Brian MacDevitt takes a trip to Urinetown

The above question is posed late in the second act by one of the characters in Urinetown, and for good reason: There's never been a Broadway musical quite like this. Urinetown is set in an unspecified future where a water shortage has led to the privatization of all toilet facilities. In other words, as one song puts it, “It's a Privilege to Pee.” The money from this universal pay toilet scheme goes to the UGC (for Urine Good Company), run by the evil Caldwell B. Cladwell, who retains his monopoly through government bribes. Any dissent is rigorously suppressed. There is trouble brewing, however. Bobby Strong, who works at a public toilet, leads an insurrection against the UGC; unfortunately, he falls in love with Hope Cladwell, the innocent daughter of his mortal enemy. No good can come of this, and none does, leading to a finale notable for its high body count.

Obviously, we're not talking about 42nd Street. Urinetown is the last word in self-consciousness, a musical parody of virtually everything, couched inside an agit-prop musical modeled along the lines of The Cradle Will Rock. It won raves from the New York press last spring in a tryout engagement Off Broadway, re-opening on Broadway just days after the destruction of the World Trade Center. The production's flippant sense of humor shocked audiences into a state of raucous hilarity. If ever there was a show for these bizarre times, this is it.

John Rando's staging of Urinetown is remarkable for its unity; everything — acting, direction, and even design — is part of the joke. Rando has directed his cast to play the script in deadly earnest, an approach that only adds to the laughter. John Carrafa's choreography is a kind of spoof encyclopedia of Broadway dance styles, making fun of such masters as Jerome Robbins and Bob Fosse. Scott Pask's environmental setting and the costumes of Gregory Gale and Jonathan Bixby play an important part as well.

Then there's the lighting of Brian MacDevitt. The busy LD is a man of many faces. His work can be subtle and understated — think of the Broadway hit Master Class — or he can provide a boldly theatrical look, as he did for last season's revival of Judgment at Nuremberg. Here, he creates what you might call satirical lighting. “Urinetown was a feast from the beginning,” recalls MacDevitt. “It's the kind of theatre I dream of doing — it embraces theatre and makes fun of it at the same time.”

On Broadway, at the Henry Miller Theatre (previously the original home of the current revival of Cabaret), Pask's set is distinguished by an exposed backstage look, with a series of catwalks that extend into the audience and a wall unit that reverses for different scenes. It looks like the set for an early 1930s Warner Bros. prison-break film. “A lot of people don't know that it's a set,” notes MacDevitt. “Every wall has been painted. Every water stain has been scenically designed. We have those really nasty houselights at the top — sodium vapor lights that look like gaslights. One of them is [deliberately] broken.” ETC Source Fours placed in City Theatrical AutoYokes send beams prowling all over the auditorium, to add an extra touch of mock menace.

Much of Urinetown is defined by shadowy, film-noir lighting, as befits its 1930s veneer. MacDevitt calls it “Brechtian lighting,” and it involves lots of no-color and Lee 202 used in a strongly directional manner to create a starkly theatrical look. A lineup of Mini-10s placed on the forestage is used to create menacing shadows on the back wall, especially in the number “Snuff That Girl,” as Bobby's cohorts plot to do away with Hope, who has been kidnapped by them.

But in many numbers, the lighting is used bluntly, in a crudely obvious manner — on purpose. The tip-off comes during the overture when, MacDevitt says, “There's a bad scroll, from white to pink, when they play the love melody.” From that point on, anything goes. An early act-one number, “Mr. Cladwell,” features the staff of UGC paying tribute to the boss. It's an Irving Berlin-ish, out-on-the-town song, with actor John Cullum in top hat, white tie, and tails. The staging is gleefully silly and MacDevitt heightens the mood by scrolling recklessly through a series of bright colors — “a little bit of everything in the scroller,” he says. “It's my homage to bad Broadway lighting — lighting with no idea behind it. Of course, we turn on a bubble machine during the ballyhoo” that ends the number. Even then, there's another joke, as the ballyhoo keeps going even after the music stops. (The production has two followspots, which are in nearly constant use throughout).

A couple of scenes later, Bobby rallies the downtrodden citizens to revolt by singing an inspirational number titled “Look to the Sky.” This is MacDevitt's cue to unleash a blinding burst of sunlight from a stage left box-boom position — so blinding in fact, that the cast has been directed to shield their eyes and cower even as they belt the chorus. In contrast, when a character is dispatched to Urinetown, the place where lawbreakers are dealt with, there is a deep wash of R27 (Medium Red), along with flashing red architectural units, to indicate the bloody fate that awaits. In contrast, Bobby Strong is killed in full view of the audience; he's thrown off of a building, in another amusingly cheesy stage effect involving the use of a Rosco Gobo Rotator, showing a swirling vortex. “It's an homage to Mel Brooks' High Anxiety,” adds the LD.

Interestingly, the LD says that his equipment package on Broadway is the same as it was Off Broadway last spring (“I think the producers were happy about that,” he notes). It includes approximately 150 ETC Source Fours of varying degree sizes, a dozen City Theatrical AutoYokes, eight PAR-64 ACL units, a dozen MR-16 birdies, 20 Mini-10s, 14 scoops, and four rain lights, along with L&E Mini-Strips, four Rosco Gobo Rotators, four High End Systems Dataflash® strobes, 11 GAM Products Star Stobes, one MDG fogger, one Bowen fan, and a mirror ball. What's missing is any dedicated automated lighting units; MacDevitt is not particularly a fan of them, and here he has pulled off the feat of lighting a good-sized Broadway musical without them.

Lighting was supplied by Fourth Phase. Other personnel included associate LD Yael Lubetzky, assistant LD Matthew Piercy, production electrician Graeme McDonnell, and house/production electrician Paul Dean.

MacDevitt has been having a notable season. This past summer he lit the Broadway revivals of Major Barbara and A Thousand Clowns, then went to Chicago to design the new musical The Visit, starring Chita Rivera, at the Goodman Theatre, and came back to New York for the Broadway revival of The Women. Since Urinetown, he's done two notable Off Broadway productions, Speaking in Tongues and Homebody/Kabul, the latter by Tony Kushner (Angels in America). But he stresses that for pure fun Urinetown has been one of his top projects. “We were writing cues and laughing our asses off,” he recalls. “The whole process was, how can we support the humor? There's a lot of Little Rascals joy in this.” Consider the above question answered.

Contact the author at dbarbour@primediabusiness.com.