A major theme is the havoc wreaked by over consumption. This musical also has quite a lot to say about love as something complex, painful, not always fun, but certainly worthwhile.
It takes place at the beginning of time on the bottom of the sea, in a kingdom on the verge of collapse.
The world of Yeast Nation:
Almost all of the characters are single celled organisms - referred to as Yeasts. They are all named Jan (pronounced "yahn").
They wear the same costume, they eat the same salts, they value stasis, and they are all
descended from Jan the Eldest, the king of Yeast Nation.
He spent a lot of time floating in the primordial soup alone, until he divided himself, giving birth to Jan the Second.
This cellular division continued, resulting in royal yeasts (those most closely related to the king) and humble yeasts who live on the fringes.
Their society is much more formal than ours, with strict codes of behavior and harsh punishments for those who fail to observe them.
One extremely important element is the Chorus, who help the audience understand what is going on by commenting on the action. They also use their bodies to create the set.
There is an album's worth of songs in Yeast Nation's score. The sound is best described as rock opera, though there are also pop, rock, and "show tune type" numbers. The authors, Greg Kotis and Mark Hollmann, are best known as the creators of Urinetown.
It is the year 3,000,458,000 BC! The Earth's surface is a molten mass of volcanic islands and undulating waves!
Song: Hear the Song
Thusly does the Chorus introduce the audience to the history of Yeast Nation, a once great kingdom now fallen on hard times. Unbeknownst to all but a few, they are running out of food - salt and "fatties" (bigger crystals of salt, a luxury item reserved for the highest rank).
Song: You Are My Children
Due to this situation, strictures - or rules - have been put in place to govern the citizens' conduct. Jan the Eldest asks his trusted advisor, Jan the Wise, to remind the community to:
Eat of the salts with moderation
Avoid asexual reproduction
Remain on the bottom of the sea.
The king accuses a humble yeast named Jan the Wretched of being a traitor for leaving the boundaries of their kingdom and floating to the top of the sea in search of food. He is found guilty and sentenced to death.
Jan the Wretched's daughter, Jan the Sweet pleads for his life, on the grounds that her father is insane.
She is so sweet (and aptly named) that the king is moved. He offers to spare Jan the Wretched's life if he apologizes and swears that he will never again rise to the top of the ocean in search of food.
Jan the Wretched refuses.
The King orders that he be popped open. The chorus complies by pulling on his membrane, spilling his jellies and killing him.
As Wretched is dying, he warns his daughter, Sweet, that the yeasts' food supply is almost entirely gone and that there are no new salts to be had.
Jan the Eldest announces that to rid themselves of the bad taste left by Wretched's execution, they will be having a Grand Jamboree of Sameness, a giant feast where each yeast will be expected to make an offering to the king. Given how things have been going lately, it's in the king's best interest to keep his subjects identifying as a group rather than as individuals.
Song: Burnin’ Soul
Jan the Sweet grieves in her private nook - the little cubbyhole that serves as her sleeping area.
The king's firstborn (and therefore favorite) child, Jan the Second Oldest goes to visit her there. He tries to console her with a big salt crystal -a fatty- but she rejects this gift. No amount of food can make up for the loss of her father.
Another visitor arrives. It is the king's advisor, Jan the Wise, who also gives her a fatty and invites her to accompany him to the Grand Jamboree of sameness. It's clear that Second and Wise can't stand each other.
Jan the Sweet leaves to share the two fatties she has received with the other yeast.
Song: I’ll Change the World Around Her
Jan the Second Eldest is smitten with Jan the Sweet, thus becoming the first yeast to experience love…a feeling heretofore unknown in the primordial soup.
The Chorus predicts that the new feeling known as love will wreak havoc from here on out.
The Chorus predicts that the new feeling known as love will wreak havoc from here on out.
Song: Little Sister
Meanwhile the king's daughter, Jan the Sly, plots to gain the throne…which would fall to her were some misfortune to befall her father, Jan the Elder, and brother, Jan the Second.
She confronts Jan the Famished, a lowly housekeeper yeast who's trying hard to conceal the fact that she is pregnant as a result of overfeeding. (Remember, the Strictures state that they are not supposed to reproduce and that they are to 'eat of the salts with moderation'.) Sly suggests that Famished should be executed for this treason, but that she, Sly, will intervene to save her. In return, Famished must do whatever Sly tells her to. The bargain is struck.
Elder confesses to his advisor, Wise, that he has long known that the salts were running out, and that he should have put the brakes on their excesses a thousand years earlier.
Meanwhile Second, his firstborn, swims to the surface, following the dying words of Wretched.
Jan the Second Oldest goes to visit Jan the Sweet again . He brings another present, a fistful of muck found when he swam to the surface…an action for which her father was executed!
Song: Let Us Rise
He describes the surface as a wonderful place, and after some initial resistance, gets her to taste some of the muck, an amazing substance that may well represent a new food source, a substance that could save the starving yeast. The two of them rise to the surface together. They can't stay long. It is wonderful - and romantic - but the proximity to the sun burns their membranes a bit. They agree on a plan: Jan the Second Oldest will gather muck, and Jan the Sweet will hide it in the private nook until the Grand Jamboree, when they will reveal it to the entire kingdom.
Jan the Famished, the pregnant, housekeeping yeast brings Sly the muck Sweet had hidden in the nook, hoping that Sly will keep her promise to protect her when the pregnancy is revealed to all. The two show Wise, the king's advisor the muck, but do not mention that it could be a source of food. Instead, Sly frames it as a crime against all yeasts hold dear. Whoever is guilty of introducing this foul substance into their kingdom should be put to death! Even if it is her brother, Jan the Second Oldest, the only yeast standing between her and the throne, should something "bad" happen to her father.
Song: Stasis is the Membrane
Now that Wise has been tipped off about the muck, and the location in which it was found, he can blackmail Sweet into attending the Grand Jamboree as his date. She agrees, believing it is the only way to keep Jan the Second Oldest from being executed as a traitor.
All the yeasts gather for the Jamboree. Sly introduces her father, the king, to Jan the Famished, who has given birth to Jan the Youngest. The newborn toddles in, completely unaware that she and her mother could be executed on the spot for treason. Eldest is outraged, but Wise and Sly convince him that stasis has been maintained, mathematically - Youngest replaces Wretched.
Jan the Second Oldest arrives just in time to see his beloved, Jan the Sweet entering on the arm of Jan the Wise. He's devastated that she would cheat on him, not realizing that she has been coerced into this date. (Had she not accepted Wise's invitation, Wise would have brought the muck to the court's attention and she and Second would have been implicated. She doesn't care about saving herself - only Second.)
Despite this heartbreak, Second goes ahead with his plan to publicly confront his father with the muck as evidence of a food source that has been kept hidden from the starving citizens. Recklessly, he reveals that not only did he himself eat some of this muck when he rose to the top of the ocean, he ate such a vast quantity of it that he too has split - reproduced asexually. (The extremely fast gestation period occurs entirely offstage) He has given birth to a creature known as the New One, an alien-like non-yeast whose introduction creates utter panic, and ends the first act.
Song: Act I Finale
Song: You Don’t Know a Thing About Love
The disgusted Chorus reiterates that love is a disastrous force that leads one to do insane things. (For those keeping score at home, both Second and Wise love Sweet, Sweet loves Second, Jan the Eldest, loves his treasonous son, Famished loves her newborn, and Sly loves power to the point where she would murder both father and brother to get it.)
Back at the Jamboree, Jan the Second Oldest is in danger of being executed on the spot, when the New One - his child, as well as the first non-yeast-related life form - pipes up in his defense.
Song: Me Good
The New One doesn't have much language with which to communicate, but its sentiment has a purity that moves the king to call off the execution, at least temporarily. He commands that Second be chained in the Fatty Cellars, until he decides what to do with him. He takes the New One off to study it in private, hoping to understand this strange being who has entered their world.
Song: Don’t Be a Traitor to Love
Sly, disappointed that her father called off her brother's execution, now endeavors to get Wise to murder the king, and pin the blame on the New One. He is convinced when she says that Sweet will never love him as long as Second is alive, and that it'll be much easier to kill off Second once the King is no longer around to issue stays of execution. The idea of being with Sweet is so enticing that Wise agrees to help.
Sweet confronts Famished about having entered her private nook on a routine housekeeping mission, only to steal the muck that was hidden there. Worse, how could she have turned it over to someone as unscrupulous as Sly? Sweet convinces Famished and her baby, Youngest, to do the right thing - ie go to the King and reveal how Wise and Sly have been plotting against him and his son.
Sweet then goes to visit Second in his prison. Not knowing the circumstances that led her to attend the Jamboree as Wise's date, he drives her away.
Song: You’re Not the Yeast You Used to Be
Jan the Unnamed and the Chorus encounter Sweet wandering in despair the Outer Reaches, and convince her to not give up on Second.
Song: Love Equals Pain
In the Royal Chambers, the king is having trouble getting the New One to eat salt or even muck. He is so taken with this endearingly naive creature that he lets his guard down. Perhaps, he admits, his son his right. Maybe the yeasts should start eating the muck. He decides he will have a nibble of this forbidden fruit.
Song: Let Us Rise Reprise
The first mouthful is so enthralling, he is compelled to force a taste on the New One. Cornered, it lashes out, popping Elder's membrane and mortally wounding him.
Sly and Wise arrive to murder Elder, only to find that the New One has done the job for them. Sly speculates that the New One requires live food, and without further ceremony, offers it a taste of her dying father's body. Startled by the arrival of the Chorus, the New One runs off without eating, and the king, the eldest of the Yeasts, expires.
Song: Doom! Love! Doom!
Famished and Youngest arrive to overhear Sly ordering Wise to kill Second. They flee, hoping to reach Second before the murder can take place. Sly orders Wise to follow them and kill them too. In fact, she gives a standing order that anyone who stands between her and the throne should be murdered.
Famished and Youngest reach Second in time. They inform him of his father's murder, set him free and also slap him around for daring to think that Sweet had betrayed him with Wise, when actually she was sacrificing her own honor on his behalf.
Song: Look at What Love Made Me Do
Jan the Second - now king - orders Famished and Youngest to rise to the surface and eat as much muck as they can in hopes that they will give birth to an Army of New Ones who will help keep Sly and Wise at bay.
Meanwhile, Sly takes Unnamed, the leader of the chorus, hostage, as she goes in search of the New One.
She traps the New One and in a surprise move, rips open Unnamed's membrane, killing her on the spot. She feeds Unnamed's jellies to the New One, who devours them enthusiastically, proving the hypothesis about its preference for live food.
Song: Life Goes On
Wise and Second are locked in mortal - musical - combat, heaving salt crystals and fatties at each others' heads as Sweet looks helplessly on. Wise gains the upper hand and goes in for the kill, but Sweet stops him by seizing hold of her own membrane, threatening to commit suicide on the spot if any harm comes to Second.
Sly enters and orders Wise to proceed with the murder of Second. Who cares if doing so will hasten the death of Sweet? There are plenty of other yeast in the sea. Wise cannot bring himself to do anything that would harm his beloved, so Sly summons the New One to do the job for him.
The New One is no longer the endearingly naive creature that so enchanted the king, wantonly devouring chorus members in an offstage rampage. When it enters, we see that it is the latest to become pregnant, hugely so. This suggests that New Ones reproduce asexually too, in a process directly tied to nutrient intake.
Sly orders the New One to kill Second.
Instead, the New One kills Sly.
The former yeast chorus return as a chorus of New Ones, eager to feast upon the body of Sly.
Not sated, they attack, kill, and feed on Wise.
Jan the Second Oldest, horrified, wonders if they intend to murder everyone.
Unnamed - now transformed into the leader of the New One Chorus - enters and explains that they are acting no differently than the yeast did, running through their resources at a pace that will eventually spell their doom.
In a last ditch attempt to save themselves, Sweet and Second begin to fuse into the world's first multi-cellular organism.
Song: The World Won’t Wait
Famished commands Youngest to join them, holding the New Ones off by deliberately sacrificing herself. The transformation of Sweet, Second and Youngest into one multi-cellular organism is completed as the New Ones are busy devouring Famished.
Now there are no more yeasts - only New Ones, and a multicellular organism.
The chorus tells the audience that though they have just witnessed the end of the great society of salt eating yeasts, but that the story doesn't stop there.
"A ceaseless succession of species rose, then fell, blooming triumphantly, then collapsing into dust, but not before playing their own particular parts in the story of life."
By way of illustration, the multi-cellular organism devours the New One…and gives birth to a human baby.
One of the chorus members indignantly informs Unnamed that what she's suggesting has absolutely no basis in science. Unnamed responds that science has failed to convince mankind to put the brakes on the overconsumption that could destroy them, but perhaps a piece of bio-historical theater can