2002: Features (print version)
do Man of La Mancha, A Little Night Music, Ragtime, and Urinetown
have in common? All won Tonys for best musical score. The one with the
most unlikely title is - you guessed it - the one composed by Chicago
Photography by Adam Nadel, AB'90
Kotis, AB'88, and Mark Hollmann, AB'85, didn't worry much about their
show's crowd-pleasing potential when they wrote Urinetown The Musical.
Instead, they wrote a story in which the downtrodden do not triumph,
the handsome hero is thrown from a rooftop, and much of the action takes
place outside a public toilet.
you have to understand," says Kotis, "is that we didn't expect
anyone to see it. We had total freedom to write exactly what we wanted,
because we fully expected to be performing to audiences of two or three."
and Kotis-veterans of Chicago's improv and experimental theater scene-even
poke fun at their low expectations in the Urinetown script, when
a wise waif named Little Sally tells the cop-narrator Officer Lockstock:
"I don't think too many people are going to come see this musical."
Sally's prediction proved wrong. Urinetown is a Broadway hit,
often filling the house at the Henry Miller Theatre a half block from
Times Square. Audiences of two or three? Make that millions watching
excerpts of Urinetown televised during the Tony Awards ceremony
June 2 on PBS. On that night Kotis and Hollmann shared the Tony for
best score of a musical, Kotis received the Tony for best book (that
is, script), and director John Rando won the Tony for best direction
of a musical.
touring company will take Urinetown on the road next summer,
starting in San Francisco and visiting Los Angeles, Denver, Boston,
and other cities not yet confirmed. A production opened this summer
in Seoul, South Korea, and others are planned for London next spring
and for Tokyo in summer 2004.
York Times critic Bruce Weber called the show "a sensational
piece of performance art, one that acknowledges theater tradition and
pushes it forward as well
. Simply the most gripping and galvanizing
theater experience in town.
And did I mention that Urinetown
conceived the heart of the story on a drizzly afternoon in Paris in
1995, when the 29-year-old struggling actor found himself short of cash
at the end of a solo backpacking trip. That day, he was wandering near
the Luxembourg Gardens, ruminating about the story of Hemingway trapping
pigeons in the park for food. "Off in the distance, shrouded in
the mist, I saw one of these pay toilets. I had been thinking very seriously
of going to the bathroom."
again, Kotis thought, maybe he could hold off and save the 2 1/2 francs
for dinner. As he considered his choice, he got the idea for a musical
in which private toilets are banned, and rich and poor alike must pay
to answer nature's call. Kotis "saw the show in a flash. I knew
it had to be a musical. I knew it had to be dark and ridiculous and
absurd." The title came in a similar flash.
a decade, Kotis had been turning story ideas into theater, first for
the University's comedy group Off Off Campus, while studying political
science; next as a member of Chicago's storefront improvisational group,
Cardiff Giant Theater Company, where he met Hollmann; and then as a
founder of the Neo-Futurists-a collective that creates interactive,
"non-illusory theater"-where he met his wife, Ayun Halliday,
as well as Spencer Kayden, who plays Little Sally in Urinetown.
rainy afternoon in Paris, Kotis was weeks away from leaving Chicago
to start a New York branch of the Neo-Futurists company, and he immediately
thought of Hollmann as a collaborator. He'd teamed up with Hollmann
before on six shows with the Cardiff Giant ensemble, beginning when
Kotis was a fourth-year and Hollmann was two years out of college. Hollmann
not only knew acting, having won the College's Louis Sudler Prize in
the arts at graduation, but he was also trained in composition and orchestration.
Watching musicals as a regular at Doc Films had emboldened Hollmann
to switch his major from political science to music, and he staged his
first musical, Kabooooom!, at Black Friars. After college, he
played trombone in a rock band Maestro Subgum and the Whole and piano
for Second City's touring company, and in 1993 he moved to New York
to work as a composer, lyricist, and word processor.
he and Kotis tackled the Urinetown project in earnest in 1997,
they created a drought-stricken city. To conserve water (and generate
cash flow), an evil tycoon aided by corrupt politicians controls "public
amenities." It costs money to pee, and it's even more costly not
to pay. Anyone peeing en plein air is "disappeared"
to the mysterious Urinetown. Although the musical incorporates stock
plot elements (good vs. evil, star-crossed lovers), Kotis and Hollmann
don't allow the audience to lose itself in the fantasy: the characters
repeatedly mention that they're staging a show. When Little Sally suggests
to Officer Lockstock that a musical about a drought should touch on
hydraulics, Lockstock replies, "Sometimes-in a musical-it's better
to focus on one big thing rather than a lot of little things. The audience
tends to be much happier that way. And it's easier to write." The
aim of this self-referential style, Kotis says, is to break down the
wall between audience and actors, to convey that "we know that
you know that we know that you know that this is a show."
and articulate, Kotis is both confident in his gifts and pessimistic
about the fate of the world. Hollmann's personality provides a counterpoint:
he is calm and understated, a craftsman with an old-fashioned willingness
to believe in happy endings. As they worked, the two played off each
others' strengths; Hollmann's affection for the conventions of musical
theater served as a foil for Kotis's mordant wit.
wrote a score that ranges from sweet to rousing to menacing, with allusions
to Kurt Weill's The Threepenny Opera and Marc Blitzstein's The
Cradle Will Rock. While Hollmann's music pays homage to the musical's
potential to transport its audience, Urinetown's lyrics and plot
puncture those expectations. For instance, in a scene between the doomed
hero and his new love, Hollmann and Kotis yoke a soaring melody with
the lyrics: "Someday I'll meet someone whose heart joins with mine/aortas
and arteries all intertwined." The scene ends as the hero offers
a farewell salute with his toilet brush.
together on the show Sunday afternoons in the Christ Lutheran Church
in Manhattan, where Hollmann was organist, the two men focused on constructing
the musical, not on how far it would go.
and I come from a tradition in which you come up with a show and you
do it," explains Kotis. "Doing it means getting your friends
together and renting a space, usually a black box, a storefront. You
send out press releases, you try to get listed, and you have a mailing
party. Hopefully you don't lose too much money. And you hope you get
a review and that someone says something nice about you, and you're
one step closer to making a living in theater full time."
and Hollmann were New Yorkers by then, but they created Urinetown
with a spirit owing more to the communal culture of Second City than
to the ethos of New York City-there, Kotis says "it's about talent
making its way on its own." Their years of improvisational theater
played a role as they bounced ideas off one another. "It really
did draw on our experiences up on our feet at Jimmy's Woodlawn Tap,"
working their day jobs (Kotis as a location scout for TV and films,
Hollmann still processing words), they finished the show, and early
in 1998 found singers to record a demo in the church. Compensation was
a copy of the tape. Because renting a storefront costs too much in New
York, Hollmann and Kotis sent inquiries to more than 100 agents, theaters,
and development organizations-enclosing the script, or the tape, or
a synopsis, sometimes just a pitch letter. No one bit.
one summer day in 1998 Kotis described the show to John Clancy, artistic
director of the New York International Fringe Festival. Captive atop
a ladder while painting a theater lobby ceiling, Clancy heard out Kotis's
spiel. What Kotis describes as the team's "incredible luck"
kicked in: Clancy liked the concept and encouraged them to apply to
the festival. The next spring, Hollmann and Kotis found a cadre of good
actors stuck in the city without summer stock jobs who agreed to do
12 performances at the festival for a flat fee of $50 apiece. More good
luck ensued. A Canadian troupe slated to do the festival's centerpiece
show was blocked by immigration at the border and had to cancel. Then,
of 150 shows at the Fringe, Urinetown snagged the theater most
convenient to the ticket booth. The musical was the festival's sold-out
biggest break came when the playwright David Auburn, AB'91, saw the
show there. Auburn, whom Kotis had auditioned for Off Off Campus a decade
earlier-and who in 2001 would win a Pulitzer Prize for his drama Proof-waited
only until intermission to phone a potential backer for Urinetown.
By winter that producer had joined with three other backers, but the
show was delayed for a year while they searched for a theater with the
same grungy feel of the former auto repair shop that had housed the
show at the Fringe. In spring 2001 Urinetown opened off Broadway
in a former courtroom. By then the producers had found John Rando to
direct and landed musical-theater warhorse, Tony winner, and TV actor
John Cullum to play the pay-toilet magnate. During its two-month run
the show created buzz and drew crowds, justifying a move to Broadway.
Opening night was slated for September 13.
luck seemed to have run out: after the World Trade Center attacks, New
York was not likely to embrace what Kotis calls "a doomsday musical."
Hollmann recalls, "It looked really bleak at that point, because
we weren't a show with a happy ending." But Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's
insistence that New York shows go on, and his handout of tickets to
public safety workers and people grounded after September 11, proved
effective. Urinetown opened September 20. "It was a wonderful
thing to be a part of," says Kotis. "To feel like you were
being rescued by your fellow citizens and also offering them a place
to come together."
father of two, has quit his day job and is living on royalties. Hollmann
still works at word processing, 10-6 daily, but he has left his post
as church organist and feels established enough to marry artist Jilly
Perlberger in October. He and Kotis are working on their next musical,
which takes place under water.
is bittersweet for Hollmann. "We can never go back to a storefront.
Part of that is sad. I think of all the people we've known, we've struggled
with. It's amazing to me that we've had a different magnitude of experience
than they have." He frets that winning a Tony will "make people
say 'yes' to me all the time," but he expects that his partnership
with Kotis will provide the antidote. "We still have each other
to differ with." Kotis views the very fact of Urinetown's
Broadway production as a gift. "We won the lottery," he says.
yet more proof in the script that the writers didn't expect success.
Early in the show, Officer Lockstock interrupts Little Sally's attempt
to explain the plot to the audience.
Lockstock: You're too young to understand it now, but nothing can kill
a show like too much exposition.
Sally: How about bad subject matter? Or a bad title, even. That could
kill a show pretty good.
it turned out, the joke is on Kotis and Hollmann: Urinetown is
alive and well.