The stylish Philippe Starck lobby of midtown’s swank Paramount hotel is not exactly the place you expect to interview Greg Kotis and Mark Hollman—the composers of Urinetown! The Musical. But then, any number of amusing juxtapositions have visited these Chicago-nurtured artists and their improbable show in the last couple years. There’s the fact that the play, which first bowed at the scrappy New York International Fringe Festival, is now being coproduced by the Broadway heavies Dodger Theatricals. And that the cast of this eccentric musical—about a drought-ridden city where folks must pony up to an Orwellian corporation for the privilege of relieving themselves—is headed by two-time Tony winner John Cullum, a man seen acting at Lincoln Center only last fall.
“This show has had really good luck,” admits Kotis, uttering one of the season’s choicer understatements. Fortune’s hand first intervened at the 1999 Fringe. The festival was a last resort for the duo, who, rejected by dozens of theaters across the country, had all but given up hope of finding a forum for their pee-culiar venture. Desperate, Kotis approached Fringe artistic director John Clancy.
“He was very courteous,” Kotis remembers. “I was pitching the show. I think he was busy painting his theater. Usually, when we pitch the show to people, a glaze comes over their face. John was mostly interested in getting a nice, even coat of paint, but he didn’t tell me to go away.”
With a 15-person cast and Hollman himself at the piano, the two men threw themselves into the Fringe outing, resigned that the engagement would mark the end of Urinetown! But houses were packed from the first. Playwright David Auburn (Proof)—a friend of Hollman and Kotis from their University of Chicago days—squeezed into one of the shows and, during intermission, phoned the producing outfit the Araca Group. Araca optioned the work, and a reading directed by John Rando convinced the Dodgers to get involved. Urinetown!‘s new cast boasts an assortment of uptown pros: David Ives veteran Nancy Opel, onetime Disney “Beast” Jeff McCarthy, plus Jennifer Laura Thompson and two other survivors of Footloose (!). Cullum, a late arrival, plays Urine Good Co.’s evil chief, Caldwell B. Cladwell. As such, the man who first sang “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever” will now deliver the show’s anthem to heartless corporate Darwinism, “Don’t Be the Bunny.”
“I have done a lot of strange things,” laughs Cullum, who, with his wife, playwright Emily Frankel, participated in his share of theatrical “happenings” in the ’60s. Cullum says he took some time deciding about his current credit but, after a lot of “fussing and fuming,” finally resolved: “I had to go with Urinetown! I can’t think of anywhere I’d rather be than where I am right now.”
All along the way, Hollman and Kotis have been repeatedly forced to defend their seemingly unmarketable vision. They even doubted themselves at times. “The running feeling between us,” says Kotis, “was, ‘Are we really going to do this? Isn’t it a patently bad idea?’ ” But they pressed on, coping with the criticisms by incorporating them into the self-deprecating and self-referential text:
Officer Lockstock: You’re too young to understand it right now, Little Sally, but nothing can kill a show like too much exposition.
Little Sally: How about bad subject matter? Or a bad title? That could kill a show pretty good.
Despite its overtly satiric edge, Hollman never saw Urinetown! as simply a musical-comedy spoof. “I’m a big admirer of The Threepenny Opera and The Cradle Will Rock,” he explains. “When Greg came to me with this idea, I thought, this is the politically, socially charged musical that I’ve always wanted to write. I approached it as any normal theater-writing assignment. The characters were to be taken entirely seriously.”
As for the original inspiration for the show, Kotis was only following the old writers’ dictum: “Write what you know.” Following a mid-’90s theater gig in Europe, Kotis decided to bum around Paris for a couple weeks before going home, but quickly ran out of money. To save a few francs, he found himself reducing his visits to French pay toilets. Now it can be said: Urinetown!—the latest work of art born of Americans’ ongoing fascination with the City of Light.
Urinetown! is in previews at the American Theatre of Actors, 314 West 54th Street.