Photo by Ted Soqui
New Yorkers Mark Hollmann and Greg Kotis were L.A. Renaissance Men the other week, having checked into Hollywood’s Renaissance Hotel to promote the national tour of Urinetown, their Tony Award–winning musical. Kotis, who describes himself as the pessimist of the two writing partners, found Los Angeles “unnervingly sunny and beautiful.” Urinetown’s plot, set in a drought-stricken near future, concerns a big city whose citizens must pay an avaricious utility company through the nose for the right to relieve themselves. If, from a Freudian standpoint, most drama concerns characters set on edge by their inability to consummate sexual relations, Urinetown hearkens to even more primal urges. Fittingly, the two excused themselves before our interview began to go to the bathroom.
While Urinetown is a WPA mural of ironic protest, its lyric and melodic references are all over the place — think Kurt Weill’s Weimar cabaret score for The Threepenny Opera, think Marc Blitzstein’s The Cradle Will Rock set in Grovers Corners, think the San Francisco Mime Troupe in its early-1970s heyday.
The show’s oft-told inspiration is worth repeating. During the mid-1990s, book writer Kotis spent a few weeks in Paris brooding over whether or not to propose to his girlfriend. Within days, Kotis’ problem receded into the background as his $300 savings evaporated and he found himself spending much of his waking time figuring out where to go to the bathroom — by then the 70-cent pay-toilet fees were prohibitive to him. What kind of world would it be, he wondered, if everyone had to share this daily dilemma?
Eventually he hooked up with Hollmann, a fellow ex–University of Chicago student, and the two set to work. On Sundays, Kotis, a location scout for Law and Order, would meet Hollmann, a word-processing drone at Paine Webber, at the Lutheran church where Hollmann also moonlighted as an organist.
“A lot of it was haphazard,” Hollmann recalls. “Greg was skeptical of musicals, I was a big fan of them. I approached the score by trying to use the best possible song style to dramatize the scene in question. We walked the tightrope of paying homage and also of poking fun.”
Early readings did not go well, though, with the pair receiving strained response from friends.
“Maybe there was a reason why Mark played church organ,” recalls Kotis, “and I was a location scout.”
Urinetown, nevertheless, was embraced by the New York Fringe Festival, which premiered it in 1999. The pair’s thorniest question then became whether or not to change the title. At the last minute, Hollmann and Kotis asked NYFF artistic director John Clancy if it was too late to switch to something less jaundiced.
According to Kotis, “John got very serious and said, ‘We’re getting more inquiries about your show than any other fringe-festival show based on the title alone.’”
Still, the show’s title has closed some doors, according to Hollmann.
“Sometimes musicals are lucky enough to get placements on TV shows like the Today show,” he says, “maybe getting a song played. But we heard that Katie Couric did not want to say the word Urinetown on the air. We’d also heard that the producers had wanted to name their limited-liability corporation ‘Urinetown LLC,’ but that the state of New York would not permit them to.”
“And we’ve also heard secondhand things from the producers,” Kotis adds, “like we couldn’t have a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade float. Aren’t you supposed to get a float if you’re a musical on Broadway?”
Urinetown became a snowballing hit when, after the Fringe Festival, it moved to a ratty theater space that was both above a courthouse and next to an NYPD precinct. By the summer of 2001 it was poised for Broadway. The show, with its 15-member ensemble, enjoyed some good luck when it moved to the rundown Henry Miller Theater. Since the Miller had been known primarily as a playhouse and not a musical venue, Urinetown was not required by New York’s theater unions to expand its five-member orchestra. Kotis confidently quit his day job, though the more cautious Hollmann waited another year. Opening night was scheduled for September 13 — two nights after two airliners would fly into the World Trade Center towers.
Immediately after 9/11, “Some cast members came up to us and said, ‘Please don’t make us go onstage and do this show,’” Kotis remembers.
Some shows at the time, like Neil LaBute’s The Shape of Things, were fatally punctured by the downbeat mood of New York’s theater critics and the public itself. Urinetown, however, proved to be just the tonic the city was looking for in its hour of grief.
Today Kotis and Hollmann are working on the score of a musical version of the Alec Guinness/Ealing comedy, The Man in the White Suit, whose book will be written by Austin Pendleton and which will be directed and choreographed by Ann Reinking. In this social satire, as with Urinetown, Kotis and Hollmann will not be looking to pass out morals.
“Musicals, films and mass-market entertainment always insist on wearing this fig leaf of a message,” Kotis says. “I think comedy comes out of a decision to embrace the answerlessness of it all — that the world’s going on beyond our control, art’s not going to save us, musicals aren’t going to save us. We’re not going to be saved.”
URINETOWN | By GREG KOTIS (book, lyrics, co-writer) and MARK HOLLMANN (music, lyrics, co-writer) | At the WILSHIRE THEATER, 8440 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills | May 11–23 | (213) 365-3500