Best known as the composer and lyricist of darkly comic Urinetown – the Tony®-winning hit musical that flouted conventions for commercial success – Mark Hollmann found himself drawn to opera and musical theater, especially Weill and Brecht, already in high school. He studied music composition at the University of Chicago, graduating in 1985, and right away set out to write his first musical, Kabooooom!, with playwright Mary DeSalle Kevern, which was produced in 1987 at the University of Chicago.
His next musical, written with Jack Helbig, was a Sondheim-influenced comedy called Complaining Well (1988), based on The Dyskolos of the ancient Greek playwright Menander. It has since been revised as Wild Goat (2004) and again as The Girl, the Grouch, and the Goat: A Modern Fable (2008). Like Hollmann’s later musical Urinetown, the plot hinges on a drought and the abuses and needs that arise from it.
In 1990 Hollmann met William Russo, a composition teacher who had worked closely with jazz-band leader Stan Kenton, and Hollmann found Russo’s views on melody particularly valuable and inspiring.
Hollmann eventually moved to Manhattan, where he worked as the organist of Christ Lutheran Church, and began collaborating with an old friend from Chicago, Greg Kotis. Hollmann and Kotis had worked together in a Chicago improvisational group in the late 1980s, and Kotis presented Hollmann with the unlikely premise for Urinetown – a world in which everyone must pay to urinate or be sent to a penal colony. Won over by the plot, Hollmann soon played Kotis a draft his first proposed song, “It’s a Privilege to Pee,” and the musical was off to an auspicious start. When completed, however, it suffered many rejections, but the show was eventually staged at the New York International Fringe Festival (1999), then off-Broadway at the American Theatre of Actors (May 2001), and at last at the Henry Miller Theatre (September 2001), becoming a bona fide Broadway hit. It won several Tonys®, including Best Musical and Best Original Musical Score. The original cast recording has been issued by RCA Victor Broadway.
After their success with Urinetown, Hollmann and Kotis drew inspiration from the classic Alec Guinness film comedy The Man in the White Suit – about a scientist who develops thread that is both stain-resistant and indestructible, and is therefore a threat to the textile industry – which had initial performances at Vassar College in 2005. The collaboration continues.