Canyon View High School flushes production of ‘Urinetown’

Canyon View High School, Cedar City, Utah, Sept. 18, 2020 | Photo by Jeff Richards, St. George News / Cedar City News

CEDAR CITY — Although Canyon View High School has had the flush handle pushed on its planned production of “Urinetown: The Musical,” school officials say they are committed to moving forward with staging a different play.

Canyon View High School principal Denny Heaton said he read the script and approved “Urinetown” when it was first proposed by the theater department earlier this spring. Dozens of students in the prospective cast and crew, along with their parents, had met as a group with school staff and were on board with producing the play, he said.

“They were bought in. They understood it. They were excited,” Heaton told Cedar City News. “However, due to other circumstances beyond our control, the landscape was changing quickly.”

At some point in early to mid-September, Heaton said an unspecified number of complaints about the play were sent to Iron County School District officials.

Heaton said he doesn’t believe the complaints came from anyone whose child was involved in the production, or even from within the broader Canyon View High community.

“I’m not exactly sure who they were, and I don’t need to know,” he said. “I just needed to know … the kind of blowback and the kind of problems it was pretty sure to generate. Our kids have been under enough stress, and we don’t need to add to that.”

“I think probably a lot of it is misunderstanding and people generating some conflict and creating negative energy that I think will end up getting all over the kids,” Heaton added. “And I just, I can’t have that.”

“Urinetown,” a Tony-winning satirical comedy that debuted on Broadway in 2001, may not be as well-known or widely performed as some of the more popular musicals typically seen on high school stages across the United States, although it has been staged with some regularity.

Heaton provided a brief explanation for the reason behind the play’s somewhat off-putting title.

“The author went to Europe and found as a student that you had to pay to use public restrooms,” he said. “He couldn’t afford it, and that caused him to write some protests. It doesn’t necessarily take one side or the other, but it points out some of the problems with power structures both in uprisings and in total power.”

“I think that’s all well and good, but in the current environment, with stuff going on now that wasn’t going on six months ago, it has the potential to cause problems. That would just really ruin the whole reason we do plays.”

“There’s plenty of negative stuff out there right now, a lot of things that we’re all stressing over, and this doesn’t need to be one of them,” Heaton added. “The very unfortunate reality is that no matter what we do as adults, it does get on the kids, and we need to be sensitive to that.” 

Iron County School District Superintendent Shannon Dulaney said she sees the controversy as an issue of timing.

“’Urinetown’ is a social and political satire,” Dulaney said in a written statement to Cedar City News. “While some people expressed concerns about the overall content, it was apparent that the biggest concern was ‘timing.’ Is it the right time for us and our community? We put that question to the students and their teachers and they decided to postpone the performance to a later date.”

Heaton said even though changing plays will cost the school money, he believes it is the right decision.

“We’re far enough out that we can switch the play and keep the emphasis on a positive experience for our kids and our school community,” he said.

As for the replacement play, Canyon View High School theater teacher Holly Barrick said the school has recently secured the rights to perform “Mamma Mia!”

Instead of taking place in November as originally planned, the CVHS performance dates have tentatively been pushed back to Jan. 13-19.

“The students and I are trying to adopt this new show into our hearts, and so far it’s working,” Barrick said in an email to Cedar City News. Though she said the process of switching plays hasn’t been easy.

Barrick said while almost every cast member has stayed on for the new play, recasting the roles was tricky.

“We double-casted the leads so that we could try and maintain leads for students who had them before,” she said. “’Urinetown’ had so many great cameo parts, though, that we fell short. It was hard to take away speaking and singing solos from students who were already memorized.”

Casting a show is hard enough, then taking away a part is heart-wrenching,” she added. 

She said ultimately auditions were skipped and recast parts were simply assigned in order to save time. In most cases, she said, lead roles and solos went to students who’d landed comparable parts in the first play.

Barrick said switching shows will likely end up costing the school just under $4,000, but added it could have been worse.

“We are still waiting for reimbursement from vendors but believe the monetary cost of halting this show will be less than originally believed,” she said.

Additionally, Barrick said the amount of lost time spent working on “Urinetown” is not insignificant, including at least 45 hours worth of rehearsals since early August. Barrick, who said she has personally been working on the show since April, said the cast included approximately 60 students and five adults, most of whom had spent several weeks memorizing lines and making other preparations.

Nevertheless, Barrick said there are a few silver linings to be found.

“There are a few new wonderful things that are being implemented for this show,” she said. 

The first, she said, is they were able to get more cast members outfitted with wearable wireless microphones, thanks to a technology grant from the school district.

“That is supremely important this year, as we don’t want to share microphones or elements between actors to reduce spreading germs,” she said. “The other, and most exciting part I feel, is that we are going to have a band on stage with us. Music director Alex Byers and I believe that we have implemented safe procedures so that we are able to have a few more performers who will be on stage on the side wing.”

Although “Mamma Mia!” also deals with some mature themes, it doesn’t seem as likely to generate complaints as “Urinetown” did. After all, Cedar High School successfully staged “Mamma Mia!” just last year, in February of 2019.

Heaton said while a number of theater students had a hard time with the decision to change plays, with many expressing frustration and disappointment, he hopes they will embrace the new play as readily as they did the first one and that the experience will ultimately be a positive one.

“They were invested in it,” he said. “They’re already on edge, most kids, with feelings of loss and all the things that they can’t have right now … our teacher described it as going through the stages of grief.”

“That’s why we wanted to be able to offer them a path forward, and I think our kids will be great. They’re resilient.”

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2020, all rights reserved.

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