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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