A theatrical exchange: Students interpret quirky hit; its creators map their road from Chicago to BroadwayBy Josh Schonwald
Many Chicago graduates have written plays, and University students have performed dozens of others. But Friday, March 13 will mark a unique confluence in the College’s theatrical history: Current students will perform a play written by two alumni.
This isn’t any ordinary play—it’s the wildly successful, Tony-award winning Urinetown: The Musical, the brainchild of Greg Kotis (A.B.,’88) and Mark Hollmann (A.B.,’95), which has been performed on stages from Broadway to London to Tokyo. It’s also not your typical University Theater performance; this is the big show, the annual Theater and Performing Arts main stage production.
A select group of students will get a chance to act under the direction of a Chicago theater professional. This year, Jonathan Berry, an artistic associate at Chicago’s Griffin Company and former director of the Steppenwolf Theater’s summer drama program, will direct the students in Urinetown.
The witty musical, which takes place largely in front of a public toilet and is premised on a world in which private toilets are banned, opens Thursday, March 5 and runs through Saturday, March 14. Show times are at 8 p.m., Thursday through Saturday, in the Francis X. Kinahan Theater on the third floor of the Reynolds Club.
Kotis and Hollmann will participate in a conversation with Theater and Performance Studies students on Friday, March 13 as part of the Alumni Board of Governors Distinguished Speaker Series. The duo will then attend the Friday night performance and will engage in a “talk back” following the show.
It’s a wonderful opportunity, said Heidi Coleman, Director of the University’s TAPS Program. Not only will students have a unique opportunity to get feedback from the creators, she said, but they’ll also get a chance to learn from these former University students who have turned their vision into a reality and have made a life in theater.
One of the goals of the TAPS program is to engage students with professional dramatists, especially Chicago alumni who have forged careers in the performing arts. During recent months, Chicago graduates from Scott Sherman (A.B.,’04), who is working on the forthcoming sketch show, Important Things with Demetri Martin, to Bernie Sahlins (A.B.,’43), the co-founder of the legendary Second City, have met with students.
It’s also not the first time Kotis and Hollmann—whose success was hugely dependent on the aid of another Chicago alumnus and playwright, David Auburn (A.B.,’91), author of Proof—have come back to their old school. They also have participated in “Taking the Next Step,” the annual career fair where Chicago alumni provide guidance on career planning to third-year students.
The return of Kotis and Hollmann also is exciting, said Coleman, because the play itself is “such an inspiring example for our students.”
The two writers never expected their play to have much popular success; in fact, one of the play’s characters, Little Sally, pokes fun at the author’s low expectations, saying, “I don’t think too many people are going to come see this musical.”
But in spite of all of Urinetown’s quirkiness—its toilet-centric setting, a plot where the downtrodden do not triumph, a score with allusions to everything from Kurt Weill to Marc Blitzstein’s The Cradle will Rock—it was a smashing popular success on Broadway and abroad. It also earned three Tony Awards in 2002 for best score, best book and best direction for a musical.
The New York Times theater critic Bruce Weber gushed, “It’s a sensational piece of performance art … one that acknowledges theater tradition and pushes it forward as well … And did I mention that Urinetown is hilarious?”
It was a breakthrough piece in the genre, said Coleman. It showed that musicals could be imbued with political satire, cultural references and a quirky offbeat humor. “It showed that a musical could make you think.”
What’s equally important, she said, “It’s an example to our students of how you can develop your own voice, from your own quirky place and that you can have tremendous success.”Tickets for the University Theater production of Urinetown: The Musical are $6. For more information or to purchase tickets, call the University Theater at (773) 702-3414, Ext. 1.