The Road to Urinetown
Composer Mark Hollmann on the show's creation and success
By Robert Faires,
11:30AM, Sat. Aug. 30, 2014
They knew it was a stinker of a title. They even had one of their characters mock it in the script. But even calling their show Urinetown: The Musical couldn't keep audiences away or keep theatres all across the land – like Austin's City Theatre right now – from mounting it. So what do its creators think about the show's unlikely success?
The Chronicle put that question to Mark Hollmann, who composed the music for Urinetown and co-wrote the lyrics with book writer Greg Kotis, when he was in the area last year to workshop a new musical, Hooray for Iceboy, at Texas State University. (Curiously, Hollmann has been back in Central Texas twice since then, workshopping a different new musical, the zombie-themed ZM, another collaboration with Kotis, at the University of Texas.) Hollmann's residency in San Marcos coincided with a TSU production of Urinetown, directed by Kaitlin Hopkins, head of its musical theatre program, so it seemed fitting to pick the composer's brain about its origins and enduring popularity in the dozens years since its Tony Award-winning run on Broadway. Before you dash out to catch the City Theatre production, running through Sept. 7, it's worth seeing the show through its creators' eyes.
Austin Chronicle: The success of Urinetown at the time seemed unlikely. Now that we're a dozen years down the road, and I've personally seen three or four productions just in Central Texas done by colleges and high schools. The fact that it's become so widely accepted is kind of hilarious. It's like the final joke of the show. I wondered how that has felt to you, to see it have not only that initial success but this real life – and seemingly unending life.
Mark Hollmann: It's been gratifying. And one thing I notice is that I run into a lot of young actors who tell me, "I got to play Bobby [Strong] at my high school," or "This was my first Broadway musical," or they say, "It was my favorite musical that I did when I was in high school." I get some of that at colleges, but some of the people who are doing in a college production have already done it in their high school. And from all that, I'm starting to realize that there's a generation of actors who are in the show in a way that in my generation, we were in You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown or Pippin or any of the other stuff that was getting released for stock and amateur productions in the Seventies. That's really humbling and neat to think about, because I've loved musical theatre since my dad started taking me to his high school [productions] – he was a high school teacher. I fell in love with musicals there. That's where I saw You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown and fell in love with Snoopy – I wanted Snoopy's autograph. And now to have contributed a show to that kind of repertoire feels great. What else would I want as a writer than just to have done something like that?
AC: A big issue with the Texas Legislature this session has been water rights and preparing for droughts. We have this incredible Rainy Day Fund, and our beloved governor seems to think that no matter what the emergency is, it's never a rainy enough day to break into that fund. It's up to something like $13 billion, and something people have been talking about is, "We've come to a pretty heavy crisis point in terms of recent drought and potential for future drought, and we should invest some of that money in trying to anticipate the drought problems down the line." I think given the choice, Gov. Perry would probably prefer to start charging people to urinate. But I wonder if climate change has become such a different issue in the time since you and Greg were writing about this. Does Urinetown seem a little more prophetic than it did, or is it still working on a different level?
MH: I think it's working on a different level. I'm not that up on climate change. I'm a little skeptical of it myself. Greg is very concerned about climate change, and he buys into the position that man is creating weather change. We wrote another show, Yeast Nation, that addresses climate change more directly than Urinetown. Just the topic of man running the world into the ground is a big theme in Greg's work. So in that way, yes, it's always on Greg's mind. But because of visiting colleges and high schools, I get to see the show two or three times a year. In the the last year or so since I've seen it, I have to say climate change is not the thing that comes to mind when I see it. What has come to mind a little bit is Occupy Wall Street and the chasm between the haves and have-nots. I mean, Occupy Wall Street was a trend, and that's yesterday's news. But the disparity between rich and poor – I don't consider myself a welfare stater or a hard capitalist, I don't know where I fall on that, but it seems that the theme that's evergreen is: We're always going to have people who never have enough, and there are going to be people who come along and try to solve that problem, and in our show, the solutions proffered by the good guys are in some cases worse than the status quo. In the end, that's the pox on both your houses, and that really is Greg's work. He came up with the idea for the show, and I tried to serve it with music and co-writing the lyrics with him.
Actually, this reminds me of our roots back in Chicago. We started a little theatre company where we would write plays through the process of improvisation, and before that we were doing a weekly improv show in the back of a bar on the south side of Chicago. And in both the live improv work and the plays that we eventually wrote and starred in and produced, we always stayed away from topical references. We never made topical jokes, and we never made blue jokes. Those were two of our big rules, and, of course, Greg and I carried that aesthetic into writing Urinetown after we had both moved to New York and left that Chicago theatre company behind. One thing I like about Urinetown is that, because it's not really tied to 2001, there are a lot of things that resonate that don't tie it to a time.
AC:Talk to me some about the time that it does reference – the influences and sources that inspired the two of you. Because [when I saw it], one of the things that kept hitting me was: Who else is getting this? The Bertolt Brecht-Kurt Weill stuff and The Cradle Will Rock and that sort of leftist political theatre that was so intense in the Thirties. Some of that is forgotten history. You'll see lots of productions of The Threepenny Opera but not a lot else from the Brecht-Weill period gets done as regularly. I mean, who does The Cradle Will Rock? Did you set out to pattern your show – or the sound and the feel of the show – out of those kinds of pieces? Was that your template?
MH: Yes. Greg, I'm pretty sure, was not familiar with Threepenny or Cradle, but when he brought the idea for Urinetown to me, those were the two shows that came to mind immediately. I have long admired those shows. I saw Threepenny when I was in high school. I still haven't seen a production of Cradle, but I read the libretto and heard the score when I was in college, and those two shows lit me up, because I grew up very interested in politics – in fact, at one point thought I was going to go into government service or politics myself – but I was also very interested in theatre, and those two shows really melded my interests in a great way and made me excited about the power of theatre to talk about the issues of the day – or I don't want to say "issues of the day" because that's contradicting what I just said, just issues that mankind grapples with, to put it in a really pretentious way, which I don't mean to, but you know what I mean. I was really socially aware in high school and college, and I just loved the way those two shows were addressing the hard issues that lighter entertainments gloss over or just avoid.
When Greg gave me the first 10 pages of the script and I was trying to figure out whether or not I was clicking with the material, I wrote the song "It's a Privilege to Pee" and played it for Greg. He loved it immediately, and that is so Brecht-Weill in my mind. I was really trying to think, if Penelope Pennywise were a Brecht-Weill heroine, what's the song she would sing near the top of the show which would let us know how awful the world is that we're about to enter. And that to me is still the musical engine that got the rest of it done. Because it was the first thing that came out of me and it was so angry, I feel like the energy of that informed a lot that followed. Just trying to make the show as grim and dire as Penny is singing that song is something that we had to live up to as we wrote the draft.
Now, not all of it lived up to that, and we really went off the tracks in going into other styles, because I just was not good enough and not even familiar enough with the rest of Brecht and Weill's collaborative work to be able to reference a lot of other stuff. 'Cause I've still never seen [The Rise and Fall of the City of] Mahagonny, for instance. Maybe I saw Happy End at one point. I just don't know a lot of their work separately or as individuals. I know a little of Weill's work, but it was the early, dangerous Weimar work that I was interested in, so yes, those two shows as a springboard, and then a kind of desperation later led me to think, "Oh, it would be fun to have …" – well, in the case of "Run, Freedom, Run," an Elvis number. Greg handed me that lyric pretty much intact the way you hear it now, and I just thought that, knowing who's singing it, this strikes me as something Elvis Presley would have sung early in his career. So that's the musical thought I had in my mind. What came out and then what got staged really lent itself to what seemed like a gospel number, and I guess when I was arranging the song for our first production in the Fringe Festival in 1999, I was the one putting in "Hallelujah" for the chorus to sing in the very last verse. I guess that idea then morphed into something more like "Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat" [from Guys and Dolls] in the way that it works in the show and the gospel-number-as relief idea.
But I'm sorry, we were talking about those two shows, Cradle Will Rock and Threepenny. What struck me last night as I was watching Kaitlin's production runthrough of Urinetown was, the show has its earnest labor-musical story going on, and then Lockstock and Little Sally are stepping out of that to pull at the threads of it throughout the show, and it occurs to me that this may be the only way to present that material now. It may be why it works with the sensibility of 2001 and still seems to be resonating these 12, 13 years later. That stuff written today, I don't think we could take it straight. [Pause] Or maybe that's just me. Or maybe just Greg and me as a team. We're always sort of looking for how the king can be toppled off his throne and where the laugh is in whatever we're doing, so that was always going to be the outcome of something he and I worked on. It was never going to be earnest.
And yet it's the earnestness that drove a lot of my thinking. When we wrote the song "Follow Your Heart," I took the first stab at that, music and lyrics, and that was a very sincere on-the-nose love song the way I wrote it, and then Greg looked at it and said, "Let me tinker with this lyric," and he wrote what is now the middle verse of it, where Bobby sings, "One day I'll meet someone whose heart joins with mine/Aortas and arteries all intertwined." Greg took the literal idea of a heart and fleshed that out in a verse and put that in the middle of my other two verses that were sincere and straight-ahead. I think about that song a lot because I've had people – like an old teacher of mine, actually, an old songwriting teacher of mine, came to the show and said, "That's the song where you get to start to care about somebody" – in this case, both of them – which is great because that was certainly my intention in writing the earnest love song.
And I also have lots of people come up to me, people who don't like musicals at all, and point to that song and say, "Isn't it great how you get to really think about aortas and arteries literally there. That's funny, and it's the kind of thing that makes me laugh, and I didn't think I liked musicals, but I like your musical." So that's where Greg and I met, in the middle, and it's that tension between honoring the musical and sending it up, and maybe I'm just stating the obvious, but I certainly didn't realize at the time we were writing it that this is the dual thing we were doing. I was really trying to treat this like a serious project. I treated it all seriously, and I never wanted to make fun of anything actually. Except maybe the Elvis song, maybe I thought this is kind of a silly Elvis song that became "Run, Freedom, Run." But I never felt that I was winking at anything when I was writing the music and co-writing the lyrics with Greg. Greg supplied all of the subversion and a lot of the comedy of the lyrics – I maybe wrote some funny lyrics, too, but it just feels to me like it was the combination of his wanting to tear down the musical and my wanting to apply all of the things I had learned in musical-writing workshops that made the show work.
AC: That's actually one of the things that strikes me as so remarkable about Urinetown and helps it endure. As cardboard as the premise is, as clearly as the show announces itself as a satire and a send-up of what we know from the most classic musicals to the most contemporary musicals to Our Town, with this narrator who guides us through this community, as clearly as it lets us know that what we're watching is an extended joke, the show never lets it stay flat. It finds these opportunities, whether it's in the music or the lyrics or the earnestness of these characters, to give us our cake and let us eat it at the same time. The best productions of Urinetown are the ones that play the romance sincere enough to work even as we're laughing at it. I wasn't aware how you and Greg complemented each other as a team, but it seems to have worked brilliantly in that regard. There's a great balance there.
MH: That's what it feels like to me, too. Not to pat myself on the back at all, but I feel like I'm starting to get some distance from it as the years go by and I'm able to sit in a theatre, as I was able to do [at TSU] last night and try to let the show just wash over me. Bobby has some great lines in what we call "the payoff scene" in Cladwell's office when he refuses the cash bribe. He says something about the people, "We need to do this for the people," and he keeps saying stuff like that all through the show. Last night, it had never quite struck me this way, but what's sad and funny about it is that his line of thinking is doomed from the get-go, yet he persists. It's endearing how he persists. And we've got a show built around him with a lot of absurd and silly things happening, and all that can live on the same stage. And Katelyn and her choreographer and music director are doing a great job of keeping all those balls in the air.
AC: It's not easy. I love doing comedy, and I will work a moment to find that perfect beat, the timing, the turn of the head, whatever, to get the biggest laugh, but it's always more satisfying when you have a real character to hold onto, and Urinetown lets the characters be complete characters as well as vehicles for jokes and satire.
MH: Thanks. It's really to Greg's credit that that's true. I was noticing it last night, and this happens in good productions that the director allows every character to be specific, even the characters who have one or two lines, where you feel like you have fully formed characters down to the lowest member of the ensemble. That's the character work that we did back in Chicago with our improv company. We con side red all those shows ensemble shows, and Greg considers Urinetown an ensemble show, too, even though there's an ostensible hero in Bobby.
AC: One of the feelings I got from the breadth of comedy in the material was a sense of freedom, like you were thinking, "You know what? We're starting from such an obscure or noncommercial place that we can throw in whatever material pleases us, because nothing is ever gonna happen with this material. Nobody in their right mind is gonna produce a play called Urinetown." Did you feel that, or is just something that ended up in the script? Did you feel a freedom as you were making it?
MH: I didn't think of it as freedom. I approached that project like I had the other four or five full-length musicals that I had written before that point, meaning I just had the story in front of me and the characters we were trying to illustrate through song. Commercial never entered my mind. It was always just: What song is going to serve the character in the situation? And it was always just writing for that, trying to write the best show possible with the skills I had at that time and with however the collaboration was working and clicking. Again, I think the freedom you're sensing from this is coming from Greg's iconoclasm. I think. Although I guess I'm a party to his iconoclasm because it never batted my eye that we were calling the show Urinetown. That never soured me on it, never made me think I couldn't continue working on it.
We had written so much other material like that with five other of our ensemble members in Chcago, shows that were strange and of a really dark world where there was something really corrupt just below the surface and then that starts to bubble up onto the surface and lots of people die at the end. That was like the typical show that we were writing with that little theatre company in Chicago, so it just felt like he and I were continuing that work, but this time it was just him and me in a room alone writing. I'm sorry, this is a really long answer, but it's only after the success of Urinetown where something actually happened – nothing ever remotely the same ever happened with anything I had written prior to that. I was able to quit my day job as a word processor at an investment bank back in 2002 and actually become a full-time freelance writer because of Urinetown. So it's only after we were up on Broadway and working on our next show that I did start to think, "Well, how is this show going to get to a commercial production, too? Now that this seems possible in my world," which it had not been before. I think the thought of "Is it commercial?" is the curse – on my bad days, that's the curse that we're dealing with.
AC: As you were writing it, do you recall if there was a song that felt like breakthrough of some kind, something that you hadn't written before but that you felt really proud of?
MH: Yes. And I've since learned that that's the mark of when you're on to something – at least for what I do with writing music. It was when I was writing the melody of one of the pieces in the first act finale, when Bobby sings, "From every hill, every steeple/Ring out the anthem of the people." It's like a march, and what felt new about it to me was, I had studied with a composition teacher – the one I really credit with forming me the most as a composer – and he had taught me this principle of not depending on repeated notes on the same pitch, like it was good to have a melody with contour and to try to develop the contour in ever-changing ways. And as I was developing the melody of this thing I'm talking about, when I was finished it was thrilling to me. I thought, "This is one of the best melodies I've ever written." All of the things that my mentor, Bill, had been teaching me about this particular principle of melody writing came into play here, and that was exciting to me. That kind of thing has happened a few more times in the years since then, but it's a real thrill. That felt like a personal breakthrough to me.
AC: When you meet with students, what kinds of questions do they ask you? What do they want to know?
MH: They want to know where the idea came from, which was from Greg on a trip to Paris. They want to know what my favorite song is, and I tell them it's "Mr. Cladwell" and also "Run, Freedom, Run" just because of the audience reaction that that gets. Here's a different answer to what you were just asking about. I thrill to that melody that I was just talking about, that's embedded in that first act finale. However, when we were writing "Run, Freedom, Run," it seemed like we had done some good work, but I thought, "Well, this will be fine." It's the audience reaction that continually surprises me with that song.
AC: So you weren't thinking, "Eleven o'clock number: This'll be the one!"
MH: No, not really. I thought, "Well, this, if done well, I guess could be an energy booster." No, I didn't even have a concept of that. It was just, it's it's that difference between sitting in a room and thinking you've got something good and the real test, which is having it in front of an audience, and things that you think are never going to work or kill do that. That always reminds me of the need to keep it real and find the opportunities for my stuff to get out in front of an audience and, as I'm also doing this week with Katelyn and her students, working on a new show. We read the first act of it on Sunday night, and she invited her whole program, all the students in her program, to hear the cast read the script, and it was so great because, there too, you're getting to hear people react to the material for the first time. And it's always a surprise. We're working in a live medium, and the human element is the one that informs us in rewriting.
Urinetown: The Musical runs through Sept. 7 at City Theatre, 3823-D Airport. For more information, call 512/524-2870 or visit www.citytheatreaustin.org.