The only thing Young Jean Lee might die of during the August 5-17 LCT3 return engagement of We're Gonna Die is stage fright. But she probably won't, as she's been performing this Obie Award-winning cabaret around the world with her band Future Wife since 2011. The show is so successful that it's even spawned an album, which is released on August 6.
The initial idea was to develop something truly crazy — and what's crazier than singing and dancing about sickness, failure, and death? We talked with Lee about the genesis of this project and how she's itching to return to her life safely behind the scenes.
Tell me about the genesis of We're Gonna Die.
I was doing this coproduction with my company and [the now imploded] 13P. They basically said, "This is your chance to do something really, really insane; the most insane thing you can think of." How am I going to top what I've already done? The only thing [my shows] had in common was that they had amazing performers. What would happen if I didn't have an amazing performer? That would be a nightmare. But the ethics of it — to cast someone because they're bad isn't a nice thing to do. Then, it hit me: I'm a terrible performer! I have no experience. I hate it. I'm a behind-the-scenes person. What if I performed it?
And thus the idea was born.
Well, what's the worst thing I can imagine performing? A one-person show with singing and dancing. The subject matter came up because my father had passed away recently and I had a really hard time. I got an e-mail from a European presenter that said, "I love [your work] because you attack [the audience]," as a compliment. I thought I should make a show that would comfort the audience.
So the subject of death came into play because of your father?
I had written a play called Lear that was basically [written] while he was dying. Then after he died, death was very much still on my mind.
Are the stories within the piece — which explores crippling loneliness, failure, and death — all true?
They're all true, but only the story about my dad happened to me. The others happened to my friends.
What are your memories of your first night performing the show?
Oh my god. I don't think I've ever been so terrified in my entire life, for sure. It was the greatest height of terror I ever remember experiencing. I was a total mess in terms of being so scared. When I got on stage, I was so visibly terrified that my friends couldn't watch. They couldn't stand to see me that way. Performing isn't my thing; normally, I'm pretty confident. Even though I was so scared and so nervous, the show still worked. I feel like the show itself, as a structural thing, just works. I built it so that it doesn't require a great performance. It requires an honest performance.
Would it work with other performers?
Do you know the director Jim Findlay? He's this enormous, straight white guy, and he performed the show at Hank's Saloon and it worked perfectly well. He made up a little bluegrass band. It was a little different, but it worked.
Are you willing to set someone else up in the role to take over for you?
We've been touring it all around the world, and I would very much like to train somebody else into the part so I don't have to do it anymore. I'm going through intensive vocal coaching to get through the Lincoln Center run. Performing this show is something I'd love not to have to keep doing. We haven't gotten there yet though.
Going back to Lear for a second…That work, which deconstructs Shakespeare's King Lear, famously ends with a re-creation of the Sesame Street moment where Big Bird finds out that shop owner Mr. Hooper has died. Where did that come from?
At some point, my dramaturg sent me a link to the Sesame Street clip. It's just such a perfect accounting of death for a child. When your parent dies, no matter how old you are, there's a part of you that's just like a kid.