Urinetown: The Musical about the Privileges of Peeing. A conversation with composer Mark Hollmann

Adapted from an interview with Robert Wilder Blue for usOperaweb.com

On the eve of its opening at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco (where it would begin its successful national tour), Robert Wilder Blue spoke with Mr. Hollmann about his life before URINETOWN, THE MUSICAL. “I was born in Belleville, Illinois,” he confessed, “which is in southern Illinois near St. Louis, Missouri. I went to public grade school in Fairview Heights and high school in Belleville. Both my parents were school teachers. My father also plays the guitar and sings. He writes parodies of songs for various environmental and other political issues he is involved with in Illinois. He is into legalizing hemp-not marijuana, but the plant hemp. He gets on the local TV stations as a activist. I must have inherited whatever sense of humor he has that gets him to do that.

“I think music was the thing I did the most when I was growing up. I have two younger sisters and when we got a piano in the house, everyone started playing it, although I am the only one who remained with it. I was in the school and church choirs and in every band I could get into in public schools. I played the trombone in the marching band, concert band and stage band, which was like a small swing band.

“I went to the University of Chicago with the idea that I would get a law degree and go into politics. But I ended up switching to music as a major midway through my years there. The great thing about the University of Chicago, which is a difficult school, is that it forced me to figure out what I wanted to do in my life because I couldn’t just breeze through any course of study there. I realized that music was the constant in my life, and that’s when I got interested in composing and writing musicals.”

Can writing a good melody be taught and learned or is it an innate talent?

“I think it can be taught. But having lots of good music around you is definitely important too. The music that plays in your head as you’re walking around in your daily life is of great influence. I think that singing in church was a great influence on me, too. Hymns are filled with good melodies. I was a church organist for six years and that was interesting because I felt I was getting back to something that was very basic in my musical education.”

What were your first musical influences?

“In high school, the band director somehow thought I would be interested in opera and he lent me some opera albums and a Kurt Weill album. The Weill album opened my eyes to Three Penny Opera and that caught my imagination immediately. The opera wasn’t as interesting to me, but I did end up listening to a lot of Verdi because the melody is so dramatic with him. I think that had a big influence on me, although I didn’t go on to become an opera lover. I see an opera about once a year, so I don’t consider that being a real aficionado. But Weill made me start looking into musical theater and how it could be political.

“I don’t listen to a lot of pop music. I feel that it’s not the greatest influence on people who are trying to learn the craft or art of composing. Because I was kind of a nerdy kid growing up, I was more interested in Gershwin and big band music than the Top Forty. And I listened to operas, Carmen and Otello and others. There’s another side of this too, which is that I grew up watching MGM musicals on TV. I remember seeing Singing in the Rain when I was thirteen or fourteen and I thought that was terrific.”

Did you express an interest in musical theater while at the University of Chicago?

“I didn’t even go that far. I thought that I would be an outcast if I mentioned it so I didn’t even bring it up. But that is typical of my personality. I just assumed that no one would be encouraging about it so I didn’t assert myself. Plus, it was beside the point then. There was so much to learn in the fundamentals of harmony, orchestration, counterpoint and other theory.

“One nice thing that happened when I graduated from University of Chicago was that I won a small cash award as a result of my acting roles in the college theater. It enabled me to not get a job for six months and so beginning in November 1985, I started writing my first musical. The musical ended up taking a year-and-a-half and I took a job as a file clerk in a medical clinic to support myself, but it ended up getting a production at the student theater at the University of Chicago in the spring of 1987. It was called KABOOOOOM! I wrote it with a playwright, Mary DeSalle Kevern, who kindly adapted her two-act comedy into a musical-comedy book. Without knowing anything about musicals really, except what I had seen of them through movies and a few amateur productions, we got it on stage. It was not very good, but it was an important first step for me. A musician friend who listened to the first draft commented that I must love Rodgers and Hammerstein. I didn’t really think that I did, but I suppose it’s true. We sang medleys of Rodgers and Hammerstein scores in high school choir and played transcriptions in band, so I guess that was the influence. Another influence that occurs to me, especially with KABOOOOOM!, is the musical Lil’ Abner. Its composer, Gene DePaul, also wrote the score to Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, which I think is a great sort of country/western score with not an unhummable tune in it.

“Going forward, my next show was COMPLAINING WELL, based on an ancient Greek comedy, The Dyskolos (The Grouch), by Menander. At that time I was listening to Stephen Sondheim and was very much influenced by A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. So I was writing in more staccato rhythms and I was definitely aping Sondheim as a lyricist in those days because I was trying very hard to be clever, especially with the comedy lyrics I was writing. But I was coming under the influence of William Russo at that time and he recommended against listening to Sondheim. I don’t remember if he told me the reasoning behind his advice, but now I understand. I really respect Sondheim in all ways. He is without parallel among contemporary musical theater writers. However, I think Bill was telling me that Sondheim was not the one to follow as a melodist, even though he has come up with some great melodies. I took the advice and started paying more attention to strict melody. I had this thing that I jokingly called “pianoitis.” It was the instrument I grew up with and I think as a composer I was very influenced by the piano. That comes with a trap of playing full chords with both hands and having all this sound come out that has nothing to do with melody; it’s all harmony. Part of what Bill Russo did was to break me of that and to get me back to a single melodic line. That was a revelation for me because I realized that everything comes from that melody line; it’s the bones of everything you do as a musical theater composer, so you have to get good at that first.

“The next score I wrote was JACK THE CHIPPER, a murder-mystery musical that was written with a playwright named Nancy Crist, who co-wrote the lyrics with me. There, maybe, I was getting away from Rodgers and Hammerstein, and Sondheim, and I was trying to write a decent musical comedy score. It was actually kind of a mish-mash and it got bad reviews and the production lost all of its investment. That was the story of my life, though, leading up to URINETOWN. If they got produced, it was on an amateur scale.

“To put it together though, by the time I started working with Greg on URINETOWN, I had started working as a church organist and we were meeting in my church after our Sunday services to work on the piece, so I think the church influence was making itself heard in URINETOWN. There’s a hymn at the end of it, “I See a River,” and there’s a gospel number earlier in the second act, which is nothing like the Lutheran church music I was playing, but it was in the ballpark. URINETOWN was the first time I was able to fully bring my choral-writing skills to bear on a score. The grandness of the story in URINETOWN called for ensemble numbers in four-part harmony. When I hear the score now, I think those choral sections provide some of the more thrilling moments. And the subject matter that Greg had come up with definitely brought to mind Weill and The Three Penny Opera and Marc Blitzstein’s The Cradle Will Rock.

“Greg and I first collaborated in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when we were both coming of age artistically in our twenties as ensemble members of the Cardiff Giant Theater Company, a now-defunct improvisational theater troupe in Chicago… I think the improv is a vital part of what helped us write URINETOWN.

Your musical influences and experiences are a uniquely American combination: opera, jazz, hymns, Hollywood and Broadway musicals.

“I think there are a lot of things from my background that came together in writing URINETOWN. When I was in Chicago I ended up being sort of a jack-of-all-trades and around the time I turned 30 that was starting to worry me. I was good at a lot of different things and I was not making much of living from any of them. Music jobs were the best I could do and I was paying rent from them. But when I moved to New York, I wanted to get away from being an actor and an improv group member and even a piano player. New York offered me the chance to reinvent myself as a musical theater composer and lyricist.”

Is being entertaining important to you?

“It is paramount. I think that is at the top of my list. Holding an audience is totally necessary. I get that in part from my background as an actor. I have spent enough time on stage to know when an audience is with me and when they’re not and I have always been worried about that in writing music for the theater. I’m always concerned about what is happening in the moment and whether it has the full attention of the audience and whether it is compelling and is moving the story forward. There has never been a reason for me to look down my nose at being entertaining. I guess I’ve always worried about not being entertaining. But that goes back to melody-writing also and the importance of writing tunes that people can remember. I strive to develop the melodies so that there is economy in the material and unity in the whole score.

“I have always believed in being able to remember the score you’ve just heard in the theater. That is an important benchmark for me and that is what I have aspired to. It is an important way of entertaining. On the other hand, you can’t worry too much about the audience. One thing Greg is fond of saying about URINETOWN is that we didn’t expect anybody to see it. We went through a round of getting thoroughly rejected by producers and agents in 1998 and 1999. Of course, we had hope that someone would find value in it, but our background was as self-producers. We were on the outside in Chicago, in that we had no connections to commercial producers or the large, institutional theaters, so we produced our own shows in storefront theaters. Based on that underground-theater background, we didn’t care so much about pleasing a wide segment of a theater audience. But when it comes down to writing a song that is supposed to work in the theater, I think very much about that. Maybe the distinction is that the story we were telling in URINETOWN didn’t seem very commercial and we didn’t really care about that. At the time I certainly never thought we would sell it to a commercial producer. I assumed we would have to find a nice not-for-profit theater that would be willing to take this strange project under its wing. The irony of it was that commercial producers discovered and optioned and produced it.”