Feeling Pretty Flush

Barbara Isenberg, author of "Making It Big: The Diary of a Broadway Musical," is a regular contributor to Calendar

Playwright Greg Kotis was trapped in Paris, his money nearly gone. He was sleeping in train stations and parks. Down to $4 a day, he found himself choosing between buying food or paying to use public bathrooms.

Then one rainy day, eyeing a fine French public amenity in the distance, he had a thought. What if one company controlled all of a city's toilets? And what if that company could thus keep an entire population under its thumb? And what if he, a very funny guy, could write a musical about it and call it, well, "Urinetown"?

"I just stood there maybe 15 minutes. In the rain. Thinking it out," Kotis recalls. "The oppressed have to be really oppressed. The oppressors have to be rich and callous. Cops have to be everywhere."

Six years later, oppressed, oppressors and cops will be all over the place at Henry Miller's Theatre on Broadway, where "Urinetown" is scheduled to begin previews Monday. With music by composer and co-lyricist Mark Hollmann, direction by John Rando and musical staging by John Carrafa, "Urinetown, the Musical" opens Sept. 13 after a sold-out off-Broadway run.

A theater-savvy cop named Officer Lockstock (Jeff McCarthy) and a scruffy young sage named Little Sally (Spencer Kayden) guide the audience through everything from the show's back story--bad drought in town--to the perils of too much exposition. Musical comedy veteran John Cullum inhabits Caldwell B. Cladwell, head of evil conglomerate Urine Good Company, father to pretty young Hope (Jennifer Laura Thompson) and nemesis to the revolutionary Bobby Strong (Hunter Foster).

"Urinetown" is surely the first Broadway show whose key set is a public urinal, but there's actually very little bathroom humor, given the subject matter. And amid all the singing, dancing, chasing, killing, wooing and (offstage) peeing, it is surely also the first Broadway show to so successfully proffer ideas posed by Bertolt Brecht, Thomas Malthus and Mel Brooks--all in the same two hours.

Little Sally muses onstage about how bad titles "could kill a show pretty good," and, indeed, co-creators Kotis, 35, and Hollmann, 37, still seem fairly surprised at their show's success. But that success comes during a parody-heavy year, with the quirky "Bat Boy" running off-Broadway and blockbuster "The Producers" on Broadway.

In fact, coming up with a hit wasn't on their minds when they set out. "You create this crazy play, tell yourself it's unproducible, and as long as its unproducible, the choices don't matter," says Kotis, who earlier studied comedy skit-writing with members of Chicago's Second City troupe. "Who cares? It's just for laughs. The freedom that starting point gives you allows you to make something much better than you expected it to be."

In 1996, Kotis approached Hollmann, a classically trained composer he'd worked with in the '80s at Cardiff-Giant Theatre Company in Chicago. Hollmann, who was intrigued, immediately wrote a song called "It's a Privilege to Pee." And that song, Hollmann says, indicated to Kotis that "we were on the same page."

Sunday after Sunday, Kotis and Hollmann would meet at Christ Lutheran Church, on Manhattan's Lower East Side, where Hollmann has been the organist for five years. "Parishioners were leaving, I'm walking in," Kotis recalls. "We didn't tell them what we were working on for a very long time. 'What's it about?' 'Oh, it's about stuff."'

Not that their "stuff" was entirely high comedy. Kotis indicates his play is as much reality-based as allegorical. He talks of labor relations in Chicago, political unrest in Romania and Russia. "Urinetown's" drought doesn't seem so implausible to him either. "Overconsumption and overpopulation are to me the defining issues of our lifetime," he said. "We live in a world that we're eating up and that's unsustainable."

Big subjects encourage big songs, adds Hollmann. Besides faster-paced, Broadway-style music, he saw a great opportunity to write semi-operatic music, which could illustrate and intensify such broad themes as rich versus poor.

The two men crafted "Urinetown" on and off, setting it aside to do other projects as well as make a living--Hollmann still supports himself as a part-time word processor, while Kotis does freelance location scouting. By June '98, they had a full script and score, assembled a cast and recorded a demo tape in the sanctuary of Christ Lutheran Church.

Chatting in that sanctuary with a reporter, Hollmann narrates a tale of rejection after rejection. The composer, who left pre-law studies at the University of Chicago to pursue music, estimates they sent letters, tapes, scripts or synopses to about 60 theater organizations and 50 agents. A few showed interest, he says, but all eventually said no.

Staging possibilities came and went before Kotis persuaded John Clancy, head of the New York International Fringe Festival, to include the show in his summer 1999 season. "I was scouting locations on the Lower East Side, where they were getting ready for Fringe '98," Kotis says. "John was standing on a ladder with a roller, painting the lobby of their theater, and he couldn't go anywhere. I talked to him about our show, and he kept on painting and smiling and let me finish my pitch."

Kotis' pitch? "It takes place in a world where people have to pay to pee. A neo-Brechtian, neo-Malthusian melodrama." And reaction to his pitch? "The most common was that people would change the subject."

Clancy, however, gave them a chance. To save money, they held rehearsals in the church basement, says Hollmann, who served as musical director and pianist.

"It was like our Frankenstein--a creature we toiled over," Kotis says. "And when we turned on the juice, it actually walked and spoke and did all those things. We wanted to bring it out to the light, but we were afraid how the villagers would respond to it."

The villagers, it turned out, loved it--including several elderly members of the Christ Church congregation who had been following its progress. "Urinetown's" first performance at the Present Company Theatorium ended with a standing ovation; word spread and the sold-out show's run had to be extended.

Even better, their friend David Auburn, the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer of "Proof," liked it so much that he got on the phone at intermission to call producers Michael and Matthew Rego. They and their third partner at Araca Group, Hank Unger, each went to see the show and, summarizes Matthew Rego, "we ran with it."

Rego saw it as a Broadway show early on, he says, and set out to bring in professional producing partners, a better-known cast and a prominent director. He got them all. John Rando, who knew Hollmann and his work, liked the score and script and signed on as director. He directed a workshop in January 2000 that attracted veteran producer Dodger Theatricals.

When Cullum's agent first called him about "Urinetown," the actor says, he wouldn't talk about the show and instead insisted Cullum read the script. As Cullum did, "I said, 'These are ridiculous lyrics, so childlike and stupid and tasteless.' 'Snuff That Girl?' 'Don't Be the Bunny?' Then I sang it for my wife, and she said it was funny. And I knew that if it was upsetting me that much, it was getting to me."

Two-time Tony winner Cullum, whose first Broadway show was "Camelot," and who has had recurring roles on "Northern Exposure" and "ER," says he turned down the role of King Lear to follow "Urinetown" to Broadway. Better to have the chance, he says, to wind up his opening number atop his office desk with top hat and cane. "I play the scenes as if I'm doing Arthur Miller and sing as if I were doing Cy Coleman. I'm up there doing a parody of John Cullum, the musical comedy guy."

But even with parody, getting the tone right was crucial. "There are a lot of stupid jokes you could make easily, and we didn't do that," Carrafa says. "John Rando was there to remind us of the boundaries. But within those boundaries, I went nuts."

Sets are minimal. That means the staging has to convey place, time and story, Carrafa says, and it never hurts to borrow from the best. While Carrafa says his only "direct quote" is "West Side Story's" "Cool," an alert theatergoer will recognize everything from Bob Fosse, Jerome Robbins and Michael Bennett to Kurt Weill and Brecht. "Les Miserables," "The Threepenny Opera," "Guys and Dolls" and a few other shows also get a tip of the hat in passing.

"I never thought, 'Let me see if I can imitate Fosse or Robbins,"' Carrafa says. "It just happened that these characters exist in a musical theater world, so I created a musical theater vocabulary for them. In a musical, when the rebels fight, they break into a dance. When they decide to hang the heroine, they snap their fingers in time with the music. Poor people break into a folk dance to emphasize their plight. Cops shine flashlights [into the audience]."

All that was particularly zany in the show's off-Broadway home, the 134-seat American Theater of Actors, a small theater in a community court building. Producers added a catwalk that looked like it had always been there, and the atmosphere was decidedly informal.

Budgeted at $2.25-million for Broadway, "Urinetown" will play the 640-seat Miller, among the smallest theaters on Broadway. The show's first preview was twice delayed because of changes to the little-used venue, such as putting in new seats, adding a box office and working on both air-conditioning and dressing rooms.

But the show isn't expected to change much physically. The whole design concept was an empty space with one wall in the middle that was pushed around, Rando explains, and that will be the same in the bigger venue.

"We kept saying we wanted to be a thorn in Broadway's side, and now we're on Broadway, which is funny and good because what we are is still that thorn."

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"Urinetown" plays at Henry Miller's Theatre, 124 W. 43rd St., New York, Mondays-Saturdays at 8 p.m., Wednesdays at 2:15 p.m. and Saturdays at 2 p.m. through Sept. 15. Starting Sept. 17, performances are Mondays, Wednesdays-Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 2 and 8 p.m. and Sundays at 3 and 7:30 p.m. Tickets: (212) 239-6200.

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