Seeking to comfort instead of confront the audience — a departure from her usual practice — experimental writer and director Young Jean Lee investigates such themes as loneliness, romance, family, aging, and death in her eloquent, sparkling musical show We’re Gonna Die. When challenged by avant-garde theater collective 13P to do the craziest thing she could think of, the Brooklyn-based Lee decided to star in a new play, facing her own deep-set fear of performing. The woman behind such innovative productions as Lear, The Shipment, and Untitled Feminist Show came up with We’re Gonna Die, a song cycle in which she presents a series of monologues followed by related musical numbers played with her band, Future Wife. Delivered plainly by Lee at the front and center of the stage, the stories are organized like a chronological narrative of her life, told in the first person, beginning with her childhood and moving through to the current day. Although the confessional tales, which cleverly explore terrible, painful, heartbreaking events and memories, are all true, the only one that actually happened to Lee directly is the long, powerful story about her father’s battle with cancer; the others were shared with her by friends.
Such songs as “Lullaby for the Miserable,” “Comfort for the Lonely,” and “When You Get Old” incorporate various indie-pop melodies, featuring Mike Hanf and Benedict Kupstas on guitars and keyboards, Andrew Hoepfner on bass, and Booker Stardrum on drums. One of Lee’s central themes is that bad things can happen to good people and that we are all basically the same. “Who do you think you are / to be immune from tragedy? / What makes you special / that you should go unscathed?” she sings in “Horrible Things.” The show, which debuted at Joe’s Pub in April 2011, opened the new Claire Tow Theater at Lincoln Center last year, and now is kicking off LCT3’s second season, comes to a rousing conclusion with “I’m Gonna Die,” as the band rocks out before performing a riotous dance number with Lee, choreographed by Faye Driscoll, and getting the audience to sing along, everyone staring death in the face together. “I’m gonna die / I’m gonna die someday / Then I’ll be gone / and it’ll be okay,” Lee repeats over and over. Directed by Big Dance Theater’s Paul Lazar, We’re Gonna Die is an absolutely thrilling and involving sixty minutes from an immensely creative and talented artist who is special indeed, no matter what she claims onstage. (Lee and Future Wife have also just released a CD of We’re Gonna Die that includes the songs from the show but with the monologues spoken by an all-star lineup of guests that includes David Byrne, Laurie Anderson, Colin Stetson, Kathleen Hanna, Drew Daniel, Sarah Neufeld, and Martin Schmidt.)