Theatre Charlotte is proud to announce a special production of Songs for a New World. This music revue transports the audience from the deck of a 1492 sailing ship to a ledge 57 stories above Fifth Avenue and features an array of characters from a young man who has determined that basketball is his ticket out of the ghetto to a woman whose dream of marrying rich gets her the man of her dreams and a soulless marriage. These are contemporary themes presented through contemporary characters singing contemporary popular music. Written by Jason Robert Brown, who has been called "one of Broadway’s smartest and most sophisticated songwriters since Stephen Sondheim," the score features soaring melodies and irresistible rhythms with a wide range of songs that encompass jazz, gospel, funk and rock.
One of the characters in Songs for a New World says "I don't want to philosophize. I just want to tell a story." And that line describes Songs for a New World perfectly; in fact, it tells a whole collection of stories. It's not a book musical – there is no over-arching plot and no consistent characters throughout the evening. In its construction, it owes much to Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris and the theatre experiments of the 1960s. It’s a collection of independent scene-songs but it’s also more than that. In a 1998 review in St. Louis’ Riverfront Times, Mike Isaacson wrote, "Songs for a New World is that very rare beast: an abstract musical. There is no specific location other than the natural ambiguity of the human heart and mind." And yet it has a very strong sense of unity about it. Even though many of these songs were actually written for other projects over the span of several years, this show feels like it was planned as a unified whole from the beginning.
It accomplishes this mainly because every song in the show is essentially about the same thing: those moments in life when everything seems perfect and then suddenly disaster strikes, in the form of the loss of a job, an unexpected pregnancy, the death of a loved one, the end of a marriage, imprisonment, even suicide. But it’s even more about surviving those moments. It's about the way we regroup and figure out how to survive in a new set of circumstances – a new world – even against seemingly overwhelming odds. These are songs about that new world, a world in which the definitions of family, distance, money, technology, the very nature of human contact is changing every day, a world in which the rules don’t apply as often as they do, a world in which the solutions our parents found don’t work for us, and a world in which today’s answers probably won’t apply tomorrow. For someone who has lost his job or lost a spouse, our everyday world becomes just as frightening, just as dangerous, just as uncharted as the New World was to Columbus.
The other thing that lends unity to this show is composer Jason Robert Brown's musical habits. There are a handful of rhythmic, melodic, and accompaniment patterns that he obviously likes and that he uses frequently throughout the show. And because he wrote "The New World," the opening number, last, most of these patterns are gathered together in the opening to provide a nice musical framework for the evening. Also, the melody and sometimes the lyric of the opening are used throughout the show as transition pieces and even occasionally show up within other songs.
Because the opening number was written last, it functions as an unusually strong opening, more a prologue than a first song really, a survey of all that is to come for the rest of the evening. The opening stanza conjures images of frontiers, of brave new worlds waiting to be conquered, of those who crossed oceans to find freedom and land, of those who conquered the skies, first with airplanes, then with rockets and space shuttles (and who knows what next?), and of those who explore the inner terrain, both on the atomic and sub-atomic level and within the human mind itself.
As the first verse begins, the lyric tells us explicitly what the show is about: "It's about one moment . . . And just when you're on the verge of success, the sky starts to change and the wind starts to blow." In each song we will meet someone who has reached a defining moment in his or her life. It's a moment almost everyone encounters, when you feel like you've finally made it, you've finally crossed the last mountain and there are only good times ahead. But at this particular moment, suddenly everything changes. The environment (whether physical or emotional) transforms, becoming something new and unknown. Things look different and feel different. Forces beyond your control force you off your safe path, making things more difficult, perhaps making it impossible to continue on the road you'd chosen.
When this happens, you find you’ve become a different person. The woman who just found out she's pregnant redefines who she is. She's no longer a single woman, a person of freedom and opportunity. Now she's an expectant mother, a person of responsibility, of limited choices, of tremendous expectations. The man who finds himself fired after a lifetime in one job finds that he can no longer think of himself as an executive; now he's unemployed. Instead of going to his office everyday, now he goes to the unemployment office once a month. The rich woman who finds out her husband is having an affair no longer defines herself as a woman of privilege and power, but now sees herself as a victim, as a figure of probable public ridicule. The song's bridge sums it all up:
But then the earthquake hits
Then the bank closes in
Then you realize you didn't know anything.
Nobody told you the best way to steer
When the wind starts to blow.
You are hurled into foreign terrain, a place in which the rules you've learned all your life no longer apply. Parents, school, friends all taught you how to handle yourself and your life when everything's going well, but nobody ever told you how to navigate the bewildering world you find yourself in when genuine disaster strikes, when your life crumbles beneath you. Now you are in a new world and you must learn – quickly – the new rules, the new dangers, the new route to happiness.
In the songs that follow in this show, we meet people who find themselves in a new world. Some of them triumph in their new landscapes, some of them don't. Some of them see their new worlds as dark and foreboding; others sees them as chances for new beginnings.
Just as "The New World" gives us a wonderful introduction to the evening's topic, "Hear My Song" provides the perfect summing up. "The New World" tells us what to expect and "Hear My Song" tells us why we've been through this series of stories. The message of this song – and of the whole show – is that we all go through these bad times. In a very real sense, none of us is ever really alone. None of us is ever the only person to have ever gone through a particular crisis. And our salvation comes through community. It is through telling our stories and listening to others' stories that we find the strength to go on. The most important lines in the show appear in this final song:
Hear my song --
It was made for the times when you don't know where to go.
Listen to the song that I sing.
You'll be fine.
In other words, look at how these ordinary people all survived their extraordinary ordeals, and know that you can too. We all find ourselves in new worlds from time to time, in situations where the rules we've always lived by no longer apply. We must all know that we can survive and even thrive there. And that's not just the theme of this show. It's the reason for theatre in general. From prehistoric people telling stories around the fire, to the biggest techno-spectacle on Broadway, theatre is about telling stories, stories that unite us, that show us our commonality. It's significant that at the end of the song, the line "You'll be fine" has been changed to "We'll be fine." It's about community. It's about shared experience. And it's about the fact that as humans we are all forced to go on new journeys, into new worlds, over and over again throughout our lives.
Since its debut at the WPA Theater in October 1995, Songs for a New World has been produced hundreds of times all over the world, and its centerpiece song, "Stars and the Moon" has been recorded by countless wonderful singers including Audra McDonald, Karen Akers and Betty Buckley. Theatre Charlotte’s special production of the show will be presented for two nights only, February 24 and 25, and will be directed by Stephen Gundersheim with musical direction by Ryan Deal. Tickets are available through CarolinaTix at 704-372-1000 or CarolinaTix.org.