by HAYLEY HUNTLEY
high school boyfriend broke up with me in a Barnes & Noble Starbucks a few days after my mom and I saw Jesus Christ Superstar. He delivered the bad news, we said goodbye in the parking lot, and I turned right back around and made my way to the CD section in the back of the store to camp out beneath a Free Listening Device. That icy January night, I cued up “Everything’s All Right” from Jesus Christ Superstar and held on tight, sensing that a hurricane of heartbreak was coming for me in the night.
If T.S. Eliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock can measure out his life in coffee spoons, I can measure mine out in showtunes. From my first glimpse of Bye, Bye Birdie on VHS to my most recent viewing of Urinetown at Coeurage Theatre Company last week, I’m a Musical Theatre Person. I grew up in Reno, Nevada, where culture was tight, so my mom and I paid visits to rival high schools to see their shows; made the same trek the Donner Party made over the Sierra Nevadas (only for us, it was on an interstate and in a car) to see community theatre, summer stock, and national tours in California; flew to Seattle to see an out-of-town preview of a new Broadway show. Mom first took me to New York when I was ten, and this Nevada girl got hooked on gambling at ticket lotteries and the discount TKTS booth.
When I see a musical, my life flashes before my eyes. Or, if that sounds like musicals are near-death experiences, I’ll re-word to say: musicals remind me of where and who I’ve been. Maybe this is how baseball fans feel about all the games they’ve ever watched — some are memorable on their own, all are significant for their relation to the rest. They accumulate and give you something to measure yourself by. Maybe this is the way you could write about all the Beatles records your parents always played, or all the special edition sneakers you’ve ever collected. It’s impossible to untangle them from each other, or to dislodge them from the backdrop of your life.
I’ve seen Urinetown— a show about a dystopian world where people pay to pee and eventually rise up against corporate greed and oppression — four times (and it’s not even my favorite). My mom saw it before I ever did, at Truckee Meadows Community College, and came home to tell me about it. She raved about Little Sally, the blunt-talking girl who breaks the fourth wall and critiques the musical as she goes, but who also folds back into the story to sing a poignant second-act ballad. Mom introduced me to Little Sally because she knew that I, as a young-looking actor hopeful, always had my eye on roles for little girls. My freshman year of high school, I landed one: Amaryllis in The Music Man. From the seclusion of my piano bench, I’d gawk at Marian the Librarian and Harold Hill, feeling infantile and small in comparison. They were only a senior and a sophomore respectively, but to me, they were full-blown adults who knew everything about acting, singing, and probably sex. Who cares if you have a crush on older-man charm-machine Harold Hill if you’re a freshman baby Amaryllis with weird bangs? I locked that crush up until two years later, when I was a junior and he was a senior, and Marian the Librarian was graduated and gone, and the two of us were cast as the romantic leads in Our Town. That’s when Harold Hill became George Gibbs, who became the boyfriend who’d eventually dump me at a chain bookstore. (Our Town isn’t a musical, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t seen it produced as one. Be glad you haven’t.) Little Sally, Amaryllis, Cosette — all these girls remind me of a former me, one who felt childlike for so long, like an awkward vessel for adult feelings like love and lust and sorrow. Last week at Coeurage, I looked at Little Sally like I might look at an old friend from summer camp, wondering if she’s grown up like I have, wondering if she still knows all the songs.
The first time I heard the song “Run, Freedom, Run!” from Urinetown was on YouTube. It was a clip from the 2002 Tony Awards when Urinetown won Best Book and Best Score — a gospel/revival number that — how else to say it — makes me happy. Growing up, I watched the Tony Awards like people watch NASA launches: hungry for a glimpse at something huge happening far away, desperate for knowledge. When YouTube emerged, I shook that tree exclusively for Tony broadcast fruit (and also to watch this one Gap commercial where multicultural models sang “Love Train” in colorful scarves). My family kept our computer in the kitchen — my dad hated that we owned one, I think he still does — so I’d steal moments with my spaniel, Hubbell, at my side, watching grainy videos of Broadway actors and University of Michigan theatre students, clicking back and forth to see if Object of My Affection was logged onto AOL Instant Messenger. The internet was how a teenager grasped for everything, and everyone, that felt out of her reach.
I watched the Coeurage rendition of “Run, Freedom, Run!” with the same anticipation I used to feel driving up to my childhood home after being away at college: hoping all the parts were still there. There’s this part where Bobby Strong, the naive, courageous leading man acts like a choir conductor and directs the cast in three-part harmony. There’s a part where he becomes half-Evangelical preacher, half-Elvis and “saves” his townspeople with the palm of his hand. There’s a part where another character challenges his figurative language with a pointed, “Literally?” and Bobby says, “Yessss.” I also looked for “Run, Freedom, Run!” on YouTube this week. All the parts are still there, too.
The first time I actually saw Urinetown live was at NYU when my mom and I were touring colleges. The next day, we bought the soundtrack and played it in our rental car. I listened to it, and others, as I took in the strange landscape of my maybe-future. I wrote my college essay about the song “What I Did for Love” from A Chorus Line, having listened to it on an old boxy iPod on that same college trip. Musicals remind me of other musicals, you see, and sometimes it’s like they know: Coeurage’s Urinetown contained two homages to A Chorus Line: one number closed with the actors all in a line, holding their headshots over their faces; one song incorporated a kickline and gold glitter top hats.
I was too homesick to go to school back east after all, so I toured California schools next, playing the Spring Awakening soundtrack in a second rental car. I remember pressing my forehead to the window and sensing unspeakable change on my little personal horizon, squeezing the music for feelings to echo my own (definition: drama queen). My freshman year at USC, I helped produce an underground version of Spring Awakening that we called Awake to Spring because the rights were years away from becoming available. We smuggled the score from an anonymous source, and — like any youth in revolt — I fell for my co-conspirator/producer and his Broadway-caliber tenor voice (we broke up amicably, he’s on Broadway now, he once showed me backstage). He made me feel talented, confident, like I belonged in that world (even though I’d eventually make peace with my barely-chorus-quality voice). Two years later, I auditioned for Urinetown with that same spirit, feeling that Little Sally was my destiny. When I didn’t get a callback, I wept on my roommate’s bed (her bed was bigger than mine, she wasn’t home). Watching Coeurage’s Urinetown, I tried to recall what it felt like to agonize over a college musical and wondered if I could feel that way again now about something so innocent. Looking back, it feels safe to have been sad about something so small. I wonder if sadness grows bigger with age, if it expands to fill whatever space it occupies.
I once saw Urinetown in an outdoor theatre in Carson City, Nevada, thirty minutes from my home. My mom and I sought it out, per our ritual (we always arrive late, we always have to pee the whole first act, we always get dessert after). At the end of the show, Hope Cladwell — perky leading lady with a heart-of-gold — sings “I See a River” with a voice low and heartfelt. It’s a song about water in a drought, about boosting morale amongst a downtrodden people. The moment she began singing about water, it began to rain in real life. You could see the actors inflate with the sense of something bigger happening just outside their control.
I saw the same look in the Coeurage actors during “I See a River”; at least, I’m pretty sure I did. This was two days after Donald Trump was elected President, and all night, I’d watched the show that usually strikes me as light satire with the sense that maybe there was a more serious joke being told. I’d heard the word “forgotten” a hundred times in the conversation around the election: they say Trump’s supporters were people who felt forgotten by their government; they say his dissenters are people who feel forgotten by a white electorate. Two days after November 8th, 2016, there was something else buzzing underneath the witty musical about a forgotten community in revolt, and I felt that same sensation I felt when it rained all those years ago: like witnessing the real world spin in sync with a fake one for just a moment, a hushed cosmic jinx.
I wonder who will be president the next time I see Urinetown. I wonder if my heart will be broken, and whom by. I wonder where, and who, I’ll be.
NOW PLAYING: URINETOWN, Coeurage Theatre Company, through December 3.
An earnest tale of love, greed, and revolution, Urinetown tells the story of an urban city plagued by a 20-year drought, where water has become so scarce that private toilets have become unthinkable. Through the determination of destitute masses and the relentless power of the musical theatre, a hero rises to lead his fellow citizens in rebellion against the tyrannical corporation holding a monopoly over the town’s most private and basic of needs.