The storefront-born Urinetown returns, but will it become Chicago's No. 1 musical?
The morning after Mark Hollmann won the 2002 Tony Award for best score for Urinetown, he reported to his Manhattan computer programming job. His coworkers, of course, wondered why he wasn’t still celebrating.
“They made me go home,” the native Midwesterner says without a trace of irony. Three months later, with the hit musical Urinetown playing to sold-out houses, he was laid off and given a severance package. “So I decided it was okay to quit working a day job altogether.”
Surely it’s the dream of every storefront-theater artist to quit the day job and make a living writing musicals about bodily functions. But anyone who saw Urinetown on Broadway (or even on the brief Chicago stop of the subpar national tour in 2003) will tell you that Hollmann’s hysterical work is much more than pee-pee jokes, which actually get very little stage time. Chicagoans can soon see for themselves, thanks to an open-run of this very Chicago-flavored product—a show some locals might argue was rightfully theirs to begin with.
In case you’re not privy to this storefront Cinderella story, former Chicagoans Hollmann and Greg Kotis penned the musical with the rancid title after moving to New York. Using the scrappy, after-hours theatrical chops they’d honed in Chicago (both went to the University of Chicago and were members of the influential improv group Cardiff Giant, and Kotis spent years with the Neo-Futurists), they crafted a punchy, off-center show that became the darling of the 1999 New York International Fringe Festival. Their pal David Auburn—the Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright of Proof, and a fellow U of C alum—encouraged a producer pal to check it out, and interest started to build. The momentum launched the basement play to a professional Off-Broadway production and then to Broadway, where it shocked everyone by succeeding—despite its very un-Broadway name and subject matter. Set in a society plagued by drought, Urinetown tells the story of a proletariat revolt against a government that charges its citizens to use the facilities.
The play’s most remarkable element was that—with the exception of the seasoned Broadway performers who replaced the Fringe Fest cast—the show retained the ramshackle essence of the late-night storefront pageants on which Hollmann and Kotis cut their teeth.
“We would choose a title, put money down on a theater, and then we would start writing,” Kotis says of his Chicago off-Loop theater days. “[To get a show up] we had to put a gun to our heads.”
That motivating pistol is now pointed at the heads of Tom Mullen and Matthew Gunnels of the newly formed, Andersonville-based LLC Blue Dog Entertainment. Mullen directed the show’s premiere last year in Saugatuck, Michigan. (He’ll also direct the Chicago open run.) After sold-out houses in Saugatuck, Mullen and investors in New York and Chicago began eyeing the intimate Mercury Theatre on Southport Avenue as a potential permanent home.
“It’s a show that doesn’t work on tour,” Mullen says, “because it only plays in a city for two weeks, and it’s the kind of show that needs word of mouth to build up.” Indeed, the national tour performed poorly and canceled dates along the way; the Broadway in Chicago engagement only played a paltry two weeks. Blue Dog’s production (backed by 15 investors) marks the show’s first open run since the Broadway production closed in 2004 (an amicable closing that happened after the show returned its investment and the theater the show occupied was sold).
But as the third, ahem, sit-down musical to open in Chicago in less than a year, Urinetown faces challenges its brethren—Wicked and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee—didn’t: Both of those shows come with current Broadway buzz (both are still selling out there) and don’t-mess-with-me budgets.
Urinetown, on the other hand, is rolling into town on a budget of a reported $160,000, less than 2 percent of Wicked’s initial capitalization. Among the cast of 16, only six have union contracts, which—in a theater the size of the Mercury—pay a minimum of $319.75 a week. (Urinetown also has two professional stage managers, a union gig that pays a minimum of $371.50.) Nonunion cast members and stage hands, obviously, make less.
It’s not exactly the kind of money that allows you to quit your waitressing gig. But it also means a chance to get in on a show that brings affordable theater—top ticket price is $48.50—to a (hopefully) new audience, an opportunity that’s hard to come by.
“We wanted to attract a younger crowd that wouldn’t go to a musical, let alone pay a hundred bucks [to see one],” Gunnels says. Making no bones about the production’s aspirations, he says, “We’re hoping to get heterosexual men who get dragged by their girlfriends and would normally say, ‘Dude, I hate musicals,’ to say, ‘This is hilarious.’?”
The plot hinges on bodily functions, but the humor isn’t scatological. Narrated by a corrupt cop and an orphan, the self-aware musical draws more yuks from the conventions of the genre than, say, poop jokes.
“It’s very PG,” Gunnels says. “There’s nothing really objectionable about it. And four years later, the title’s not so scary.”
That’s assuming Chicagoans aren’t afraid of a little pee—something Hollmann isn’t worried about. “In my mind, [Chicago]’s the perfect place for the show to live,” he says. “It was born out of our struggles there, where you work during the day and do shows on nights and weekends.”
Urinetown is in previews at the Mercury Theatre. See Theater, Resident companies.