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Free to pee
Greg Kotis’s Urinetown comes to Boston

When playwright Greg Kotis wrote the first draft of what later became the Tony award-winning musical Urinetown (which opens at the Colonial Theatre Tuesday), he’d just moved to New York. He was shocked by what he found there. "In 1995, poverty and homelessness were much more public in New York than in Chicago. And the hostility between the police and different parts of the city reached a high point." These social conditions inspired and influenced his work-in-progress, which he completed with composer/lyricist Mark Hollman in 1999.

In his fictional metropolis, there’s a water shortage, and citizens pay to use a public restroom. This is a world where water is at a premium and controlled by the Urine Good Company, which is helmed by the sinister Caldwell B. Cladwell. Pee on the sidewalk and you’re off to Urinetown and never seen again. In the midst of this nightmarish world, a pair of lovebirds find one another, but their story is secondary to the musical’s larger themes, which include capitalism run amok, mob psychology, and social engineering.

Although Urinetown makes numerous allusions to Broadway show and musical comedy traditions, the Brecht-Weill canon was an inspiration. "There was something braver about the kind of theater Brecht did than theater as it exists now," says the playwright by phone from Brooklyn. "I think there are brave playwrights and actors and filmmakers in America. But the stakes are different. In Brecht’s time, I think the future of the country hung in the balance."

Yet Urinetown may be getting, if such a thing is possible, even edgier and more relevant as time goes on. When he wrote the show. in the late ’90s, "everything was going great," Kotis says. "But this world is a different world." Now, he sees an American landscape in which "the state is intruding on the private lives of the citizens and questions of complicity between industry and government are important. Percolating below it all are issues of consumption and environmentalism and how we organize ourselves."

No, Kotis doesn’t have a conventional musical-comedy background. He grew up in Wellfleet, on Cape Cod, and had the National Seashore for a backyard. Summer was idyllic. "It felt like you had all these guests from around the country, but winters were harder. You felt the isolation more." He majored in political science at the University of Chicago but got sidetracked. "That school has had a habit of producing people who have an interest in theater. There’s a tradition of people who have degrees who can’t do anything with them, so they goof off or go to professional school. I decided to goof off — which is what theater seems to me."

But Urinetown found an audience and began moving to larger and larger venues, picking up a host of theater prizes along the way, including three Tonys (Best Music and Lyrics, Best Direction, Best Book). Kotis found the Tony ceremony equally fascinating and surreal, mostly because the award he "received" that evening was actually a prop. Backstage at Radio City, "there was a woman focused completely on the award who forcibly takes it from me. And I thought, ‘Here’s the moment where they realized they’ve made a terrible mistake and given the award to the wrong guy.’ "

Kotis is still amazed that what he views as a "fringe, outsider production" made it to the big leagues with such a vengeance and is now touring the country. "To see our production in an established, subscription-based venue feels . . . very odd. It feels like we’re crashing a ball."

Urinetown plays at the Colonial Theatre, 106 Boylston Street in the Theater District, January 6 through 18; call (617) 931-2787.


Issue Date: January 2 - 8, 2004
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