Behold, The Yeasts!

As we've worked on Yeast Nation, I've been reading a great book called Greek Theatre Performance: An Introduction, by David Wiles. And I keep reading passages and thinking, "Hmmmm, that describes Yeast Nation too!" It's amazing how well Kotis and Hollmann have tapped into all those original impulses that created theatre so long ago...

Wiles writes early in his book, "Whilst gods hover on the margins of Geek tragedy, the plots focus upon heroes, men and women of a distant time that can neither be called myth or history." You can't get more distant than three and a half billion years ago.

Wiles writes, "Mythic subject matter was not a residue of old traditions, but was introduced into tragedy as a means of generating critical distance, so issues of the moment could be turned into issues of principle. By transferring immediate political hopes and fears to the world of myth, tragedians encouraged their audience to judge as well as to feel." He writes, "In tragedy, the issues of the present were transposed into an entirely separate space/time, in order that they could be judged with some measure of objectivity." Later in the book, he writes, "Tragedy was a device which allowed the Athenians to come together and collectively think through their problems. The Greek word polis means a "city-state" or community of citizens. Geek tragedy was necessarily political -- its subject matter was the well-being of the polis, and its performance was part of what turned a collection of people into a polis."

That's exactly how Yeast Nation operates. And Urinetown, for that matter. And a lot of other shows we've produced. That's still one of the primary purposes of making theatre -- and one of the primary reasons live theatre will never die. We need this.

Wiles writes, "Heroes engaged in a primal rebellion against god or something divine." In Yeast Nation, it's Jan-the-Second's rebellion against The Strictures, their holy text.

Wiles writes, "Greek plays dealt with the limit of the human ability to control the world. Spectators sat inside the city they had created and looked at the wilderness beyond. From the security of their seats, they contemplated a world where nothing was secure." In a weird, backward, time-machine kind of way, the same is true with our show. As they do throughout Yeast Nation, the writing team has adapted all these classical devices to our times and conventions, giving us the best of both worlds.

On a related topic, Wiles writes, "Greek tragedies are set in a single place, with only two clear exceptions. Typically, the characters of tragedy are trapped in a situation from which no physical escape is possible. There are three points of exit, and none offers release from a trap that will culminate in death." That describes pretty much exactly the plot of our show.

In talking about the actual performances in Greek theatre, Wiles writes, "The heroic milieu of tragedy was transmuted into laughter in a short piece called a satyr play, which followed the performance of three tragedies." In Yeast Nation, our writers have combined those experiences, so that our tragedy is also a wild comedy that's parallel to the satyr play. Wiles writes, "Tragedy is enclosed in the sense that it makes no formal acknowledgement of the audience. Comedy reverses tragedy and plays on the permeability of the actor-audience boundary." Yeast Nation is a tragedy that acts like a comedy. Or is it a comedy that acts like a tragedy....?

Our scenic and lighting designer Rob Lippert has built us a cool set with the audience surrounding the performers on three sides. In his book, Wiles writes, "The illusion of the fully detached spectator is only sustainable in a proscenium theatre, where the auditorium is placed in darkness, physically separated by the proscenium arch from the fictional universe of the play. The performers of Greek drama never pretended that their encircling audience was invisible, and had to find a mode of address that made sense of the relationship." Rob's set is not only a really fun playground, it also powerfully invokes the show's -- and theatre's -- roots.

And Rob is keeping the audience in the same blue "water" light the actors are in, for the whole show. It will be subtle, but it will make our entire theatre the world of Yeast Nation, not just the "playing space." Our audience will not be in darkness.

Jan-the-Unnamed and her Yeast Chorus operate very much like their theatrical ancestors. Wiles writes, "In the Greek theatre, the chorus functioned variously a a physical extension of the audience, as the narrator of ancient myth, as an objective arbiter, as the extension of a particular character with whom it expresses solidarity, or else as a fragmented group with diverse view." All that is true of our Yeast Chorus. Wiles also writes, "The chorus is the essential element which uniquely allows the release of a true tragic space. A chorus is not geometric, it is organic. A collective body, it possesses a center of gravity, extensions, breath. It is a sort of organism that can take different shapes according to the situation in which it finds itself."

Even though we have embarked on yet another utterly unique journey, during which our past journeys can provide only limited help, we all feel so secure in the brilliant, demented hands of Greg Kotis and Mark Hollmann. They have attempted some insane things with this show, but they're succeeded so completely. As different as Yeast Nation is, Kotis and Hollmann have given us an outstanding road map.

We open this week. Just two more rehearsals before we get to share this gloriously fucked-up treasure with our audiences. I cannot wait.

Come share this wonderful adventure with us. You will be so glad you did.

Long Live the Musical!

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So Now Our Story Begins

"Time for the beginning of time!" intones our Yeast Greek Chorus at the opening of Yeast Nation. It's one of those lines that's funny because you can't quite decide if it makes sense or not, and the more you think about it, the less sure you get. The whole opening lyric tells us everything we need to know about the wonderful, wacky roller coaster ride ahead -- including the fact that it will be periodically disorienting.

But that line, "Time for the beginning of time" is also weirdly meaningful. After all, our story is about the beginning of... well, almost everything...

We start, of course, with the fact that Jan-the-Elder is literally the first life form on Earth. You can't get more beginning than that.

Like Urinetown, Yeast Nation is faux dramatic, or as Trump might call it, Fake Tragedy. And that's the source of much of the humor in the show, the uber-serious tone and narrative, against the inherently ridiculous premise and setting. One of the ways the show maintains that delicious faux seriousness is that it keeps offering up origin stories for us, not just the origin of Life, but also the origins of Evolution, Love, Emotion, Theatre, Ritual, Politics, and also the stoner term, "fatty."

A moment late in the show gets to the heart of all that, at the birth of a child when, as the stage direction puts it,"All ululate." That moment gets at ancient primal rituals, primal emotions, and it connects our musical yeasts to our present as well as our past. Many cultures today ululate, but as far back as Aeschylus' classical Greek drama Seven Against Thebes, a character named Eteocles tells a crowd of women how to ululate properly:
I accept this word of yours, in preference to your earlier words. Now, in addition to that, get away from the images and utter a better prayer — that the gods should fight alongside us. Listen to my prayer, and then utter the sacred, auspicious ululation of triumph, the customary Hellenic cry at sacrifices, to give confidence to our friends and dispel their fear of the foe. I say to the gods who inhabit this land, both those who dwell in the plains and those who watch over the market-place, and to the springs of Dirce and the waters of Ismenus, that if all turns out well and the city is saved, we will redden the altars of the gods with the blood of sheep, set up monuments of victory,

But this is also a story about the beginning of Emotion. In this world, Love is literally deadly. And also, these characters are terrible at dealing with Love, because they have no experience with that or any other emotion. They're like moody Tweens suffering their first puppy love, but at the same time, they're all tangled up in life-or-death political intrigue.

Watching them stumble their way through Love -- and Hate and Jealousy and Fear -- is so desperately, honestly human, and it's how Greg Kotis and Mark Hollmann gets us to care about the wild, tangled events of our story. These characters have such human flaws and frailties, and the various power struggles change direction over and over, usually due to overwhelming emotions of one sort or another.

One of my favorite threads winding underneath the action is that, since love and other emotions, and political intrigue, and "the long view of history," are all new to our characters, our Yeasts are pretty bad at all those things. They plot and scheme, but so transparently that everybody can always surmise what everybody else is up to. They feel these powerful emotions, and then stumble and drool all over those feelings. Jan-the-Wise and Jan-the-Second are both beyond awkward, sometimes crossing into creepy, in their clumsy courtships of Jan-the-Sweet.

And yet, in comic counterpoint to all that -- but also in harmony with all that -- is the show's faux serious posture as early Greek tragedy, our earliest recorded theatre, the beginning of Western theatre.

As I said in another post, if you change the crazy premise of the story to something less silly, the story becomes genuine tragedy. That's how much Kotis and Hollmann understand the genres they're mixing and playing with. I've noticed that the real Greek tragedies were really talky! They're also really compelling, exciting theatre, when they're done well. I realize Yeast Nation is also talky in that same way, except Yeast Nation is a rock musical, so it's not talking; it's great rock songs.

As they did with Urinetown, co-lyricists Kotis and Hollmann are really good at writing songs that are dialogue more than just lyrics. Several of the songs in the show are serious fights, and the music does so much to take us to those extreme emotions. Last week, I told the actors to unleash the drama, and really go for it -- and it raised the show to the mythic stature it should have, despite its considerable silliness.

Again like Urinetown, when we get to the end of Yeast Nation, you won't be sure whether what you just saw was one big goof, or something deeply profound. Or both.

What could be more fun than that?

Long Live the Musical!

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Go On and Feel That Life!

One of my favorite books, Training of the American Actor, is a survey of the various American acting methods, in a really clear, accessible form. What I've learned over time as a director is that every actor needs from me something slightly different. Every actor's process is unique. So this book is a valuable tool for me, to be familiar enough with lots of different processes. Kind of like a band teacher who can play lots of different instruments.

My biggest overall takeaway from the book is that much of the "theory" or "philosophy" of acting boils down, more or less, to one concept -- live honestly and spontaneously within the world of the story. That requires a deep understanding of that world, real, fictional, or like most of our shows, a combination of the two -- notably, a deeper understanding than the audience ever needs.

Some actors (and David Mamet) think everything they need is in the text. I couldn't disagree more. To live fully in an imaginary (or even half-imaginary) world demands more than a superficial understanding of how that world operates. And let's face it, even the most factually accurate piece of theatre isn't "real," since storytelling by necessity means selecting and editing from the details of life. Even if the story is entirely true, so much gets left out, which distorts the truth, for better or worse.

When we produced Urinetown, it wasn't too hard for our actors to understand those people and that world, a fractured mix of the near-future and the 1930s, but still recognizably America -- and American musical comedy. When we produced Bat Boy, the characters were exaggerations, but hypocritical, fear-driven Christians aren't entirely foreign to us.

With Jesus Christ Superstar, we followed Tim Rice's original wishes that the story be set Now. So we found the closest contemporary parallels to the characters' actual social and political positions. That's the whole point of the show, after all, comparing Jesus' political activism and the government's response, directly to the activism and government responses of the present. But at the same time, our actors needed to understand the culture and politics of 33 AD, and where it does and doesn't mirror our times. Once we came to understand all of that fully, everything about the show became so obvious, so clear, so organic -- that's what Tim Rice intended, and it works so beautifully.

Where am I going with all this...?

To Yeast Nation, of course. This time, getting the actors comfortable in the world of our story isn't nearly as straight-forward. But everything becomes clearer and clearer at every rehearsal, the flow of the story, all the interior connections and cross-connections, the incredible build of momentum over Act II, the unrelenting intensity of it all. As I like to say about many of my favorite shows, it's a real roller coaster ride.

This world has a slightly different vocabulary from what we're used to, different values, different institutions, different beliefs... and yet, intertwined with all that are unmistakably human emotions like love, lust, jealousy, loss, corruption, ambition. But we can't always make "human" assumptions about the events of our story. As an example, I've asked the actors to always carefully pronounce two words, muck and love, because these are two new things in this world, so they shouldn't be comfortable with those words too quickly.

It reminds me of 1776, in which they all pronounce "Maryland" as Mare-ee-land. It had not yet lost its connection to Queen Mary, the wife of Charles I of England; it was (as place names go) still relatively new.

This show is like we're in a parallel dimension, where yeasts remained the dominant life form all these millennia, and so instead of Antigone and Macbeth, the great Yeast playwrights wrote Yeast Nation. After all, even the Greek Chorus, outside the narrative, are still Yeasts. They are telling us their story.

Which is to say, our story.

You see the challenge. One of our guiding lights is Jan-the-Unnamed and her Yeast Greek Chorus. Her formalized, "tragical" language gives us a strong sense of where Kotis and Hollmann mean us to go. Before we even started rehearsals, I re-watched both Macbeth and Antigone to get into that mindset. Like Macbeth, this show really is a political thriller -- give it a non-ridiculous context and it wouldn't be funny at all.

That's the glory of the madness that is Yeast Nation.

At the same time, we can't get lost in the yeastiness of it all. The old rule still applies, to play the woman, not the prostitute; or to play the man, not the drunk. Here we have to play honestly the human emotions and weaknesses that Kotis and Hollmann have built our story on. But we have a double trap to avoid. We have to play the serious events and emotions, not the wacky premise. And likewise, we have to be careful not to play the political title, in this case, Crown Prince (Jan-the-Second-Oldest), but instead to play the rebellious son; not to play the eventual betrayal, but to play the injustice that leads Sly, and the overwhelming desire that leads Wise, both to their treason.

The trick is to come at all of it from the inside, not from the outside. When the material's this rich, that's not hard. But it's still tricky in Yeast Nation.

It's important to understand all this because the least funny thing is the effort to be funny. I reminded the cast last night of one of the Rules of Great Comedy. If they get an idea that will be really funny, they have to discard it; but if they get an idea that will really reveal character or story (and if it's also funny, that's a bonus), they should try it. We don't have to make the show funny; Kotis and Hollmann did that for us. We have to make it honest.

Because that will be really, really funny.

As we head into the home stretch and polish our crazy creation, I'm watching both Oedipus the King and Oedipus at Colonus. I think both will help me guide this ship of ours toward its hilariously sui generis destination. It is a glorious, audacious piece of the best kind of madness. I can't wait to share this with you.

Long Live the Musical!

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Happy Mother's Day!

On Mother's Day, we musical theatre freaks often talk about our favorite mother characters in musicals -- or the most monstrous -- but I've never blogged about my own mother, Joan Zobel, and all the ways she helped me travel the weird, wild, wonderful road I've been traveling pretty much since birth.

I'm a starving artsy, so I can never get Mom much of a Mother's Day present. This year, my present is a very public Thank You.

It comes with Free Shipping!

So here are the Top Ten Ways My Mom Supported Me on My Road to Here and Now (I know, I know, that title is too damn long, I'll work on it)...

When I was 15, I wrote a letter to Bud Culver, the president of the Muny. I told him I was going to spend my life making musicals and I wanted to be a Muny usher. (I had auditioned for the Muny one summer and saw quickly that would not be how I'd end up working at the Muny.) At the time, most of the ushers were kids of board members, donors, and other rich folks. But I got a call a week later, and I was a Muny usher for eight years. It was an amazing experience and it was there that I learned the literature of my art form.

Mom went Above and Beyond that first summer, driving me to My Dream Job and picking me up every night. And after that, letting me take her car 4-5 nights a week -- back when the Muny season was 11 weeks long!

Spring of my Freshman year in high school, I got cast in my first "real" musical (i.e., a show that had run on or off Broadway), the great Anything Goes (the '62 version). I was Bishop Dobson, who gets arrested in the first scene, and I was in the tap chorus! I had the time of my life! Mom got a Navy recruiting post to donate the sailor costumes for us, and she took me out and bought me tap shoes! I was in musical comedy heaven. (Funny side note: the afternoon we got my tap shoes, I also performed in a Steve Martin Act-Alike Contest at Streetside Records and won Second Place!) She was so proud to see me tap dancing in the show! That was the most fun I ever had on stage.

To my great delight, I got to work on Anything Goes again this spring with New Line. What an amazing, joyful piece of theatre.

When the rest of the kids at Affton High School were getting "Affton Football" and "Affton Hockey" jackets, I told my mom I wanted one that said "Affton Theatre." She wasn't keen on the idea. "Oh honey," I remember her saying, "No one else will have one and then you won't want to wear it... And do you have to spell theater that way...?"

Poor Mom. She gave in and got me the jacket. I wore it so much, she had to buy a replacement by the time I got to senior year. One other kid got an "Affton Theatre" jacket too. But I would've been fine being the only one. I don't think Mom understood yet that nothing on this earth was going to prevent me from spending my life making musicals. And telling the world about it. When I went to college, she had a "Harvard Theatre" jacket made for me.

My mother is pretty unflappable when it comes to my musical theatre. After twenty-seven seasons of New Line, not much shocks her anymore. But back in high school, I could still shock her. Junior year, I discovered and fell in love with Hair, and I played the movie soundtrack night and day. I'll never forget one day, I was playing it loud and "Sodomy" came on. I heard my mother calling from downstairs, so I stopped the stereo and she said, "Is that song saying what I think it's saying?" I assured her it was. She sighed and replied, "Well, could you at least close your door?" and she went back to whatever she had been doing. Score one for musical theatre and cool Moms!

When Mom came up to Harvard to see me graduate, we took a short trip afterward to New York to see some shows. We saw the original La Cage aux Folles, Little Shop of Horrors, and the revival of Sweet Charity with Debbie Allen and Michael Rupert. All three shows were so wonderful.

Seeing La Cage was interesting. I had figured out I was gay by then, but hadn't told my family yet. And Mom was not raised to feel great about gay people. But I'll always remember after the curtain call, she turned to me, her face full of revelation, and she said, "They really did love each other, didn't they?" That was huge for me.

And now New Line is producing La Cage next season. I. Can. Not. Wait.

We also saw Little Shop off Broadway at the Orpheum Theatre in the East Village. I'll admit the neighborhood seemed awfully dicey, but I wasn't missing this for anything. The show changed my life. It was the first time I had seen a show that took an inherently ridiculous story and played it hyper-serious. Years later, I would invent a label for shows like that -- neo musical comedies. I've directed a lot of them.

Before the performance started, Mom noticed some canvas wrapped around pipes overhead. She asked me what they were, and I lied and said I didn't know. Then at the end of the show, on the last word of the finale ("Don't feed the plants!"), those canvas wraps were released and giant plant tentacles dropped down into our faces, literally slapping my mother. She laughed and laughed, and kept saying "You knew! You knew!"

When I was a senior in high school, I wrote my first musical, Adam's Apple. And honestly, from the moment I wrote my first song, I knew I wanted to do this forever. And I will. The Affton High School drama department produced my show in fall 1981, and the television news magazine PM Magazine, came out to shoot a segment about me and my show.

The producer and cameraman spent the whole day with me at school, then followed me home and filmed some more. Then, to my mother's huge surprise, they clipped a mic onto her sweater so the host Jann Tracy could interview her. Mom was totally freaked out by this, but she did an excellent job. See for yourself...

Years ago, I mentioned to my mom that a friend's mom had made her a quilt out of t-shirts from high school, and someday (hint, hint), I'd love a quilt made out of musical theatre t-shirts. A few years ago, she made me that quilt. It's a mix of Broadway show shirts and New Line show shirts. What you can't see in the photo is that the quilting is in patterns of eighth notes and treble clefs. So cool. My cat Hamilton loves it as much as I do.

I will always remember once in middle school when the high school drama kids came down and did a preview of their production of Godspell, which totally blew my damn mind! I had never seen anything like that! So I convinced Mom to take me to see the show, and a while after we got home that night, around midnight, I asked her if she'd drive me up to Peaches Records and Tapes (open till 1:00 a.m.) to get the Godspell cast album. And she put her shoes on and we drove over and got it.

I listened to that recording nonstop for months. I always remember that night when I see young people at a New Line show...

Years later, I'm sitting backstage at the Edison Theatre at Washington University with the great Stephen Schwartz, composer-lyricist of Godspell, because I got to host a discussion and talkback with him while he was in town for a concert. I brought that Godspell album, told him that story -- it was the first cast album I ever bought -- and got him to sign it for me.

My folks started me on piano lessons when I was four. I got good enough to play octaves before my fingers were long enough to play octaves. But damn, did I hate practicing! Mom and I would fight about it, and I'd cry, and she'd say, "You still have ten minutes left to practice." So I'd go practice for ten more minutes.

The piano was in the basement, and I'd take the kitchen timer down with me, so I'd know when a half-hour was up. I'd play one piece, set the timer ahead a little, play another piece, set the timer ahead a little... eventually, coming back upstairs triumphantly after 17 minutes or so, "finished" practicing, not fully comprehending that there were clocks in the house, so she could easily tell I was cheating, though I vehemently denied it.

I unintentionally got my revenge though. Even at age five or six, the only way they could keep me interested in my piano lessons was to let me work on a show tune every week, in addition to finger exercises and a classical piece. At first, it was "Easy Piano" arrangements, but soon I could play real sheet music as long as it wasn't too complex. And my first real sheet music was "Tradition" from Fiddler on the Roof. I spent months working on it, so for months, my family had to listen to me joyfully pounding away in the basement -- bum-PA-PA-bum-PA! bum-PA-PA-bum-PA!

They were sure wishing then that I'd turn that timer ahead...!

(Notice the Peanuts artwork on the wall, in this picture of me as a tiny pianist. Mom made all that for my birthday party that year, along with painted, plywood Charlie Browns and Snoopys she cut out on the jigssaw, for each kid at the party to take home!)

Today, I am so grateful they started me that early and forced me to stick with it. I literally learned to read music as I was learning to read words, so I'm a pretty great sight-reader. I love that I can buy a theatre score, open it up on my piano, and play and sing through it. There's a lesson for you, parents!

This has to be Number One on the list.

I was up at college when I turned 21. And a few weeks before my birthday, I got a letter from Lucie Arnaz and Larry Luckinbill, wishing me a Happy 21st Birthday, and mentioning that they'd see me the next time they were performing at The Muny.

But I didn't know Lucie Arnaz and Larry Luckinbill. And how did they know I was turning 21...?

As more birthday greetings started arriving from theatre and film celebrities, I realized my mother was behind this. I ended up getting birthday wishes from Jerry Herman, Gwen Verdon, Leonard Bernstein, Priscilla Lopez, Robert Preston, Hal Prince, Marvin Hamlisch, Betty Buckley, Tommy Tune, Len Cariou, and quite a few others -- even Frank Sinatra! You can see all of them here.

Is that not the coolest birthday present ever? And this was in 1985, before the internet...

Luckily for me, my mother is very artsy. She never really trained at any of her talents, but she has a lot of them. In retrospect, it was so valuable to me that, from the earliest age, in my house creativity was both something normal and something to celebrate. Combine that with the fact that 90% of our family's LPs were Broadway cast albums, and it's a miracle that only one of the three boys turned out this way.

My parents got divorced when I was twelve, but that was also important for my development as an artist. My father had a hyper-practical capitalism fetish, and had I been living with him when I was in high school or college, I could not have pursued the pure (and poor) artist's path that I did.

I figured out what my Real was at a very early age. Mom knew it. Mom was an artsy. My father, not so much.

She has almost never missed a show of mine. The only exceptions are two monstrously vulgar shows I told her not to come to, because they really would've bothered her -- Jerry Springer the Opera and Bukowsical -- and even though I told her not to come, she felt guilty missing my shows. Other than those, she sees it all, and over time, she's even grown to prefer my kind of musicals over the old-fashioned classics... One of her favorite New Line shows has always been Floyd Collins.

The acorn doesn't fall far from the tree...

The older I get, the more I think about how I got to this moment in my artistic journey -- one of these days I know I'm going to be finally, inexorably drawn to Merrily We Roll Along -- and it's really interesting, and sometimes surprising, to look back to when I was a kid. It all started back then...
How did you get there from here, Mr Shepard?
What did you have to go through?
How did you get there from here, Mr. Shepard?
How did you get to be you?

Bending with the road,
Gliding through the countryside.
Everybody merrily, merrily,
Sing 'em your song!

You can now go back to your discussions of mothers in musicals...  and by the way, my FB buddy Adam Feldman wants to know, if that one tree in Into the Woods is Cinderella's mom, then are all the trees in the forest people's parents...? Did I just blow your mind?

Thank you for everything, Mom! And Happy Mother's Day, Everybody!

Long Live the Musical!

A Lavish Feast for Every Yeast

We produced The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee in 2009. Our audiences loved it, our actors loved it, and though I enjoyed watching performances, I didn't enjoy directing it all that much.

Why not?

It required almost nothing of me. Roughly 95% of blocking rehearsals were me saying, "Okay, then you get up and cross to the mic... then when the song's over, you go back to your chair..."

It's true that I did get to help the actors with characters, backstory, all that fun stuff. Despite the fact that most productions treat this show like it's sketch comedy, it's not; it's really rich and well-crafted. The characters are complex and nuanced, and Spelling Bee tells some Big Truths about the adult world. It's a masterful piece of theatre that doesn't get the respect it deserves.

But it wasn't very fun for me to stage.

Yeast Nation has been somewhat similar for me, though not to the extreme of Spelling Bee. With Yeast Nation I feel like the craftsman in me has been kept crazy busy, but not the artist as much. Blocking this show has been primarily about sightlines and traffic control -- so much is going on, so many characters come and go, as our writers juggle all these crazy narratives threads throughout the show.

As Sondheim has said many times, the most important question is always: are we being clear? We can't control whether an audience likes or "gets" our show; we can control whether our storytelling is clear.

Rob has given us a crazy set, an abstract kind of reef, shaped like a big raked croissant, with the audience on three sides. That will be an awesome playground for our actors, but it makes my traffic patterns even more challenging. On the other hand, Kotis and Hollmann love using a split-screen effect, so this reef naturally gives us a number of semi-isolated playing areas, which is helpful.

There are a couple big songs in the show in which we "split the screen," not just two ways, but more. In "Alone," the screen first splits two ways, with Wise and Elder talking in one area, while Second swims to the surface. Then it "splits" again, and we see Sweet feeding the poor. And they're all singing.

In the middle of "Look at What Love Made Me Do," the "screen splits" between Second and Sweet, then Wise in another "screen," then Sly and Unnamed in another "screen," then the Yeast Chorus in two more "screens." A six-way split-screen. That's not something you would have seen during the Rodgers & Hammerstein era, but audiences are so used to modern film techniques, that we easily accept stuff like this.

West Side Story used a multi-split-screen in the "Tonight" quintet, but I can't think of another true "split screen" onstage until Company.

In the 1970s, Michael Bennett and Hal Prince experimented with using film techniques on stage (particularly in musicals), but Bennett was really at the height of his powers in 1981, with Dreamgirls, where his staging used pans, close-ups, focus-pulls, reverse angles, dissolves, etc. Today, all that is just the common visual language of modern musical theatre. Look at shows like Les Miz, Next to Normal, Passion, Sweet Smell of Success, Grand Hotel, Passing Strange, Spring Awakening, American Idiot, and so many others.

Michael Bennett died way too young, but he moved us so far ahead.

Directing Yeast Nation, I'm finding my two biggest jobs are to act as both a guardrail and a permission-giver. Those are always part of my job, but in this case, I think they are primary. As guardrail, I have to keep us all in this very specific storytelling style, and not let us lose the stylistic overlay or the core emotional honesty. Those two have to stay in balance for this show to work right.

My role as permission-giver is always my favorite part. Actors -- even the freest and most inventive actors -- usually need explicit permission to go for it. Anytime we're staging a fight, at some point early on, I have to say to the actors, "Okay, you guys, now come on and fucking fight!" And then they do, and the scene crackles with electricity, and they're then free.

I think a lot of actors -- most? -- think that extreme emotions are essentially the equivalent of over-acting. But that's so wrong. Over-acting means taking the acting beyond the material to a different (arguably, wrong) place. But extreme emotions are real. Real people experience extreme emotions every day, though most of us are fairly good at emotional camouflage.

Just as good news is not usually News, so too ordinary emotions are not particularly dramatic. No one wants to be told a story about a woman whose life is fine and she's cool with it. That's not dramatic, because there's no conflict, no struggle; and we need conflict and struggle in our stories, because humans tell stories to make sense of ourselves, our lives, and the world around us. And the world around us is chock full of conflict and struggle.

The more a story, however ridiculous, speaks to your real-life experience, even if you don't consciously recognize it, the more that story feeds you what you need. That's why people respond so powerfully to shows like Rent. You don't have to be a bohemian in the East Village to learn something of value from Angel, Tom, Roger, Mark, Maureen, and the gang. You don't have to be trapped by a man-eating plant to recognize the very human emotions and insecurities in Little Shop. And you don't have to be a Jewish dairyman to find deep resonance in Fiddler on the Roof

One of the great rules of storytelling is that the more specific the details get, the more universally the themes will resonate with the audience. And you can't get much more specific than single-celled yeasts on the floor of the ocean three billion years ago. In Yeast Nation, the royal princess desperately wants the throne, but even if you're not royal and you're not a single-celled yeast, you can still understand her feelings, insecurities, frustration, etc.

Because no matter what a story is about, it's about you. That's the essential point of storytelling.

Maybe now that we're done blocking and we're moving into the theatre, my first job, above all others, is just to make sure we're telling the truth, and not getting carried away with the fun and glorious weirdness of our story's content. The funny will take of itself -- the writing is that good -- but we have to take care of the truth this show is telling, about human nature, about ambition and betrayal, about progress and sacrifice, about love and desire and primal appetites.

One of the great joys of the original Star Trek is that they could tell stories about the most immediate, most relevant issues of the moment, because those issues were always thinly veiled behind aliens and spaceships. Likewise, Yeast Nation is all about us, here, now, but that thin veil sure is a lot of fun.

I can't wait to get the actors on the set next week!

Long Live the Musical!

Click Here to Buy Tickets!

A Big Muck Breakfast

I know there are people who think musicals don't require "real" acting -- and believe me, they're not shy about telling me that -- and they're full of actual shit.

The opposite is true. The real challenge, the real tightrope, is the kind of truthful, honest, but highly stylized acting called for in musicals like Bat Boy, Urinetown, Little Shop, Cry-Baby, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, and many other shows of this new Golden Age. These are shows that seem to hold us at a Brechtian arm's length, while they sneak up on us and get us emotionally engaged before we realize what's happening.

It's a mantra I quote constantly, coined by Keythe Farley, co-author and original director of Bat Boy: "the depth of sincerity, the height of expression." I remember when we produced Bat Boy (in 2003 and 2006), we had the audience laughing out loud much of the evening, but also crying real tears at the tragic climax of the story. That's some skillful writing, and it requires skillful acting and directing.

It means taking the acting, the characters and relationships, as seriously as we would if we were doing Virginia Woolf or True West. As with many of our shows, the wonderful but bizarre premise of Yeast Nation makes that harder, although the excellent writing takes us right where we need to go. Kotis and Hollmann have been working on this show for a number of years, and they've been honing it all that time. This newest version we're working on is lean, taut, suspenseful storytelling -- even as it's also patently absurd and ridiculous.

That's that tightrope I'm talking about. Neither side dominates -- the ridiculous is perfectly balanced by real emotional honesty. It's hard for actors (and directors) to pull that off, but when they do, it makes for genuinely thrilling theatre.

As Greg Kotis writes in his Author's Notes on Yeast Nation:
Yeast Nation (the triumph of life) is a comedy, but what kind of comedy? There aren’t too many jokes, and it’s not all that witty. The script and score actually seem to take themselves rather seriously -- which is actually the key to how to attack the show. For the comedy (and therefore, the show) to succeed, the production must commit whole-heartedly to the grim, ominous, brutal, terrifying reality of the world of the play.

So as we work on Yeast Nation, I've asked my actors to think about their big arcs in terms of three questions.

When does love infect you, and how does it change you?

When do you first eat muck, and how does it change you?

All the characters either fear or hunger for change -- which side are you on?

As I wrote about in my last blog post, the one central through-line in our story is the destructive power of Love. Each of the main characters gets corrupted -- infected? -- by Love, as it spreads like a deadly virus through this community, bringing tragic endings to several of them. You can actually chart the spread of the virus through the story.

All the problems our Yeasts face in our story come from outside forces. First, Love is introduced to their world, but as single-celled organisms, they're not really equipped for Love. Then, when Jan-the-Second-Oldest ventures up to the surface to find a new source of food, he discovers Muck, a much richer, more nutritious food source that plays havoc with the Yeasts' biology (or lack thereof).

In the script, Kotis writes in his Notes:
The Muck is another important mechanism of the story. In practical/real-time terms, The Muck is like speed, or meth, or ecstasy, or Red Bull, or any of the powerful, mood altering drugs that temporarily fills people with energy and purpose and delusions of grandeur while also allowing the user to remain lucid and present.

So we have two powerful, mood-altering drugs playing havoc with our Yeasts -- Love and Muck -- and they have no experience with either. And what do they bring with them...?

The other major theme running through our story: Change. Almost every character changes, most drastically, many physically as well as psychologically. But also, every character either fears Change or hungers for Change. Jan-the-Second-Oldest and Jan-the-Wretched want Change to save their community. Jan-the-Sly and Jan-the-Wise want Change because they want power. Jan-the-Eldest fears Change -- exactly like today's Trump voters. Change is scary, but sometimes the inability to change can be tragic or deadly. That's the central point of Fiddler on the Roof.

We see that Change manifested in the flesh with The New One. I can't really say any more about her without some spoilers, so just take my word for it.

Though Yeast Nation's first production was in 2007, the story is now an obvious metaphor for our freaky, fucked-up politics today.

Jan-the-Eldest (the king) stands in for older (though not always), more conservative Americans, who fear Change, who fear The Other, who want to return to the safety of a time past, which wasn't really all that "safe." Even in the face of crisis, these folks resist Change. Jan-the-Second-Oldest stands in for the progressive movement -- which frequently takes huge missteps. The conspirators, Jan-the-Sly and Jan-the-Wise stand in for the cynical politicians who care nothing for the well-being of the country, only for their own accumulation of wealth and power.

And maybe The Muck stands in for social media, an intoxicating super-charger of all our worst impulses and emotions. Like Muck, one could argue that social media is as necessary to our lives as it is destructive.

Or maybe we can see The Muck as Fake News -- it satisfies the immediate hunger for relentless bias confirmation, and it makes you feel GREAT -- vindicated, reinforced, reassured -- even though it totally fucks up your morality and analytical abilities. Watching people gleefully spew vicious lies about political figures on Facebook doesn't feel that different to me from the meth-like reaction our Yeasts experience when they ingest The Muck.

Look at this conversation between Second (intoxicated by Muck) and Sweet. It almost sounds like they're talking about cocaine...
SWEET: is this stuff supposed to save us, exactly?
SECOND-OLDEST: (Euphorically insistent) Taste of it and you shall know!
SWEET: Taste of it?
SECOND-OLDEST: That’s right! Do so, you’ll be happy you did!
SWEET: No, I don't think so.
SECOND-OLDEST: You're frightened. Don't be.
SWEET: I have but a primitive digestive system!
SECOND-OLDEST: Not as primitive as you think!
SWEET: Please, Second One, I don't want to- !
SECOND-OLDEST: You will taste of it! (Second catches her and forces her to eat.)

Maybe any story that really gets at the truth of human behavior and emotion can act as a metaphor for nearly any time and place. The show seems so particularly relevant to our politics and culture right now, but maybe the same will be true forty years from now...

All we need to know is that this story, despite its inherent wackiness, tells the truth about us, and our job is to make sure we communicate that truth as clearly as we possibly can. If we trust the writers and the material, we just have to go where they lead us.

It's a hell of a wild, funny, creepy, silly, ridiculous, insightful, wise, wonderful ride. I hope you'll come join us.

Long Live the Musical!

Click Here to Buy Tickets!

Love Equals Pain! Mind-Numbing Pain!

When people ask me what Yeast Nation is about, and I flail around verbally trying to explain that it's really hilarious but also kind of freakishly serious; that it's literally about single-celled yeasts three billion years ago, except that's not really what it's about at all; that it has clear parallels to Antigone and Macbeth (and a lot of other "serious" classical theatre), and it's also deeply fundamentally, joyfully ridiculous... I'm usually able to refrain myself from going into "guns, germs, and steel" and the allocation of resources...

I mean, I'm trying to sell tickets...

At first, I was saying that Yeast Nation is kind of like Urinetown, but the more we work on it, the more I see that's not true. There are a few Big Picture similarities, but the two shows are very different.

The one thing I never find myself mentioning is Love. And yet, despite all I just wrote, love really is the driving force behind our story. Jan-the-Sly (the "princess") knows she is less loved by her father Jan-the-Eldest (the king) than her brother Jan-the-Second-Oldest ( the crown prince); and that sense of injustice, based on nothing but her gender (except yeasts don't have gender), and her hatred for her undeserving but beloved brother, drives every dastardly scheme she undertakes. It's always the ones without power -- but close to it -- that crave it the most.

But significantly, Jan-the-Sly would never think in those terms because love hasn't been invented yet, since it's three billion years ago on the floor of the ocean. And yet, love will fly like a stealth bomber through this entire story. And while, 90% of musicals are love stories, this is a story about the danger and powerful destruction of love.

In the form of a Greek tragedy. That's a rock musical. That's actually a quirky comedy.

It's interesting to note that there are no songs in Act I with the word love in the title. There are five in Act II. And you can sort of chart the arc of our story through those titles: "You Don’t Know a Thing About Love," "Don’t Be a Traitor to Love," "Love Equals Pain," "Doom! Love! Doom!" and "Look at What Love Made Me Do." There's even one more that's about love, though it doesn't appear in the title: "You're Not the Yeast You Used to Be."

Before all that, in Act I, Jan-the-Second-Oldest has a fight with Jan-the-Sweet, and after she storms out, he sings a song about the love he feels for her that he can't yet verbalize, "I'll Change the World Around Her." He is the first of the yeasts to love, so they don't have language for it yet. After the song, our (sort of) narrator Jan-the-Unnamed says to her yeast chorus, "Did you not feel it, children? The 'flame' that burns within him, the one cherished by the Creatures-Yet-to-Come?" (The Creatures-Yet-to-Come are us.) When one of them replies, "Twas mighty, this heat," Unnamed reveals the secret that will propel the rest of the plot like a virus: "Twill grow mightier, still! For 'twas the heat - of Love!"

Once Jan-the-Wise overhears their conversation, once the word infects him, he's doomed too. His vague feelings of something toward Jan-the-Sweet now take on new weight and new peril. Love is fucking shit up. Rather than the force that usually propels us toward a Happy Ending, here love is the enemy. As the king bemoans in Act II:
Doom is the outcome!
Doom is the love-child!
Doom all around you!
Doom now has found you!

In fact, the word doom appears in our script more than any other words, except yeast (obviously) and love (which appears 120 times). Not a coincidence.

Like its sibling Urinetown, Yeast Nation gives us a hero who makes lots of terrible choices (in a world where there really aren't any good choices), but always for the right reasons; in both shows, he does it both for love and for the good of the community.

Once Jan-the-Sly sees how powerfully love can drive Jan-the-Second-Oldest, she realizes what a valuable tool of manipulation and power it can be. Though Unnamed warns her of the equal danger of self-love. By the end of Act I, the word has infected Jan-the-Famished, and she invokes her love for the king to get herself out of trouble -- which then infects Jan-the-Eldest, the most dangerous infection yet...

The second act shows us the fallout from the love virus. The act opens with Jan-the-Unnamed and her yeast chorus lecturing both the audience and the lead characters, with the greatest anti-love song you've ever heard in a musical.
Well, you don't know a thing about love!
Love comes on with hurricane force,
Drives a dire, disastrous course.
Love outkills disease and famine!
Hear us as we sing about love!
Love is like a hell upon earth!
Torture that begins upon birth!
Join us now as we examine:
Love-tinged sadness,
Love-fueled madness,
Steaming piles of
Wigged-out, pigged out

It feels like a glorious mashup of the opening number of Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum with A Midsummer Night's Dream. And before you know it, the king is losing his edge because he's so enthralled by his love for his grand-yeast. Yes, you read that right. And it will be his downfall.

Once again, love sucks.

In "Don't Be a Traitor to Love," Jan-the-Sly needs the regicidal assistance of Jan-the-Wise, so she ruthlessly exploits his understandably adolescent love for Jan-the-Sweet, by persuading Wise that he has to be a traitor to the king (and the yeast kingdom?) in order not to be a traitor to his love for Sweet. Well played, Sly One.

Jan-the-Sweet and Jan-the-Second-Oldest nearly have nervous breakdowns over the ups and downs of their love throughout the second act. And it pretty much does the same to Jan-the-Wise.

So it's a musical comedy but not really a musical comedy... and it's a love story, but not really a love story, okay sort of a love story, maybe it would be better to call it a story about love, or maybe a story about the unpredictable power of...

Oh fuck this. Call it Yeast Nation.

The adventure continues. We start blocking Act II Monday.

Long Live the Musical!

Click Here to Buy Tickets!

Doom Is the Love Child

So there's this new musical about a poor, uneducated woman who works by day in a dirty shop in the worst part of town, and in a strip joint by night, and is trapped in a physically abusive relationship; and when her one chance at happiness comes along, her White Knight gives into his worst impulses and indirectly causes her death. And it's a comedy.

I lied. It's not a new musical. It's the now "classic" musical comedy Little Shop of Horrors. When it debuted off-Broadway (I saw that original production!), it was really Fringe-y, and yet today most people would consider it a mainstream musical. It's because the art form has changed so profoundly since 1982. In fact, Little Shop is not a musical comedy; it's a neo musical comedy, a 21st-century evolution of the old-school musical comedy (yes, admittedly, a tad early to the 21st-century party, but still).

The story of Little Shop isn't just serious, it's fucking intense! All the wacky comedy comes from the show's ridiculous "given circumstances" -- a universe in which there's a man-eating, talking, blues-singing, bass-voiced, diabolical, alien plant bent on world domination -- or more precisely, because of the juxtaposition of the wacky circumstances against the characters' incredibly serious emotions and actions.

I'll do another one. A family moves to a small rural town that's failing because the mines have closed. Despite retraining programs, the former miners are facing bankruptcy and foreclosure. When the family adopts a troubled young man, terrible secrets and wounds from the past are brought back, the town turns against them, and the family shatters.

I almost forgot, the troubled young man is half-bat. Yep, that's the plot of the hilariously brilliant Bat Boy.

One more. A dying king worries that his kingdom is crumbling, amidst increasing food shortages. His son journeys to a faraway kingdom to bring back a new kind of food, but in his absence, the king's daughter and closest counselor conspire to turn the king against his son and heir. But still, when the prince returns, the king welcomes his son and the new food to save his kingdom. Unfortunately, the king's and prince's judgment sucks, so their choices indirectly cause various kinds of death and mayhem.

At this point, you know the game. What have I left out? They're all yeasts.

We've blocked about two-thirds of Act I of Yeast Nation, and at each step of my work on this show, I understand it a little differently. Having lived with the show for a while, listened while the actors learned the score, and now staging the show, I realize how deadly serious the actual plot of our story is. All that is crazy and ridiculous and hilarious comes from the given circumstances, in this case, that all our characters are single-celled yeasts living on the ocean floor three billion years ago, give or take.

We got to the word yeasticide in the script last night. That always makes me giggle.

Again, the plot isn't just serious; its Fucking Serious. And if there's any doubt, in the second scene of the show, the king has the father of the prince's girlfriend put to death for breaking one of the "strictures." Of course, his death scene, in which his "jellies spill out," is totally silly, but also kind of disturbing. That's the point.

But also, the given circumstances here aren't just funny, they're INSANE. Did I mention that our actors are playing yeasts? When Kotis and Hollmann wrote Urinetown, their characters were ridiculously clueless and ridiculously oppressed, but here they're yeasts!

Their tale turns it up to eleven on both the Sophoclean weightiness of the story and the wacky insanity of the given circumstances. And throughout the show, they often straddle both worlds in the soaring yeast power ballads, expressing really big, really profound emotions -- in yeasts.

Most American musicals assume a common cultural language with their audiences, and historical musicals often assume audiences have some knowledge coming into the show. But Yeast Nation comically explodes that idea too, because here that common cultural language the show assumes is that we all know that we evolved beyond single-celled creatures.

The climax of the show (don't worry, no spoilers) is so much funnier because we know an apocalyptic event for the single-celled yeasts would be a good thing for human evolution. For us to be sympathetic with the king's desire for nothing to ever change -- to have their blessed "stasis" -- we have to root against our own evolution, our own existence.

And that's really funny to me. And weirdly subtle. That kind of writing is a joy to work on. It's also hard to get right. But we New Liners, more than most, I think, really understand that narrative and stylistic tightrope.

Thinking back over our history, so many of our shows have been similar -- very serious on the surface, very honest in the emotions, but with sky-high stakes and a greatly heightened, even ridiculous style (which is not the same thing as over-acting). Here's what I wrote about this tightrope in my chapter about Bat Boy in my last book, Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll, and Musicals:
Director and co-author Keythe Farley developed what co-author Brian Flemming likes to call the “take-it-so-seriously-it's-funny-but-it-also-hurts” style of Bat Boy. Both Deven May (as Edgar) and Kaitlin Hopkins (as Meredith) were in this first production and, together with Farley, they found the extremely sincere approach that this outrageous musical demands. Farley’s mantra throughout the development process was “the height of expression, the depth of sincerity,” a style of truthful acting that marked all the work at the Actors’ Gang – something the cast took to heart and something which guided them throughout the L.A. and New York productions. Flemming says of his partner, “Keythe's major contribution to Bat Boy has gone largely unmentioned, but it was great and permanent.” Unlike musicals in which the goal is to be as silly as possible (The Producers, Spamalot, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels), with Bat Boy, the goal is to be as serious as possible within the context of an utterly silly universe.

“The height of expression, the depth of sincerity.” That's our mantra.

Shows we've produced that operate in this way (despite other differences among them) include The Rocky Horror Show, Bat Boy, Reefer Madness, Urinetown, Return to the Forbidden Planet, Spelling Bee, Cry-Baby, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Bukowsical, and Yeast Nation. Interestingly, since I've been working on The Zombies of Penzance, I've realized that the Gilbert & Sullivan shows operated in very much the same way, though much more "controlled" than the awesome craziness of our 21st-century musicals.

I was happy to see how quickly our Yeast Nation actors got comfortable with the style and the tone of the show. We have quite a few new folks in this production, but everybody seems to get it. I think it's because the writing tells us everything we need to know. With Urinetown, the style and tone aren't as obvious on the page, and I'm glad I saw the original production before I directed it. But with Yeast Nation, they tell us what we need to know.

The dialogue is a heady mix of formalized, out-of-time, vaguely Greek-tragedy language, constantly alternating with utterly ordinary, contemporary slang, all of it peppered with invented language for this universe that sounds an awful lot like Dr. Seuss if Dr. Seuss smoked weed. It gives the whole story a weird but real dramatic weight (which the music helps a lot with as well), along with a funny but genuine humanity. And that reminds us, over and over, that this story isn't really about yeasts (since, as far as we know, they do not have religion or royal succession), but really about us.

Kotis' initial question that sparked this whole wacky enterprise -- How far back can stories go? What would be the very first story? -- also serves as a subliminal theme of our story: that all stories are about us. That's the point of human storytelling, after all. We tell stories to understand ourselves and the world around us. And maybe Kotis was also asking, mischievously, maybe subconsciously, how far away from humanity can a narrative get and still connect to an audience on a human level?

Fuck Cats! We're playing Yeasts!

Still, despite all the craziness, if rehearsals are any guide (they are), my bet is this crazy story will connect to our audience powerfully. I think this show is going to be more like Little Shop and less like Urinetown, more genuinely, though weirdly, human and emotional, less coldly cynical. Although we can't expect Kotis and Hollmann to let go of cynicism altogether; what fun would that be?

Yet another New Line show that is sui generis. The more I think about the musicals we produce, the more I love that Latin phrase. "Constituting a class alone." Yep.

The adventure continues.

Long Live the Musical!

Click Here to Buy Tickets!

Stasis Is the Membrane That Keeps the Yeasts Together

If it's not funny enough already that the protagonists of Yeast Nation are literally single-celled yeasts, or that our musical is set three billion years ago on the floor of the ocean, or that these yeasts have emotion, community, history, and power struggles, or that the two central plot lines of our show parallel Antigone and Macbeth...

If all that isn't enough... There's yet another very funny element that will probably pass right by most of our audience. What may be the craziest aspect of this epic, twisted fable is that all the weirdest details of our story are biologically accurate.

Several times during the story, we witness a yeast die by "popping open" (or being popped open) and having their "jellies" spill out. We found out the process of cell death is called apoptosis. We've also learned that single-celled organisms don't die naturally; they just keep splitting and making new cells. But they can die by being "eaten" by other cells. Which happens in our show.

On the website LiveScience, I found this: "Researchers at Rockefeller University have discovered that some cells rip themselves apart bit-by-bit in order to attract certain specialized proteins in phagocytes that will gobble them up and carry them away."

Late in Act I of Yeast Nation, in an attempt to drive a wedge between the King and his son Jan-the-Second-Oldest, the King's counselor Jan-the-Wise, and the King's daughter Jan-the-Sly make a (disingenuous) plea for conservatism:
Stasis is the membrane
That keeps the yeasts together,
Through all kinds of weather,
In storm as well as calm.
With harmony our bedrock,
And brotherhood our basis,
Stasis is our membrane!
Stasis is our balm!

Weird lyric, no? 

Well, keep in mind these are yeasts singing this. For these single-celled creatures, stasis is the inhibition of cell growth and reproduction. And for these particular yeasts in our story, more yeasts mean less food, so no increase in population is important. (Like Urinetown, this is another story about resources!) It's not just important; it's a matter of life and death. A static population is their protection; or if you were a yeast speaking metaphorically, you might say it's their membrane, since the membrane is a cell's outer layer of protection, which keeps all their "jellies" from spilling out (that's their form of death).

As one guy on Quora put it, "As to how death looks like for unicellular organisms, really, we don’t know. The best measure we have is whether they are able to maintain their membrane integrity. It takes an active effort to keep water from leaking into the cell, so when they can’t do that anymore, they 'blow up' and die."

So yes, literally, the membrane "keeps the yeasts together," and here it's also a yeasty metaphor for the security of zero population growth, which helps the food not run out, so the community can stay together. "Harmony" is indeed their (meta-)bedrock, since when the yeasts all sing that line, they sing it in harmony; in fact, they sing in harmony throughout the show. And actual brotherhood is literally their "basis" since they are all children of Jan-the-Elder.

Earlier in the show, Jan-the-Elder complains, "Once my rules were adhered to without question. Now we must butcher our own kind to maintain my beloved stasis. I only want things to stay more or less the same for all eternity! Is that too much to ask?!" He sounds like American conservatives longing for a return to the 1950s.

What I love about Greg Kotis and Mark Hollmann's writing is that the crazy dialogue and lyrics really do come from the point of view of yeasts. The metaphors are metaphors yeasts would use. You can just picture "Stasis Is the Membrane That Keeps the Yeasts Together" embroidered on a yeast sampler hanging over a yeast mantelpiece.

And sure, that's what writers are supposed to do, write in the character's voice, right? But did I mention these characters are all single-celled yeasts? It's a good thing Kotis and Hollmann are as crazy as they are, or this would be a much less interesting, less engaging piece of theatre. Their fierce protection of their story's interior logic makes this ancient, microscopic world both real and somehow weirdly familiar to us.

After all, parents and children are still parents and children, even if they're microscopic yeasts. Okay, that's not really true at all. But it's true in our story.

Back in the song, Jan-the-Famished is already in some yeastly trouble herself, so of course she joins in Sly's creepy yeast patriotism, singing:
Stasis is a feeling,
A powerful sensation,
That all things in creation
Know deep down to the core.
When life gets too uncertain,
Without a firm oasis,
Stasis gives the sense that
We’ll live forever more!

Which is literally true, since single-celled organisms don't die naturally. Then Sly and Famished sing the chorus together, and it starts to remind me of a funhouse mirror of "Tomorrow Belongs to Me" in Cabaret. Then Jan-the-Wise joins in on the propaganda/philosophy/patriotism:
We’re a simple life form,
A fragile bag of jelly.
Without salt in our belly
We simply cease to be.
So let’s obey the strictures,
And listen to our betters.
Fretters are repugnant
To those who rule the sea!

In other words, do what you're told and shut up. It's what every oppressed minority throughout history has been told. We know better, the authorities tell them.

Later in the show, two of our yeast heroes bond together and create the first multi-celled organism. The LiveScience website says, "The first transition from simple, single-celled organisms to cooperating groups of cells is believed to have occurred a little over 2 billion years ago. This multicellular arrangement was a step toward more complex organisms, like us, who possess different types of cells for different functions, such as red blood cells capable of carrying oxygen around our bodies."

Who knew this crazy musical-tragedy-political-thriller-satire is also a stealth biology lesson? I can't really say I'm surprised. I'm sure there are plenty more delicious, fucked-up surprises awaiting us. We start blocking next week! So much fun ahead...

Long Live the Musical!

Click Here to Buy Tickets!

Time for the Beginning of Time

One of the quirkier joys of this new Golden Age of the American Musical Theatre is this new generation of writers who have combined immense skill, craft, and artistry with wacky, silly, ridiculous -- and yet often, weirdly insightful -- narrative content.

I guess Little Shop really was the first to do this. Alan Menken and Howard Ashman wrote an impeccably "professional" script and score, telling a story that was at once ridiculous and yet also powerfully human and deeply emotional. The same is true of brilliant shows like Bat Boy, Urinetown, Cry-Baby, Spelling Bee, and others.

This incredible craft and artistry is on display in Kotis and Hollmann's Yeast Nation script and score. As strong as their Urinetown score is, this score is much more ambitious, with several lengthy, hilarious musical scenes that go back and forth between sung and spoken dialogue, that use multiple musical themes, and all of which are incredibly well-crafted dramatically. While there are a few "interior monologue" songs in the show that pause the action for introspection, most of the score is very plot-driven, and many of the songs are musical dialogue.

As we make our way through this rich, complex score, I notice that composer Mark Hollmann has a very funny musical agenda. The more dramatic the situation gets -- and believe me, it gets intense -- the more serious (even ponderous) the music gets. But at the same time, the more serious the music gets, the slangier the lyrics get, always comically undercutting the weight and drama of the music.

As Hollmann and Kotis did in Urinetown, here again each element of the show -- book, lyrics, and music -- consciously, repeatedly subverts the other elements.

Which subverts and complicates our reaction to it.

When we hear soaring, rock power ballads, we're conditioned to read big powerful emotions into them. But here, that big powerful emotion gets its legs cut off over and over, by the Yeasts singing threateningly, "Spill his jellies!" and other such craziness. Or by deliciously fucked-up lyrics like:
Not in the least
Are you the yeast
You used to be!

(You have to say it out loud to get the full effect.) And yet the whole enterprise is presented with such seriousness, such weight, such conviction. None of that more obvious silliness that made Urinetown so much fun. Yeast Nation is just as ridiculous, but somehow, also more subtle.

Little Shop, Bat Boy, and Urinetown taught us the First Commandment of the neo musical comedy: the more seriously you take it, the higher the stakes, the funnier it gets. Too many directors and actors don't understand that. And with Yeast Nation, Kotis and Hollman have put that concept on steroids.

The central joke here -- portraying single-celled yeasts as a human community, with a government, history, culture, alliances, palace intrigue, etc. -- gets even funnier because the story is presented as straight-faced, classical Greek tragedy, with clear, intentional parallels to both Antigone and Macbeth.

The impetus for writing the show was Kotis' wonderings about how far back he could trace narrative; what's the oldest story he could tell? He eventually realized he couldn't go back any further than the first life forms on earth. But in telling this story, Kotis and Hollman don't only take us "back to the beginning of time;" they also take us back to the beginning of theatre.

And that's pretty potent.

Our audiences are going to be shocked as hell -- they're used to that by now -- by how smart, how rich, how well-crafted, how insightful this lunacy is, at its silly heart. I already know what people are going to say to me after the show (the same thing they say after many of our shows): "It wasn't anything like I expected!"

That's what we do.

Even after twenty-seven years of producing some of the most extraordinary works ever written for the musical stage, this is one of the most original, most exciting things we've worked on. I can't wait to start staging it. I have a feeling we'll spend much of our blocking rehearsals giggling.

Such a cool adventure in front of us yet again...!

Long Live the Musical!

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