Urinetown, the musical that has the smartest score on Broadway in the 2001-2002 season, would seem to have been written by a couple of antic smart-alecks, guys who are into bathroom humor. But lyricist-librettist Greg Kotis and lyricist composer Mark Hollmann have pedigrees that, on the surface, seem legit. Kotis, after all, has a political science degree from the University of Chicago, not to mention a wife and two kids. Hollman is organist at Christ Lutheran Church in Manhattan. Does it get more mainstream — so to speak — than this? How did these regular guys get to win the Tony Awards for Best Score (for the pair) and Best Book (for Kotis) to something called Urinetown? They admit that they both love to laugh, and that was their starting point. Their roots are in Chicago improv theatre, where they were ensemble members — actor-writers — of Cardiff-Giant Theatre Company, where Kotis co-authored six plays. Hollman also played trombone for a Chicago art-rock band, Maestro Subgum and the Whole, and played piano for improv-driven Second City national touring company and Chicago City Limits. The pair spoke to Playbill On-Line's Kenneth Jones about their roots in comedy, and what direction they were aiming when they dreamed up Urinetown, a show that cross-breeds Brecht and Weill with the Marx Brothers.
Playbill On-Line: Urinetown, on the face of it, is a pure and zany musical comedy, but there are political points that burble up — about tyranny, capitalism and more. Like Bertolt Brecht, you mix your ideas with comedy. Is it a political show or is it a pure musical comedy?
Greg Kotis: For us, there is a political point, and I guess we strive to do both: We wanted to be funny and be true to how we see things. The Brecht connection is that Brecht strove to break down the barrier between the actors and the audience, and that's what we tried to do too. Our device is lighter, it's not quite so confrontational, but still we try to remind the audience that we know that they know they're seeing a show. The connection to the substance of the play is that we're trying to reveal things we think we know [about] organizations, consumption — and that we live in a time of peril whether we know it or not. Now it seems more obvious because of the year we've lived, but there are other perils that are bubbling beneath the surface. This is a show that tries to deal with that anxiety and that fear of those perils on the horizon.
PBOL: Brecht wanted to entertain.
GK: We come from a comedy background, and an improv comedy background at that, where the only measure of how you're doing is whether they're laughing or not. It builds in you a real requirement that what you're putting in front of an audience is funny and they like it. That's the No. 1 priority.
PBOL: The score has a tinny, muscular quality to it that recalls the pre-war work of composer Kurt Weill. Mark, how much were you thinking about him when you were creating Urinetown?
Mark Hollmann: I was thinking about Weill a lot at the beginning because the idea that Greg presented seemed so much like The Threepenny Opera to me. As we went on writing the score, that pallette was a little limiting to me. I started to reach into the way I learned to write musicals, which was by watching Rodgers and Hammerstein and Lerner and Loewe, so a lot of that influence started creeping in as we proceeded to musicalize the dramatic moments.
PBOL: There are no strings in the orchestra are there?
MH: No. PBOL: The orchestra has a lot of brass, a tinny sounds that sounds lean and hungry, a little like the characters. Was the lack of strings on purpose?
MH: Well, yes, purposefully because we couldn't afford strings. The producers knew this show might be a hard sell and they had to keep the economics real tight. So they said to us Off-Broadway, "You get four instruments." When we got to Broadway they said, "We'll let you have one more." I'm wrong when I say there are no strings. We do have an upright bass. That's a string instrument, but it's not a violin or viola.
PBOL: It's not a sweet string. The brass serves the cold feeling of the show's world.
MH: And [orchestrator] Bruce Coughlin understood that perfectly and said, "No synthesizers, we're gonna stay with all acoustic instruments," which was a great decision.
PBOL: There's a number in Act Two called "Snuff That Girl" that unexpectedly explodes into a spoof of Jerome Robbins' staging of "Cool," from West Side Story. Did you know it would be that when you wrote it?
MH: No, we did not know that. I think it was John Rando's idea that he wanted some sort of uptempo jazzy number at the top of the second act. [Choreographer John] Carrafa signed on months later than Rando, so it was Carrafa taking a look at that and saying, "Y'know, this is a lot like the situation in 'Cool' in West Side Story,'" and of course he draws from other choreographers, too. It has such an affect on the second act. We were afraid of putting that back-to-back with "Run, Freedom, Run," originally, because we thought "Run, Freedom, Run," was our big showstopper: We can't interfere with its momentum. How can we put "Snuff That Girl" leading up to it? It will ruin the impact it has! It only magnifies the impact, in my opinion, because "Snuff That Girl" is so dark — it's funny, but it's dark. "Run, Freedom, Run" is so up and light and cheery that it gives this great boost of energy that propels us to the end of the show, I feel.
PBOL: Are you guys working on anything new?
GK: We have a few musical ideas that are in different stages of development that we can't really say much about yet because they're so new. One is based on source material, one is original. And some straight plays I'm trying to write also. Trying to seize opportunity.