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  Written by
  Cathy Shufro

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  Adam Nadel, AB'90

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  FEATURES
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Business of reflection

To hear a song sample, from Urinetown, click here. This CD is, available on Amazon.com.



 


Off-key Smash
>>
What 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 grads.


Greg 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.

IMAGE:  Mark Hollmann (left) and Greg Kotis share a perch in the church where their show got its start.
Mark Hollmann (left) and Greg Kotis share a perch in the church where their show got its start.

"What 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."

Hollmann 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."

Little 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.

A 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.

New 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 is hilarious?"

Kotis 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."

Then 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.

For 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.

That 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.

When 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."

Intense 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.

Hollmann 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.

Working 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.

"Mark 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."

Kotis 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," says Hollmann.

IMAGE:  Even the signage for Urinetown sports an ad hoc air.
Even the signage for Urinetown sports an ad hoc air.

While 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.

Then 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 hit.

The 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.

Their 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."

Kotis, 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.

Success 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.

There's 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.

Officer Lockstock: You're too young to understand it now, but nothing can kill a show like too much exposition.

Llittle Sally: How about bad subject matter? Or a bad title, even. That could kill a show pretty good.

As it turned out, the joke is on Kotis and Hollmann: Urinetown is alive and well.




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