The New York International Fringe Festival has just announced its 2011 lineup, and one highly unusual offering nestles alongside the likes of Jersey Shoresical: A Frickin’ Rock Opera, Flaccid Penis Seeks Vaginal Dryness, and Zombie Wedding. With its goofy title, Yeast Nation (The Triumph of Life) may sound like just another loopy tuner, but this musical about single-cell life forms boasts an estimable pedigree. Its creators, lyricist Greg Kotis and composer Mark Hollmann, also birthed the Tony-winning Urinetown, which originated at the Fringe 12 years ago and stands as the most successful work the festival has ever produced.
Yeast Nation, set in the primordial ooze circa 3 billion B.C., concerns a dozen yeasts, all named Jan. The oddness of the show certainly marks it as Fringe appropriate, but you might think that Tony-winning artists would aim for a higher-caliber production. Well, they did. Though the show had successful runs in Alaska and Illinois, “we didn’t get any traction,” says Kotis, during a recent conversation with the reticent Hollmann (both in “cool Dad” attire) at the Housing Works café in Soho.
Apparently, talks with producers “boiled down to ‘I don’t know how to sell a show about yeast.’” Prokaryotic life forms aren’t terribly appealing. Witness the show’s love song, whose lyrics include, “Let us commingle in one great big cell! Billions of yeasts into my yeasty shell.” Group sex has rarely sounded less tempting. “There’s an ickiness factor we haven’t been able to guide people past,” Kotis explains.
Of course, ickiness was a chief component of Urinetown, a desperately funny Brechtian satire about excreta. It also surfaced in 2006’s Pig Farm at the Roundabout, Kotis’s last major outing in New York. And while Hollmann and Kotis won’t yet discuss their next, post-Yeast piece, suffice it to say that putrescence features. “I find myself drawn to words that are unsexy,” says Kotis, “to take one of those words and amplify and glorify it, I like that.”
Yeast’s distastefulness isn’t the show’s only inspiration, however. Oddly enough, Kotis first conceived of Yeast Nation a decade and a half ago, while attending a four-hour production of Antigone (Antigone is quite a short play) in Transylvania. As he watched this very old story, Kotis began to muse about even older ones: “I started wondering what narrative you could create for the first life forms. Is there an essential proto-narrative that all stories must be built on?”
The result borrows from the Oresteia and Elizabethan bloodbaths, in a tale of an infirm king, a dwindling food supply, a new life form, and forbidden love. The play concludes in a massacre with a body count to rival Hamlet’s, all set to Hollmann’s stadium-ready rock score. Hollmann modeled some of the songs on the five-tone pentatonic scale, a “primitive scale” befitting yeast. Then, says Hollmann, “I tried to find the find the primitive element in rock music.” The Fringe has yet to announce the venue for the show, but Kotis adds: “Hopefully we’ll be in a place that says ‘archaic ruin/bottom of the sea.’”
There’s a way to read the return to the Fringe as a kind of failure. “Maybe we don’t have an instinct for success,” says Kotis, “or for proving to producers that what we have is worth putting on.” But both he and Hollmann describe reappearing at the Festival as “liberating” and “empowering.”
“It’s a choice to take control of our own artistic property,” says Kotis. “It’s going to be really hard: It’s a big musical in a crowded festival in the hottest, stickiest, dampest month of the summer. But we don’t have to ask any theater or producer for permission for our show to exist in front of an audience.”
Manhattan: Prepare for one mighty Yeast infection.
The New York International Fringe Festival runs August 12 to 28.