreciation for free restrooms. 

Hamilton: Broadway’s Most Disappointing Performance of Progressive Feminism

It pains me to criticize Lin Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton knowing that my memorization of the soundtrack was what got me an A in my American Studies class in high school. I loved Hamilton. Arriving on the Broadway stage in 2015, the show quickly made its way into popular culture. The music is addictive, the choreography is exhilarating, the plot is seductive and emotional. No matter my affection for the soundtrack, the show itself is deeply flawed and worthy of criticism, so I’m happy to provide. And a critical analysis through a feminist lens? How could I resist?

Hamilton is an incredibly unique show. Performing a history that has been taught in some form to nearly every American over the age of twelve is a challenge within itself, but performing it accurately provides another layer of complication. One might argue that most Americans barely remember learning about the American Revolution in school, thus making Hamilton their primary interpretation of that history, which is problematic. It’s not problematic that people don’t remember learning about The American Revolution — slightly concerning, but not problematic. It is problematic, though, when someone accepts Hamilton as an accurate historical portrayal of the American Revolution rather than a heavily fictionalized theatrical performance. Lin, if you’re reading this, I’m sorry, but it’s true. You’re a producer, not a historian.

Since this is a critique of Hamilton through a feminist lens, it’s only fair to acknowledge that history presents certain constraints when performing a show that is set in a time when women had very few rights. That being said, the show cast several people of color as characters who were historically white slave owners — so I’m not really up to hear any excuses as to why the show couldn’t have done more for the female characters. Hamilton depicts several female stereotypes: an empowered older sister who’s evaded by love, a naive little sister, and a scandalous mistress. Beyond the stereotypes, these female characters exist solely to show the desirability and power of Hamilton himself. The show performs sexism more than it does romance or love. For god’s sake, a song called “Helpless” sung by women about an overwhelming longing for a man — and people are calling Hamilton progressive.

The reality is, Hamilton chooses to honor some aspects of history and ignore others. The show erases the significance of race for certain characters, but only speaks to slavery when it’s convenient for the lyrics of a fast-paced rap. The show has sold thousands of tee-shirts that read the iconic Angelica Schuyler line “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal. And when I meet Thomas Jefferson, I’m ‘a compel him to include women in the sequel!” yet seem to have no problem performing female stereotypes on stage. Lyrics like these are purposeful; producers understand that the role of gender on stage is always subject to criticism. Thus, they opted for very overt expressions of female empowerment on stage, even though this strong-feminist sentiment is lacking for the majority of the show. Hamilton may be telling the story of a revolution, but it is in no way revolutionary in its depiction of femininity or the plight of women. When we look at the actors as an on-stage community, the female characters belong simply as subjects of attraction for the male characters. Although they may be singing empowering lyrics, the show affords them very little power.

Let’s look at the iconic Angelica Schuyler. She’s introduced as the highly intelligent, powerful, and independent leader of the Schuyler sister trio. Angelica sings lyrics like “I’ve been reading Common Sense by Thomas Paine. So men say that I’m intense or I’m insane. You want a revolution? I want a revelation,” effectively contrasting the image of colonial women as uneducated and lacking empowerment. Angelica seems enticingly controversial. She has the entire audience rooting for her. Will she find love? Who cares. Will she roundhouse kick Thomas Jefferson and earn voting rights for women? That’s the narrative that has spectators on the edge of their seats. She’s a badass. Upon analyzing the show in its entirety, though, it’s plain to see that Angelica’s overt performances of feminism are strategic and hollow as she spends most of the show pining after Hamilton. It’s disappointing, not only because Angelica abandons the independent woman narrative that spectators were loving, but also because she’s clearly way out of his league. Beyond this, the show only defines Angelica’s intelligence as relative to Alexander’s. When Angelica recounts the night she met Alexander, she sings “So this is what it feels like to match wits with someone at your level! what the hell is the catch? It’s the feeling of freedom, of seeing the light. It’s Ben Franklin with a key and a kite. You see it right?” This comparison of intelligence only propels the idea that a woman being as intelligent as a man is rare. In reality, Angelica is far more intelligent than Alexander, but because of the setting and gender norms in the show, Angelica would never acknowledge herself as such. While she may be introduced as an empowered, beautifully disruptive character, Angelica ultimately occupies a familiar gender stereotype as her power, intellect, and emotion is defined by Alexander’s existence.

I give the producers of Hamilton some credit for including Angelica’s character as a seemingly empowered, independent woman, albeit a strategic character to keep the show in good standing with Broadway’s feminists. When it came to viewing Eliza Schuyler as a representation of femininity, I was saddened. How much power can you possibly deprive a female character in a show that’s supposed to be “progressive”? And to pretend that Eliza finds the power she once lacked in her founding of an orphanage after Alexander’s death… it’s weak. Eliza, played by the incredible Philipa Soo, fulfills the stereotype of the naive, slightly anxious little sister of Angelica. In “Helpless” a sheepish Eliza stands on the side of the stage opposite Hamilton as Angelica speaks to him, watching anxiously to see how Hamilton is reacting to Angelica’s every word. The song follows the two through the beginning of their love story, which makes the song’s title all the more fitting. Eliza’s helplessness defines her role in the relationship with Alexander for the entirety of the show. Even once Hamilton has passed away and Eliza takes initiative to start an orphanage, she does so as a tribute to her late husband who she stood by despite his infidelity and general arrogance. In what I would argue is among the most moving solos in Broadway history, Eliza sings about the way Hamilton betrayed and humiliated her by not only having an affair but making that affair public knowledge to aid his political career that he has consistently prioritized over his wife. The vigor that Eliza exhibits in “Burn” as she burns the letters that Alexander sent her with tears running down her face contrasts the image of the naive Eliza that we see in “Helpless.” In “Burn”, Eliza sings, almost breathlessly, the following lyrics: “You forfeit all rights to my heart. You forfeit the place in our bed. You’ll sleep in your office instead. With only the memories of when you were mine.” Yes! This is the energy I wanted to see from Eliza. This is the badass woman kicking her unloyal husband out of their bed. It’s the breakup song we never knew we needed. But once again, the power that the writers afford Eliza in this scene is temporary and strategic. Eliza takes Hamilton back, exhibiting the same naivete and helplessness that she did when their love story first began. Eliza’s presence in the plot serves to show the desirability and the remarkability of Hamilton’s character. Eliza never gains the power she loses in marrying such an arrogant and, frankly, selfish man. She goes from being naive and helpless to being sympathetic and suffering heartbreak. Eliza’s story is the ultimate tragedy in Hamilton. This representation of femininity is disappointing; the show affords Eliza no agency — no moments of taking action. She’s defined by her subjectivity to the men who surround her, and the community in which the show is set simply accepts that as her position of belonging.

Finally, we have Mariah Reynolds, Hamilton’s mistress. All I have to say about this one is: seriously? Two female stereotypes weren’t enough? I understand that this is based on history and that Hamilton did have an affair, but the way the show chose to represent Reynolds as a scandalous seductress and irresistible sexual object was just awful and uncreative. When the soundtrack gets to “Say No to This”, I press skip as fast as possible to avoid the inevitable cringe that the song consistently evokes from me. With lyrics like “She turned red, she led me to her bed, let her legs spread and said: stay” and “But my God, she looks so helpless. And her body’s saying, “Hell, yes’”, I’m not sure how this song could be appreciated by any woman. Mariah Reynolds’ character embodies the sexualized fiction of women that is promoted in the media and things like porn. I am all for women owning their sexuality, but when that sexuality is defined by the sexual desires of a man, the red flags are clear. The way Hamilton objectifies Reynolds throughout the entirety of “Say No to This” is, by far, the most overt example of the way this show perpetuates stereotypical images of women. Women are not sexual objects, nor spectacles of beauty who exist solely for the enjoyment of men. All of the power afforded to Mariah Reynolds’ in this scene comes as a result of her sexual body and the idea that her overwhelming desirability is irresistible to a man. Ultimately, this power is relative to Hamilton’s sexual desire for her.

Considering how far Hamilton goes to dismantle stereotypes of race and masculinity, it’s frustrating to see how little was done for the show’s women. The overt performances of feminism felt hollow and strategically placed by producers who were more concerned with the social reception of the show than the authentic representation of powerful women. The female characters do not get nearly enough stage time and when they do, their emotions and narratives exist only in relation to Hamilton himself. The on-stage setting and community cultivated by the producers of Hamilton is a community that facilitates patriarchal norms and actively denies female characters power. Does this mean I’ll stop belting “Burn” in my car alone just because Hamilton is more problematic than my sophomore self knew? Definitely not. But, I will do so knowing that Eliza deserved far better, and I will continue to hold the producers accountable for performative feminism and denying some truly bad-ass female characters power. They can’t freestyle their way out of this one. Anyway, queue Lin Manuel’s lip bite.

Performing The Patriarchy: Oppression on Broadway

Two highly criticized Broadway classics, The King and I and Miss Saigon both tell the story of women in settings that are unfamiliar to them, challenged with patriarchal forces in some form. This explanation is, of course, an oversimplification of two complex plots; nonetheless, it remains the fundamental basis of both shows, and this premise gave way to significant criticism with regards to how these productions addressed topics such as race and gender. It certainly does not require any sort of reach to find similarities between The King and I and Miss Saigon in the way that gender dynamics are performed in the two shows. Furthermore, there also exist compelling differences between the shows with respect to the significance of race as it pertains to power. 

Although both shows are centered around the experience of female leads (Anna and Kim), it is critical that we question the significance of the shows’ male antagonists (The King and The Engineer) and the way that the presence of these characters affects the experience of women in the show. As you read the analysis of The King and I and Miss Saigon in the following paragraphs, it is necessary to note that the analysis is being done through a critical feminist lens. To that end, we must acknowledge the significance of men, women’s binary opposite, to the feminist approach, and understand that the relevance of men in this discussion is no less than that of women. In this essay I will argue that the presence of powerful men in both The King and I and Miss Saigon serve as an agent by which the authors of the shows depict the objectification of women, and that the race and status of men is insignificant to their ability to oppress women. Finally, I will argue that the shows discourage the audience from villainizing the male antagonists, further perpetuating the acceptance of oppressive males in society.  

The male antagonists in both  The King and I and Miss Saigon are incredibly important in the way that they influence the gender dynamics in the performance. This influence comes largely from the actual staging of the show. The presence of these characters allows the storytellers to put a cavalcade of beautiful women on stage. In Miss Saigon the performance of “The Heat is On in Saigon” features dozens of women dressed in provocative costumes. The women are dressed in a way that The Engineer utilizes to tempt the American soldiers as he sells the women’s bodies to them for sex.  For the entirety of the song, The Engineer is surrounded by these beautiful women; he treats them as if they are commodities, forcing them into the hands of soldiers and aggressively groping them. The Engineer’s physical presence on stage is what solidifies the image of female objectification that the performance depicts; his forceful behavior and inappropriate physical contact with the women sets the standard for the misogynistic treatment that the female characters will endure for the rest of the performance. Without the presence of The Engineer in this performance, these women would simply be struggling prostitutes; The Engineer’s presence reveals to the audience that these women are, in fact, victims of objectification. 

In Rogers and Hammerstein’s controversial production of The King and I, there are numerous performances that center on the idea that men are superior to women, and further, that men hold both a physical and emotional control over women. The existence of The King’s character gives the authors of the show a reason to constantly have beautiful women on the stage. The subconscious rationale behind this is that if there are no women present, then who are the subjects of The king’s misogyny? The authors relieve the audience of this possible confusion by featuring masses of elegant, gorgeous women on stage. Even when Anna is the only woman on stage, she is essentially a lively feminine prop that prompts The King’s overt misogynistic behavior. It’s important to understand how the fundamental concept of gender plays into this staging dynamic: because men do not exist without women, and women do not exist without men, it’s critical that the audience can see the on-stage interaction of the two genders because men could not oppress women if women were not there. This seems like a simple concept, but it is often overlooked in analyses of gender performance in musical theater. 

In both performances, this spectacle of feminine beauty is really just a means by which the directors can express the oppressive behavior of these male characters. In The King and I and Miss Saigon, the male antagonists share a clear similarity in that they are both Asian men. This similarity is largely irrelevant to the characterization of the men as misogynistic individuals, but what is compelling about this similarity is the disparity in power between the two men and, further, the fact that despite this disparity in power, the men are equally able to oppress masses of women without consequence. The King is the most powerful man in Siam. The Engineer is a hustler who exploits women for a meager living. The gap in power between the two men is vast. The King clearly has far more social and economic capital than The Engineer does. Considering this difference in power and wealth, it is insane that the men are equal in power when it comes to their ability to objectify and oppress women. The King oppresses women primarily through policy and his membership in the patriarchal Siamese court, and The Engineer does so through prostituting young women to sexually-desperate American soldiers.  Spectators see here that the Patriarchy spans beyond wealth and power. The men in these shows are able to systematically oppress women because of the simple fact that they are men and that is an ability that society has gifted them. The King and The Engineer’s primary similarity is not their race—it is the power they share in their ability to control women. 

The most interesting thing that these shows have in common is the fact that they both encourage the audience to like the male antagonists. This is more understandable with The King’s character, as the audience witnesses endearing spurs of character development from him, but it’s still questionable. The Engineer, on the other hand, is just plain creepy, and still, Miss Saigon tells spectators to like him. These shows don’t condemn misogyny; they give the men allowances for their cruel actions towards women. The King and I and Miss Saigon absolutely raise questions of gender dynamics through their performances of misogyny and femininity, but truly, neither villainize the oppressive male antagonists. This may seem lighthearted, but really it is a translation of what we see in society at large: toxic masculinity and oppressive male behavior is widely acceptable. This begs the question that I will leave you with: have these Broadway shows fallen victim to the patriarchy just as Kim and Tuptim did?