‘Urinetown: The Musical’ — John Cullum, Greg Kotis, Mark Hollmann

Friday, January 25, 2002

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“Speaking Freely” show recorded Jan. 25, 2002, in New York.

Ken Paulson: Welcome to “Speaking Freely,” a conversation about free expression in the arts. I’m Ken Paulson. It’s called “Urinetown: The Musical,” a remarkable Broadway show that’s both irreverent and refreshing. Today we welcome three of the creative forces behind the show: author Greg Kotis, composer Mark Hollmann, and Tony award-winning actor John Cullum. Welcome.

All: Thank you.

Paulson: The first question has to go to the author. “Urinetown: The Musical” — what we’re you thinking?

Greg Kotis: Yeah, um, uh, it — this was an idea that came to me when I was out of money in Paris. I was backpacking for a couple of weeks. And it’s one of these sort of inspirations that kind of smacks you in the face, just walking down the street. I had been sort of broke for a long time, and I had been spending — I had been rationing out money to use the public bathrooms there. And I was on my way to one, or I was debating whether or not I was gonna use it or not, because the money was so precious to me. And just the idea sort of came full-blown, and I just had to stand there in the street for a while sort of thinking out the whole thing, and realized, “Oh, yes, OK, now this is something that I have to write.”

Paulson: And for those who have not seen the show, can you tell us “Urinetown” in 25 words or less?

Kotis: Sure; it is — it’s a musical. It is a dark allegorical story that takes place in a city which is suffering and has been suffering from an — a drought for 20 years. And in order to control consumption, water consumption, the government has outlawed private toilets. So everyone has to use these public toilets, but the public toilets, in good capitalist spirit, have been privatized, and they’re all controlled by one evil capitalist, played by John Cullum. And so he keeps on jacking up the price. And the story begins at the outbreak of a rebellion against the grip that this corporation called Urine Good Company has over the city.

Paulson: Let’s show a clip that kind of captures the energy of this very vibrant show. [Clippings of musical set to song plays] “Welcome to Urinetown. /Our humble audience /has come to see /what it’s like when people can’t pee free, /can’t pee free, can’t pee free. /The first act lasts an hour. /Don’t assume you’re fine. /Best go now — there often is a line. /You’re at Urinetown. /Your tickets should say Urinetown.”

Paulson: It’s a novel concept, and at one point, you had to convince somebody to write the music for this thing. Do you remember the first conversation you had?

Mark Hollmann: I do. I think I went over to Greg’s apartment on East 9th Street. We were both living in the East Village at that time. And he had a scenario for it and a list of characters with these crazy names. And I just remember thinking that it was a great story in the spirit of “Three-Penny Opera” and “The Cradle Will Rock.” And I just thought, “Oh, this is the kind of musical I’ve wanted to write for some time.” So, it didn’t take much convincing, actually.

Paulson: You may have found the only person on the planet whose imagination you could fire with that description.

Cullum: It didn’t take much to convince you to do a musical like this. It took a lot to convince me.

Paulson: What was your first reaction when they pitched it to you?

Cullum: Well, they didn’t pitch it to me; they sent me the script — my agent sent it to me out in California, and he wouldn’t tell me anything about it. He said, “Just read it.” And my reaction was — “Urinetown” didn’t put me off too much, ’cause, you know, I figured, “Well, they’ll change that if they feel like it.” But then when I got into the — into reading it, it was very off-putting, because I didn’t quite — I didn’t get into the feeling of it very much, and a lot of things about it put me off. And, uh, it wasn’t — and I got very angry, really, and upset. Talking to myself — my wife, my wife heard me talking to myself. “What’s wrong?” I said, “Listen to this ri — this lyr — this is what they think is a great number for me. ’A little bunny in the meadow is nibbling grass without a care.’” And I went on, and I looked up for some kind of confirmation of her negative reaction, and she just had this funny look on her. And she says, “That’s funny.” She said, “Might want to reconsider this a little.”

Paulson: And that performance is a highlight of the evening. The audience goes insane. Was there a point at which you said, “Well, you like the idea, and you love the idea, but no one else cares for it?” How difficult was this to get produced?

Kotis: Um, it was, it was, it was very difficult to get it produced in a, in a traditional way, which is where you bring the material to a producing organization or a developing organization and say, “Please give us support and, you know, nurture this project.” Um, so when the time came in our development process when we had something to share with producers, we — you know, we didn’t, we didn’t — uh, there was no convincing to be done, because nobody was really interested. But Mark and I also come from a — this off-, off-Broadway world, which is a very do-it-yourself aesthetic. So, in the end, that’s something that we were able, ultimately, to turn to just to, you know, get, get — gather a cast together and just put it up, at the New York International Fringe Festival, which is where it first premiered.

Paulson: And the reaction of the early audiences was?

Kotis: It was positive. It was — you know, and it was — at each step, it was a big surprise for us, because, you know, from the beginning, you know, we were gonna write this, but, you know, we were doing it with half of a mind of, like, “This is a pretty funny thing that we’re doing, isn’t it?” And, you know, it was a — I don’t know — I don’t want to say it was a form of procrastination, but it was just — we didn’t really create it with any specific expectations of where it would go. And the more time we spent on it, the more committed we got — became. And always anticipating that, we would sort of be — the cane would come out and be dragged off. But it didn’t show up, so —

Paulson: John, you’ve had a remarkable career in theater, and this is certainly not your first musical. You’ve won two Tonys. I guess, based on reading what you have been in, I suppose “1776″ was another off-beat musical for its time. Is this the strangest thing you’ve ever performed in?

Cullum: Well, in a word, yes. Yeah, but it — but the material, when you — from the written page, is, is, is — can be off-putting. When I’m reading it — when I read it the first time, I thought, “This is ridiculous; I don’t even like — these are juvenile rhyming kind of things.” And then it ends up in some kind of ridiculous thing. And then I got very upset by the whole thing with the — I said to — “They’ve done a takeoff on Patty Hearst. It’s just in worst, worst taste,” I said. “And listen to the name of this — ‘Snuff the Girl.’” I said, “That just — that’s awful.” And yet when it’s performed, you find yourself sucked in, and, and you’re, you’re enthralled. And you don’t quite understand what’s happened to you. And it’s only when it’s over with — or I don’t know when it happens or if it does happen. Maybe it’s not any good at all; I don’t know. Maybe it doesn’t have this other level, but it does to me. I’ve been moved in some way that I don’t right understand.

Paulson: I think Mark may have said in an earlier interview, talking about the experience of hearing a new and more experienced cast sing the material, that it was kind of transforming as the show evolved. To what extent do you recognize what you’ve written when it’s in the hands of experienced professionals who then feel free to do some of what they want with it?

Kotis: Oh, the cast brings so much to this, to this material. I mean, we discovered it together. You know, we — I think we came to new heights. Um, uh, and — I mean, particularly in John’s role, where he’s an actor of such experience and such a celebrated career. To come to this role and to bring that ability and just presence. Just by the — just walking onstage to fill our villain, full of everything that he needs to have — it’s a wonderful thrill. To see that idea realized in such way, it’s, you know — it’s, it’s, it’s — it was beyond our dreams.

Paulson: I imagine John signing on also meant, to people who were put off by the title, perhaps, “It can’t be that tacky if an actor of this quality is in it,” or “He’s more tacky that we dreamed.” I’m not sure, I’m not sure which —

Cullum: Something of both, probably.

Paulson: What does this say about Broadway today that this show has received such a positive reaction? Not at the same level, but “Batboy” has been positively reviewed off-Broadway and has had a good reaction. “The Producers” is a little different kind of musical. Are things changing?

Hollmann: Well, I — it — I just know, from having moved to New York in ’93 and having made it one of my purposes here to actually go to a lot of Broadway musicals just to learn whatever I could, that we seem to have — uh, I don’t know how to say this without insulting a lot of people. But there wasn’t much inspiration, for me at least, in going to a lot of what was being presented on Broadway. I think we had come to some sort of point where we were sort of treading water, I think. And to the extent that this show is a reaction and maybe a kind of new birth — as a reaction toward mega-musicals, British musicals — that’s my take on it; that we’re just — we’re, we’re — I mean, I think we wrote the show trying to go back to the basics of the good old-fashioned musical comedies. And that’s part of what gives the show its heart, I think, is that we’re just, we’re just giving the love duet where it’s expected, and we’re writing hummable melodies and things like that. So I just think that there was maybe not so much of that in the ’90s, and people are starting to realize that that’s what audiences like.

Paulson: John, you’ve got a little longer view. How do you see the evolution of musicals?

Cullum: Well, I — it’s interesting to me what Mark has said, you know, because that’s what I’m saying — that’s what grabs me, is that, that he’s taking advantage of the old — of the wonderful qualities of old musicals — the things that got me excited. But you see, I don’t think that Mark, and I don’t think that Greg can write without saying what they really think, what they really feel. And it’s interesting, because I don’t think there are — they’re that overt about what they want to say. It’s very hard — when I talk to them, I’m not quite sure where they’re coming from, you know? But, uh — there — but I, but I, I know that I’m — that, uh — I mean, the musical — that there’s more there than what I’m seeing. It’s kind of like they’ve taken this form, and they write as if they’re writing it like the old people. But in a sense, it’s not the same, because they’re like the young kid who also wants to go to the big parade and see the king and queen march down the street, and everybody’s saying how wonderful they all look, and they finally say, “But he ain’t got no clothes on.” And that comes out in the way in which they’ve done it. They can’t help themselves. I believe that’s true; I’m not sure.

Kotis: Also, there’s, there’s a, um — you know, there’s a world of theater, and art in general, which is largely invisible to larger audiences, which is also where we come from; from this off-, off-Loop scene in Chicago, and in New York, off-, off-Broadway. And the aesthetic with which we wrote this show very much belongs in that world. And what “Urinetown” is, among other things — it’s a marriage of a new sensibility, which is sort of on the fringes, and a traditional cast and producing organization and director who have been able to embrace it and to give it full expression. So it’s, it’s this, this wonderful experiment and hybrid, which has somehow been able to survive. And the response, I think, has to do with audiences recognizing that — both that freshness and the daring; less so from Mark and I, but from, you know, John and the rest of the cast and the director and the producers, who said — to themselves they must have said, “We have no idea how people are going to respond to this, but let’s see.” So, I think that there’s a lot of good will towards the challenge they set up for themselves.

Paulson: You’ve gotten a lot of very positive press; an occasional negative piece. Does the ugliest thing ever said about the show stick in your mind, by any chance? You wanna share anything wounding about the reviews?

Kotis: Not yet. Not yet, because, because it’s, um — you know, uh — it’s a question of sensibility. You know, I think we have full confidence in the strength of this — of the material, of the cast, of the performances, of the direction. All those elements, I think, are in place, and we’re very proud of that. And the biggest complaints that we get come from people who are on the opposite side of the sensibility divide, who say, um, uh, “This has no—” you know, “Throw that bum out of the house.” But we like that bum, so you know —

Paulson: The strange thing about the show is, it has — for a show named “Urinetown,” it has almost no toilet humor, per se. I mean, it is actually a PG-rated show. You wouldn’t be uncomfortable with your son or daughter sitting next to you. You don’t expect that.

Cullum: It is interesting to me that, that, that they’ve kind of covered themselves a little. Because — the worst criticism of the play comes from the characters in the play.

Paulson: That’s true.

Cullum: Little — has a — one of the final lines, he says, “That’s a — What’s that awful title?”

Kotis: Yeah, that’s right.

Paulson: It’s very self-referential. And the audience —

Cullum: It’s kind of hard to criticize people when you’ve already criticized yourself so much.

Paulson: In one of the many positive reviews, there was an observation about the two of you, saying that you belonged to the generation that can’t buy into sappy Disney products. Is that true? Any sappy Disney products you were particularly fond of?

Hollmann: Oh, well, I, I don’t watch that — well, yes. Yes. I mean, I think I grew up watching the Disney musicals: “Mary Poppins,” uh, “Song of the South.” I had bought into all that stuff. And I think it’s — that and MGM musicals, I think, are part of why I’m writing musicals today, actually. So, from my end, I can’t — I really can’t let go of that stuff; I believe it.

Paulson: Can you make a “Mary Poppins” today, though? I mean, it’s “South Park: The Musical,” not “Mary Poppins” today.

Hollmann: Yeah. Oh, no, that’s right. Um, yeah. And I think people probably still are writing “Mary Poppins” musicals, but I think it’s maybe useful, if you’re trying to learn how to write them, to look at those shows. That’s certainly how I learned.

Kotis: In, in — but in a larger sense, um, the people, the people that — the, the, the community that this show sort of emerged from, for the most part, are artists – theater artists – who, um, uh — I guess re — not that they reject musical theater, but there’s a rejection of the larger culture of huge corporations which are telling you what to buy and what to think and what to say. And theater is one of the mediums where you can speak to an audience, but you can speak as — without any of those restrictions. And so, not that this is a show which is sort of sneering at those values overtly, but it was born of an independence from them, and so we said whatever we wanted to say and said it how we wanted to say it, because we had no commercial restrictions. So to that extent, it does exist in opposition to the thing that you’re describing. Although, at the same time, those are things that we love. You know, I mean, I, I love the old Disney — you know, I have two children now, and we watch a lot of those old musicals, and they’re fantastic. You know, “The Old Sensibility.” And so even though this sort of emerges from a younger generation of theater artists, it sort of — it rejects its own — the, the, the commercial culture of our own time and embraces an older one, where that kind of freedom seemed clearer. Or at least the products that were coming out — the artistic products were — had more integrity.

Paulson: I’m curious — this show is often about censorship. In this case, I suppose you probably didn’t have any difficulty getting the name of the show advertised. “The Vagina Monologues,” for example, had problems getting ads placed for a while. But I suspect they had paved the way for “Urinetown.”

Kotis: Yeah.

Paulson: But there’s always the issue of self-censorship. And when the two of you would write, were there times when you’d go, “You know what — we’ve just crossed the line? We’re, we’re not gonna — this is, this is something I don’t think we need to inflict on the public.” Was there any of that?

Kotis: It was —

Cullum: I think they’re meaner than that.

Kotis: It’s hard to remember, ’cause it was — you know, we’ve been, we’ve been with it for so long.

Paulson: Do you take a moment and say, “You know, that’s really tasteless; we’re not gonna go there”?

Kotis: There’s — yeah, there — there’s a shared sensibility that we have, which precludes, you know, uh, uh, what we consider to be vulgar or obscene or bad language or, you know, sex or adult — you know, nudity, anything like that. I don’t know that we would know what to do with that, and it always sort of makes us kind of embarrassed. And so this — the, the, the material is an expression of that sensibility, which is very orthodox in how it presents itself. And I — that’s — I think that’s a great advantage, because, yes, it is a show called “Urinetown,” but still, if you bring — you know, children have come to see this show. I brought my daughter to see this show — she’s four. So, she wouldn’t understand it anyway. She liked it when people fell down. She laughed at that.

Paulson: And there’s a lot of that that goes on.

Kotis: Yeah, she liked those. Um, but it’s — it universalizes it. And it doesn’t, it doesn’t push cheap buttons. That’s one thing that we were very strict with ourselves about. There’s no cheapness. Um — you know, we just — we purged those, those, because we knew that the idea of the show was so out there that we had to beat it — everybody to the punch — both the characters putting the show down and sort of us removing elements that we thought, “No, this isn’t good enough.” So — but that was an evolution in the writing process.

Paulson: Mark, you’ve held a variety of jobs. I was intrigued by — you were the pianist for Second City.

Hollmann: Oh, yes, I was for their touring company when I lived there in Chicago.

Paulson: So, every night, you’re seeing some improvisation. Did any of that color what you do? Did you learn secrets working with Second City?

Hollmann: Oh, well, it’s, it’s — I always found it educational just to work with great comedians and to, to see how music, hopefully, would augment what they were doing. So, that was — I mean — yeah, somewhere in there, that’s helping out, I think, yeah.

Paulson: What do you do when the comedy’s improvised? What do you do as a musician?

Hollmann: Oh, uh — just mainly to get out of their way. But if there’s some chase scene — oh, this sounds like third grade or something. But, no. If there was something that cried out for music, then that’s what I’d do, but most of all, I think — or if someone was seducing someone else, then you’d play sexy music.

Cullum: If you see a punch line coming, do you anticipate it and try and do something about it?

Kotis: [Mimicking trombone] Whah, whah.

Hollmann: I didn’t have a drum set. You know, I’d give a rim shot if I had one, but —

Paulson: Were you, you had to be pleasantly surprised, unless you had this planned all along, that you would get a soundtrack out of this pressed as a CD.

Hollmann: Oh, my.

Paulson: Did you guys — did you plan a single as well?

Hollmann: No, the fact that we have a cast album on RCA Victor is just something that’s totally amazing to me. I just can’t believe that that’s one of the many blessings of this whole process.

Paulson: Can you talk a little bit about that process? Because do you bring all the actors, all the performers, into a studio then, and try and replicate the energy of a show?

Hollmann: I’d say so. I mean, we — yeah — economics dictate that we just have one long day in the studio.

Cullum: And it’s hard. And I don’t know that we always — like, for instance, I’m not sure that I got it in — I think I got it in “the Bunny,” because I just knew it had to be jacked up. But the, the first one I did, I don’t know that it — I don’t know that it came off as well as it did. It’s very tough to get the energy, ’cause this is a high — you know, this show operates on energy. And all the performers are going at full gun. So when you get into the studio, you have a tendency to be a little intimidated by the mike. I don’t know how you felt about that, but I —

Hollmann: Well, I just was — I thought it was remarkable that other veterans in the cast, like Jeff McCarthy and Daniel Marcus, were watching you do “Don’t Be the Bunny.” And they were — afterwards they were saying to me, “It’s amazing; he understands that he’s in front of a mike, and that it’s a different performance than when you’re in a live theater. And he’s doing what he needs to do to convey that.”

Cullum: Well, I — you gotta do something to jack it up.

Paulson: John, as this show is on the air in cities big and small all over this country, there are people right now betting each other who you are, where they’ve seen you before. Because for all your terrific success in theater, television has been, has been the way most people have come to know your work. “Northern Exposure” —

Cullum: Holling, the bartender.

Paulson: — and “E.R.”

Cullum: With that good-lookin’ young gal, Shelly.

Paulson: And then you were on “E.R.”

Cullum: “E.R.” — it took me a year to die on that. I had a lot of fun.

Paulson: And how do you sort of reconcile that, that fame? That you put all your heart and soul night after night into Broadway, and then I’m sure television is hard work, but the dividends it pays in terms of visibility are dramatically greater.

Cullum: Right. It’s been a wonderful experience for me, because it came late in my career, you know. And, um — I didn’t have any kind of recognizability at all. Neither did Julie Harris, and she’s won — what — six, seven Tonys? But it’s fun to be — to have just the amount that I’ve got, so that people recognize me as Holling. I wouldn’t want to — you know, to have any more, I don’t think, than I have. I wouldn’t want to get stopped on the street and that sort of thing. But it’s — and it may — it’s fun for me, because — I think it doesn’t hurt for — it doesn’t hurt our show that people say, “Oh, that’s Holling, the bartender,” or, “That’s David Green’s dad.”

Paulson: It’s been terrific to visit with you. I have one closing question. Where will “Urinetown” go from here? Do you envision road companies? Will this be in every town in America before we’re done? What’s the future?

Kotis: They’re talking about a tour. I guess these next few months is when those things are decided, when the people who produce shows originating out of New York sort of, I guess, buy them for their theater or — so, so they’re, they’re working on that. And supposedly, there’s gonna be a tour. There’s a few cities. And there’s some overseas interest that they’re, um, uh, in the middle of negotiating. So, so, yeah, the more, the merrier.

Paulson: The question being asked all over America: “Is this town ready for ‘Urinetown’?” It’s kind of a litmus test of what kind of community we have. It’s been great to visit with you. Thank you so much for being part of “Speaking Freely.”

All: Thank you.