Trickle-down Theater

Urinetown co-writer is swamped with success.

The musical's name is a shocker: Urinetown.

Mark Hollmann, a New York musician, appreciates that. After all, even Hollmann was a wee-wee bit skeptical when Greg Kotis, an actor he'd worked with previously in an offbeat troupe, approached him with a concept he'd come up with on a European backpacking trip in the mid-'90s. Cash-strapped in Paris, Kotis had been forced to limit the number of times he could visit the city's pay urinals -- and that inspired his vision of a corporation that controls all of the world's lavatories. Set to song.

"It was the least commercial idea I had ever worked on," says Hollmann.

Cast members from the original Urinetown.
Cast members from the original Urinetown.

This from a guy who had teamed with Kotis and Chicago's tiny Cardiff-Giant ensemble in producing such darkly satiric shows as Aftertaste! (the Musical), about a company that profits by marketing a trendy poison. Cardiff-Giant musicals were performed in a small theater, often before only a few dozen spectators. And yes, Hollmann acknowledges, they were money-losers.

Still, Kotis and Hollmann shared a comedic vision, one that rebelled against the soft blue humor being dished out at the time by the once-cutting-edge Second City theater group. So Hollman didn't dismiss his pal's play about piss.

"The idea intrigued me," he admits. "After a couple of weeks, I had written the song 'It's a Privilege to Pee.' Greg loved it."

But to really get Urinetown: The Musicalgoing, they needed a producer.

"The name was a calling card, and in certain quarters it got the kind of rejection or disgust you might expect," says Hollmann. At the New York Fringe Festival in 1999, though, "it became the buzz."

Backers emerged, and money started flowing. Urinetown, the raucous tale of two lovers stuck in a water shortage and an evil tycoon's plot to control all toilets, became the surprise hit of Broadway. Critics raved about the musical's over-the-top wackiness. The show won three Tony awards in 2002, including Best Book and Best Music and Lyrics. Hollmann and Kotis were swamped with offers.

Today, even as they're hard at work on another collaboration, Hollmann remains stunned by Urinetown's fame. And a national tour, which opens in Denver on September 9, will keep those warm feelings spreading.

"I'm nervous," he says. But he plans to go with the flow.

 
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