The University Record, March 25, 2002

U-M alumni ‘flushed’ with success of Broadway hit

By Emily Hebert

The “Urinetown” cast (Photo courtesy of Joan Marcus)
“Urinetown” is the latest craze on Broadway and three U-M Musical Theatre graduates are behind its success. Premiering in late September, the play stars Jennifer Laura Thompson (‘91) and Hunter Foster (‘92), and is produced by The Araca Group, an independent production company headed by Matthew Rego (‘92). With musical numbers such as “Privilege to Pee” and “I See A River,” “Urinetown” is the story of a city where, due to a water shortage, usage of private toilets becomes outlawed and residents must pay to use public facilities. But behind its outlandish premise and gross-out humor, Rego insists that “Urinetown” is an old-fashioned musical at heart.

Parodying more traditional musicals, such as “Les Miserables” and “West Side Story,” Rego says that “Urinetown” is the classic tale of star-crossed lovers and good versus evil. In Urinetown, the corrupt “bad guy” is Caldwell B. Cladwell, whose company owns and operates all public urinals. The “good guy” is Bobby Strong (Foster), who leads a rebellion against Cladwell, after Cladwell raises prices of public urination to unreasonable levels. In the role of Cladwell’s daughter and Strong’s love interest, is Thompson.

Thompson reveals that it’s a role she almost passed up. Ending a successful run as the female lead in the Broadway play, “Footloose,” Thompson was uncertain of her next career move. “Matthew (Rego) had to convince me to audition for “Urinetown” because, just from looking at the title, I wasn’t sure it was necessarily something I wanted to do,” she laughs.

“The title was one of our greatest assets,” Rego says. “We knew that, regardless of whether the show was good or bad, the title would be unforgettable.” Still, Rego says that he and his Araca associates—his brother, Michael, and friend Hank Unger—knew there was more to “Urinetown” than its shocking title. After viewing the play at the 1999 New York International Fringe Festival, Rego was impressed. “When we look for plays, we always think about its commercial potential and what the ‘hook’ is going to be,” Rego says. “The hook for Urinetown is that it’s really funny and really smart.” Premiering off-Broadway in April 2001, Urinetown made the move to Broadway in September and has since been generating sizable audiences, advance ticket sales and praise from critics.

Rego says that the experience he gained while attending U-M helped him achieve his present success. In addition to producing MUSKET theatrical productions, Rego also started Basement Arts, a U-M student-run organization where shows are cast, promoted, rehearsed and performed by students.

Following his graduation from U-M in 1992, Rego moved to New York and acquired further experience as an intern and production assistant with various theater companies. But after several years of being “performance-oriented,” Rego realized that he needed to learn more about the business aspect of the theater industry in order to be successful. After getting his M.B.A. from Fordham University, Rego teamed up with his brother and Unger in 1997. “We decided it was either time to get a ‘real’ job, or start our own company,” Rego jokes.

In creating The Araca Group, Rego says they knew they were taking a risk. However, according to Rego, risk-taking runs in the family. His grandfather, Charlie Araca, was a Sicilian who immigrated to Cleveland, Ohio, in the early 1900s and started his own grocery store. “He won $300 in a crap game and used the money to buy a food stand with his brothers,” Rego says proudly. “I think there’s something in that story, about taking a risk and being responsible.”

Fortunately, The Araca Group’s decision to take a risk is paying off. Combined with the recent success of Urinetown, Rego says they have had a 500 percent return on their initial investment in Eve Ensler’s “The Vagina Monologues,” which debuted in 1999. They are also producing the stage version of the classic porn film, “Debbie Does Dallas.” The play is currently in the workshop stage.

Another project that The Araca Group is working on is a revival of “Frankie and Johnny” in the Claire de Lune, by renowned playwright Terrence McNally. Made into a major motion picture with Al Pacino and Michelle Pfeifer, “Frankie and Johnny” opens on Broadway this August and marks The Araca Group’s first solo production. Starring Edie Falco of “The Sopranos,” and veteran film actor Stanley Tucci, Rego is awestruck over his good fortune. According to Rego, the Frankie and Johnny project came together in one afternoon, after McNally, Falco and Tucci all agreed to take part. “It was just magical,” he says enthusiastically. “It doesn’t really happen that way very often.”

As for Thompson, she also is approaching her success with a cautious optimism. “I feel like so much of the theater business is uncertain,” she says. “You can’t put all your eggs in one basket.” Although content with musical theater, Thompson says that she has begun doing television work as well, in order to maintain her lifestyle. She recently appeared in an episode of “Law and Order.”

“In theater, you either lose it all or you make a lot,” Rego says. “You have to approach it like any other business, and you have to strategize.” Rego’s current strategy is to look for plays that have a message. He claims that any play that has a message can be successful. “Urinetown is mostly entertainment and a great night at the theater, but it has a message,” Rego says. “The growth of the population will eventually exceed the growth of resources. We could exhaust our natural resources if we’re not careful.”