In what must be one of the most surprising casting announcements in recent memory, John Cullum will star in the scrappy Off-Off-Broadway musical-comedy, Urinetown!, Playbill On-Line has learned. The amusingly titled Greg Kotis and Mark Hollmann satirical show, which was the hit of 1999's New York International Fringe Festival, will open an engagement at the American Theatre of Actors, a 120-seat space at 314 W. 54th Street, on April 1, said a spokesman for the show.
Cullum—who will play the political boss of Urinetown—is a two-time Tony Award-winning star of the musical theatre, winning for Shenandoah in 1975 and On the Twentieth Century in 1978. He also starred in the original production of On a Clear Day You Can See Forever in 1966, earning another Tony nomination. Most recently, he was seen in Wendy Wasserstein's Old Money at Lincoln Center Theater.
Set in a gotham-esque city where the privilege to relieve oneself is regulated by a single corporation, Urinetown uses the basic melodramatic themes of greed, corruption and betrayal to portray a time where water is worth its weight in gold. A standard book musical in one sense, Urinetown is also a "musical" in the ironic sense, with characters constantly commenting on the theatre and the musical form, and Kotis and Hollman open flaunting theatrical convention (including the notion of a happy ending). Among the spunky, tongue -in-cheek songs of the original production were the title tune ("Urinetown!/It's off you go to Urinetown!") "Run, Freedom, Run" and "Don't Be the Bunny" (a Cullum number).
John Rando directed a January 2000 reading of Urinetown!. Starring were James Barbour, Nancy Opel (Triumph Of Love), Michael McCormack, Jen Thompson, Marcus Lovett (Carousel), Daniel Marcus, Brooks Ashmanskas, Christopher Murney, Tom Gualtieri, Jessica Frankel, Dale Hensley, Duane Martin Foster, Spencer Kayden (a longtime Neo Futurist), Nanci Bradshaw, Raquel Hecker, Debra Wiseman and Michael St. John. *
The production was initially put together by Theatre of the Apes—that is, improv all-stars Kotis (of Chicago's Neo-Futurist troupe) and Hollmann (of Second City and Chicago City Limits). Kotis penned the book, Hollman the music, and both collaborated on the lyrics.
A standing-room-only smash at the 1999 Fringe Fest, Urinetown! won the event's "FringeXcellence Award" in the category Overall Excellence - Musical. Hollman told Playbill On-Line at the time, "Greg and I just weren't expecting this response to the show. Especially since agents were telling us that with a title like Urinetown!, no one was going to go near it."
As for the show itself, co-author Kotis told Playbill On-Line, "We're tweaking it... Most of the rewrites have meant adjusting it for the reading, trimming it wherever we can... It's exciting to see the cast they've put together."
Asked if he saw the show's title as a potential stumbling block in the way of a commercial production, Kotis said, "We've been continually pressured to change the title, even during the Fringe period, but it's just something we don't want to do. The show and the title — one can't escape the other. A lot of people wouldn't give the show a chance based on the title, but there's a huge market that would want to see this just because it's odd. It's not profane; urine isn't a bad word. Urinetown! exists in the tradition of off-beat, quirky, heightened shows, like Rocky Horror and Little Shop of Horrors. The concept, when Mark and I were building this show, was thinking of the worst concept for a show we could imagine and giving it a full expression. Sort of like what would the whole `Springtime For Hitler' have been like from `The Producers?'"