Putting Urinetown on the Map | Our Town | Chicago Reader

Putting Urinetown on the Map 

How did these guys wind up prepping a show about pay toilets for a big Broadway premiere?

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In 1995, when Greg Kotis was returning from an appearance with the Neo-Futurists at a small theater festival in Romania, he decided to turn his layover in Paris into a two-week vacation. He had big plans but only $300, and after spending much of that on a round-trip ticket to London via the Chunnel, he found himself nearly flat broke in Paris with ten days to kill.

Unable to afford even a modest hotel room, Kotis started sleeping in parks and train stations. He washed when he could and rarely changed his clothes. "At one point I started having to choose between eating and using the pay public toilets. My memory is that the public toilets were 2.5 francs. I think that was like 70 cents, and for me, then, that was a big deal."

He became obsessed with his new problem, planning his day around when he might or might not have to go. "I would think things like, 'I won't go now. I'll go to the bathroom at five.' I was too timid to go in the bushes."

One day he was walking down the street. "It was raining. I was wet. I was miserable. I was trying to work it out: If I go now, I won't go again until midnight. But what if I have to go before that? How much money would that leave me? Then I stopped dead in my tracks and the title for a show came to me: Urinetown."

Excited, Kotis stood in the street thinking through what kind of show would have such a title. "[It would be] about a city with a huge corporation controlling all the means of going to the bathroom. This corporation is so flush it can pay off the cops and control the market. It would be very much like our Cardiff Giant shows: broad, big characters, big vaudevillian language."

Cardiff Giant was the Chicago theater company Kotis had belonged to since 1988. One of the company's founding members was his friend Mark Hollman, a composer and playwright who also played trombone in the cult cabaret band Maestro Subgum and the Whole. Cardiff Giant was poor but well regarded, known for its dark, original comedies: LBJFKKK, about a fascistic neighborhood watch program; Love Me, about a dysfunctional ad agency; and After Taste, about a fad food that killed people. All of the scripts were cowritten by Kotis, Hollman, and the other members of the company.

Now Kotis and Hollman, both living in New York, have won national attention for their latest dark comedy, Urinetown: The Musical. For the last three months Urinetown has been running off-off-Broadway, in a performance space carved out of a courtroom in a ratty former municipal building on the west side of Manhattan. On August 3 the show will move to Broadway--specifically to Henry Miller's Theater on 43rd, the space formerly occupied by a revival of Cabaret.

This wasn't how things were supposed to go.

Kotis began to sketch out the details of the show while he was still in Paris, figuring Urinetown would have its first, and maybe only, production at the Neo-Futurarium. Soon after returning home, Kotis and his fiancee, fellow Neo-Futurist Ayun Halliday (now his wife), decided to move to New York to put together an east-coast production of Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind.

Hollman had moved to New York as well, in 1993, leaving Cardiff Giant behind. (The company last produced a play in 1994.) "Greg showed me a rough outline of the show," Hollman says. He was interested enough in the idea to write a song, "A Privilege to Pee," which he played for Kotis. Kotis liked the song, but for a year and a half nothing happened. Kotis had his hands full working as a location scout, running the New York version of Too Much Light, and writing a play the Neo-Futurists would eventually produce in Chicago, Jobie and Katherine.

Hollman, too, was overbooked, working on a musical about the life of Josephine Baker and finishing a show called Jack the Chipper that he had started in Chicago, when he was a member of the New Tuners Workshop. He and his writing partner, Nancy Crist, were planning to produce the show themselves.

Kotis returned to Urinetown in the summer of 1997, while he was in Chicago with Halliday and their new baby, India, helping produce Jobie and Katherine. By then he had spoken to his Neo-Futurist buddies about Urinetown, and they liked the idea.

Encouraged, Kotis finished a draft of the play, and when he returned to New York he gave Hollman a copy of the finished script. A year later they had what Kotis calls "a workable" first draft and a tape with some songs Hollman had written, recorded in the church where Hollman played organ. Though the Neo-Futurists had expressed some interest in the show, Kotis and Hollman hoped it would also appeal to producers in other markets.

The two made dozens of copies of the script and the rough sound track and started stuffing envelopes. "We sent our script out to a long list of development companies, theater companies [in New York], and regional companies," says Kotis. "I think we sent out the script to 50 or 60 places."

"We also sent 50 query letters to agents in New York and Los Angeles," Hollman adds.

For their work they received a steady stream of rejection letters. "Every week brought a new batch," Kotis says. What disturbed him the most wasn't the form letters; it was the occasional personal letter.

"These artistic directors would write saying, 'This is fun, exciting material. It would be a blast to do this. But you have to understand we have a subscription base of people who are in their 50s and 60s.'" Even more depressing was word Kotis and Hollman received from the Neo-Futurists, saying they weren't interested either.

"We just couldn't justify doing Urinetown in our space," says Neo-Futurists founder Greg Allen. "It's a balls-out musical, with a large cast and an orchestra....Our people just don't have experience doing musicals. I could just see myself out there onstage trying to sing."

There was also the matter of the $20,000 budget. "They just weren't prepared to risk losing that kind of money," Hollman explains, "which I can understand." He had taken a similar risk with Jack the Chipper in 1996. It bombed, losing every penny of the $15,000 he, Crist, and their friends and family had put into it.

Kotis and Hollman were ready to hang it up when someone suggested they submit the show to the 1999 New York Fringe Festival.

Kotis resisted this idea. "I always thought of the Fringe Festival as a place where you go to bury a show," he says. "Also, it seemed impossible that 150 shows could be mounted in August, the hottest month of the year. The month no one is supposed to be in town. In New York, which is one big fringe festival all the time anyway. The Fringe Festival didn't seem like a good place to mount a show you took seriously."

When Kotis told Halliday he had all but decided to take a pass on the festival, she was not pleased. "'You've worked so hard on this,' she told me. 'You can't just walk away from it.'"

Kotis and Hollman submitted the show, and to their mild surprise it was accepted. That acceptance led immediately to a new problem: the show's title. The director they wanted to hire, Joe McDonald, hated it and made changing it a condition of his employment. Hollman was swayed by McDonald: "I wanted to change the name of the show to 'You're in Town,'" he admits.

McDonald and Hollman approached Kotis, who reluctantly agreed. Kotis in turn contacted John Clancy, the director of the festival. Clancy told them he'd been getting more calls about Urinetown than any other show in the festival, "just because of its title," says Kotis. "He told us, 'If you are thinking of changing the name of the show, that's a really bad idea.'

"I realized that the Fringe is a place for freaks, and you don't improve your chances by trying to conceal your freakishness."

McDonald capitulated, and Urinetown turned out to be the surprise hit of the festival, selling out every night and winning the Best of the Festival prize. The show also caught the eye of Araca, New York-based theatrical producers best known for The Vagina Monologues. The folks at Araca wanted to do a commercial remounting of Urinetown.

In the dystopic future that is the setting for Kotis's story, water has become a rare commodity, private toilets are outlawed, and all public facilities are controlled by one man, the ruthless Caldwell B. Cladwell. Even the onstage narrator--the good-hearted but violence-prone Officer Lockstock--betrays a bitter streak, indulging occasionally in a little recreational police brutality. In contrast, Hollman's score is upbeat; even when the songs take a dark turn--the cast singing about their plans to murder Cladwell's daughter, for example--the tunes remain jaunty.

Since it began previews April 1, Kotis and Hollman have experienced one success after another--sold-out houses, enthusiastic reviews in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Financial Times, and the taping of a sound track album, to be released July 24 by RCA Victor. In late May the folks at Araca contacted other producers to see if there was interest--and capital--enough to help them move the show to Broadway.

"I'm told," Kotis giggles, "that Rocco Landesman [of the Nederlander Organization] said, 'I'll invest in anything called Urinetown.'"

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Charles Eshelman.

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