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The Writing of Urinetown

(source: the Magazines of the University of Chicago and the American Conservatory Theatre)

Greg Kotis and Mark Hollmann, both 1985 graduates of the University of Chicago 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.

“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, THE MUSICAL 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. Soon the fringe show that delighted off-off-Broadway audiences moved to Broadway and URINETOWN, THE MUSICAL became a Broadway hit.

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.

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. 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.

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.”

Hollmann decides to write a score that would range from sweet to rousing to menacing while Hollmann’s music pays homage to the musical’s potential to transport its audience, URINETOWN, THE MUSICAL‘s lyrics and plot puncture those expectations.

Hollmann remembers, “As composer and lyricist for our brand-new collaboration, I had two immediate tasks: to start setting a tone or style for the music of the score and to find the places in Greg’s script that could be turned into songs. Although Greg eventually joined me in writing lyrics, I always felt that spotting songs was mainly my job. At this point, in the late spring of 1996, not much of a script existed, and Greg would not complete a full first draft until late 1997. From the first few pages he gave me, however, I was able to get a handle on a style and could easily spot a terrific song opportunity.

“It came in a scene early in Act I, wherein we meet Penelope Pennywise, a hard-bitten matron of the filthiest urinal in town. In this moment she is reading the riot act to the downtrodden customers of her Public Amenity #9. It reminded me of a song from The Three Penny Opera, the 1928 musical theater masterpiece by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill. The song is “The Morning Hymn of Peachum,” Mr. Peachum’s wake-up call to his company of beggars. Brecht’s opening lyrics for Peachum, which translate as “Wake up, you rotting Christians,” and which Weill set with a craftily repetitive melody and droning accompaniment, convey to me a man long convinced that the world is a fraud and wearily resigned to his place in it.

“Like Ms. Pennywise, Peachum is delivering the message that all is not right in the world, and as he does, we understand that he would rather deliver this message than hear it himself. I made Pennywise’s “It’s a Privilege to Pee” faster and more martial than Peachum’s “Morning Hymn,” but the stark, unapologetically dim worldview of Peachum helped me believe that Penny’s song was possible. In both cases, it is the singer’s righteous duty to tell the truth as they see it, and to lay down the law, hard.

“When I finished a first draft of the music and lyrics of “It’s a Privilege to Pee,” I called Greg and invited him to hear it. We met at Christ Lutheran Church on East Nineteenth Street in Manhattan, where I served as organist. Sitting at the piano in the sanctuary, amid stained-glass windows depicting scenes from the Bible and tile mosaics portraying the saints, I played and sang Penny’s rant, which got Greg laughing in appreciation. Laughter would become a barometer for us: if I laughed spontaneously at Greg’s writing or he at mine, whatever got us laughing would usually stay in the show. That evening, I could tell from Greg’s laughter that this song clicked with his vision for URINETOWN and that we were on to something.”

Working together on the show Sunday afternoons in 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 or 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.”

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. 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.

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Opening night was slated for September 13.The biggest break came when the playwright David Auburn saw the show there. Auburn, 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.

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, THE MUSICAL 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.”

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, THE MUSICAL‘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.
Little 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, THE MUSICAL is alive and well.