They built a beer garden in what was once a parking lot ruled by the sea-god Neptune. They’ve made cranes dance. But one thing the Capital Fringe Festival has not done in the last decade is incubate a show that goes on to have a long commercial afterlife.
Oh, some have tried: New Musicals Foundation creator Charlie Fink produced Super Claudio Brothers: The New Video Game Musical in the 2010 CapFringe, and just restaged it in this year’s New York Musical Festival under the title Claudio Quest: A Super New Musical. His 2011 CapFringe entry Who’s Your Baghdaddy? is getting a mysterious New York production beginning in September, wherein the show will supposedly be performed at a different venue each night, Thursdays through Sundays, until the end of the year. F#@king Up Everything, the other musical he produced for the 2011 Capital Fringe, actually did get an Off-Broadway production in 2013, but he’d previously presented that one in the New York Musical Theatre Festival in 2009. Okay. Enough qualifying and equivocating. My point stands.
What might a Fringe blockbuster look like? Probably like Urinetown, a breakout show from the 1999 New York International Fringe Festival that ran on Broadway for two-and-a-half years circa 2001-2004 and won Tony Awards in 2002 for Best Book and Best Original Score. (For what it’s worth, the New York Fringe uses a juried admissions process, whereas Capital Fringe, like the majority of fringe festivals, does not.) Urinetown debuted on London’s West End in 2014, running for 10 months before closing last January. Fringeworthy founder Trey Graham wrote that Signature Theatre’s local premiere of Urinetown in 2005 served “up style and precision and commitment by the bowlful.”
Since I happened to be at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre Center last week — at the same time Urinetown book writer/co-lyricist Greg Kotis and composer/co-lyricist Mark Hollmann were there workshopping their next musical, the zombie comedy ZM — I met with Kotis at Blue Gene’s Pub, the campus watering hole, to ask him about the effect the fringe theater movement has had on his career. (You can find a full list of the prolific Kotis’ plays on his website.) NOTE: This transcript of a conversation in a loud bar has been lightly condensed for clarity.
So Greg — how did your weird musical indictment of unchecked capitalism and pay toilets wind up on Broadway?
Mark and I worked together in storefront theatre in Chicago. Urinetown would’ve fit in really well in that world. Once we had a script and a score that we thought was presentable, we sent it around, but we found that people couldn’t really get past the title. We got a few bites. The most promising bite we got was from Trinity Rep. This was in the late 90s. Trinity Rep asked for a recording of the music. That was the most promising feedback we got. For the most part, it was a lot of form letters saying “Thank you for submitting but no.” Sometimes people would take the time to write in the margins of the form letter to say, “I will never produce a show called Urinetown. Stop bothering me.” So we were unable to find success, and we had run out of options.
I knew John Clancy, who was one of the founders of the Fringe Festival in New York City. So in 1999 we submitted to the Fringe, we were accepted, and then we went about putting together a company and a production that could live in the fringe. My expectation was that we were going to have the seven shows — seven or eight, whatever we got for our fringe production — we were going to declare victory, and then I was going to move on to do something else other than trying to write plays.
How were you earning your living then?
I was a location scout for the TV show Law & Order. And I had a baby. What I thought we were going to do was I was going to quit theater, and being liberated from the energy-sucking obsession of trying to put plays up, I would build a career unfettered by the need to please audiences, and just make money. And do things!
So if something hadn’t happened around that time you would’ve left theater.
Yeah. My plan was to put on Urinetown, declare victory, and get a real job. And then things happened.
You came out of the Neo-Futurists, right?
I came out of Chicago storefront theater. Yes, I did the Neo-Futurists, but I worked with other companies as well. It’s sort of like being in garage bands, but doing theater pieces instead of writing rock tunes. It’s that kind of indie culture, I guess.
You said earlier that you thought the fact that you were trying to do a fully staged musical in a Fringe space on a Fringe budget might’ve contributed to the perceived novelty value of that first production of Urinetown.
This is just my impression, OK? Fringe festivals are largely populated by one-man shows and very small-cast shows just because of practicality. When we did the Fringe, we were told, “You have to be able to set up your show in 15 minutes and then break it down in 15 minutes.” [Capital Fringe has the same requirement.] So to do that with a 15-person musical with a a four-piece band… it’s really hard to do. Trying to put on a 15-person, organic-book musical, a very complicated piece of storytelling… it did make us a kind of novelty, I think. That wasn’t our intention, but that’s what we were.
You stood out.
Yeah. Imagine the experience of a member of the audience, looking through the program. The New York Fringe has 200 shows in it. You’re only going to see a few of them. You just have a little description in the program. In our case, we had named this musical Urinetown because it really couldn’t be called anything else. It wasn’t a marketing plan. It was a purely artistic reality. At one point, our director for the fringe production [said], “If you don’t change the title, I’ll quit.”
We went to John Clancy, and we said, “John, have you gone to press with all the titles? Is it too late to change ours?” We didn’t have an alternative; we were just scared of losing our director. John Clancy said, “I have gotten more interest in your play than any other play in the festival, on the title alone. You can change it, but I’m telling you: It’s piquing people’s interest.” So our plan was not about shocking people. It was just, “This is the world of the play we have made. This is our show.” So we learned that by inadvertently being kind of controversial or shocking or whatever, we had gotten attention for ourselves. That’s part of the psychology of a fringe festival.
Do you think that without the infrastructure of the Fringe, you and Mark could’ve put up some iteration of Urinetown on your own?
At the time it was something in the hundreds of dollars that you had to pay to enter the New York Fringe Festival. That was doable. Just to rent a theater for a weekend in 1999, I think would’ve cost around $3,000. And that doesn’t include production costs or marketing or anything. That’s just to get into the space. So no. We could not afford that.
What we got from the festival was seven performances, in a space with lights and seats in New York City. You got to be in the program. It was enough.
And someone influential happened to show up for one of those seven performances?
We did become, I think, the hit of the 1999 Fringe Festival. Fate smiled upon our production. We were packed. We had great, responsive audiences. It was a joyful thing. We had a friend, Dave Auburn, an established playwright, who was about to have his play Proof produced at Manhattan Theatre Club. We knew him from college. He came to one of our seven shows, and at intermission, he called called up some producer friends and told them, “There’s something happening at the Fringe. You have to come see it.”
This was the Araca Group, a commercial producing entity in New York. They were young guys, in their early 30s — younger than Mark and I were. They were musical theater fans, and they saw potential. They said, “We want to option this material. We want to produce a backers’ audition and see what happens when you produce this kind of material with Broadway talent.” That backers’ audition, in January 2000, was able to attract Dodger Theatricals, a big, Broadway producing organization. And we were off to the races.
You didn’t have agents back then, right? What do you do, when you get a call like that? How do you make sure you’re not getting screwed?
The catch-22 with agents is, you need one to get your work done, but you’re not going to get one until you’ve got work that’s being done. But it seemed like this was happening, so we were contacted by someone. Actually, it was the guy who represented our director for the backers’ audition. He called [Hollman and I] into his office and said, “I want to represent you.” And never having had an agent before, we were like, “Great!”
Photo of Greg Kotis by Chris Klimek