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A New Brain – Lincoln Center 1998

A New Brain – Lincoln Center 1998

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Synopsis

I don’t care what anyone says: this is a love letter to William Finn. Seeing the witty, stylish production of A New Brain at Lincoln Center Theater is certainly a great pleasure. The show is an assured piece of work with a talented, hard-working cast singing and dancing their hearts out. The scenery is ingenious, the orchestrations enhance but do not intrude. Most notable: the work of Graciela Daniele, functioning at the peak of her talent. Together with the authors, she fashioned a show out of a series of songs and gave vivid life to every moment. Listening to this recording, however, is quite another matter, as it forces us to focus entirely on the score. And that is where my valentine begins. Yes, the score contains four or five of the most beautiful melodies EVER and, yes, it has intelligent, graceful lyrics that offer poetry and wise-cracking vernacular in equal measure. But what is most striking about it is the author’s great heart. Everybody knows by now that Bill Finn was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor, almost died, and then didn’t. A New Brain is his response: not to the threat of death but to the joy of living. There is no anger to be found, no bitterness (although there are a few affectionately satiric jabs at some crazy hospital shenanigans), but the general tone is one of gratitude, forgiveness, and elation. There is no way this most generous of songwriters could have written any other kind of show. A New Brain began life as a series of songs that Bill Finn wrote after he left the hospital. He says that he would sit at the piano while the songs just poured out of him. A while later, a concert version was put together by director Graciela Daniele at the Public Theater. James Lapine then joined the team, and Lincoln Center Theater mounted a fully staged workshop in 1996 and a smaller one in 1997 where the emphasis was on fleshing out characters and developing a clear – though non-linear – storyline. This, incidentally, is pretty much the same process that was applied to the writing of March Of The Falsettos and Falsettoland. Unlike the Falsettos musicals, A New Brain is less about family, less about personal connection and more about the healing power of art. Gordon, the hero of the piece, regrets things about his life, to be sure, and will miss those close to him should he die, but his biggest fear is that he may not live to complete his work, to honor his talent, to write all the songs that are in his heart. Early on, Gordon sings “If I only had the time/What I would write/For your delight.” Later he sings “Tonight, though/May be my very last chance/To write something I could be remembered by. . . .”At the end of the show, Gordon has recovered and he is led to a piano and urged to “make a song.” I Feel So Much Spring is the rhapsodic result, a new version of the idiotic children’s TV show song that Gordon tries to write at the beginning of the show, and the journey of the play is complete. There are many gifted composers and lyricists writing for the theater today, though productions (as opposed to readings and workshops) of their work remain hard to come by. It seems to me that Bill Finn occupies both a central place in this group, and a place on the extreme sidelines. He’s in the center because of the tremendous outpouring of melody and wit he is capable of. He’s on the sidelines because he has steadfastly refused to conform, preferring to write his own idiosyncratic, highly personal shows. Those of us who love Bill Finn’s work, however, do so because of his position on the sidelines, because of the one thing that sets him apart from all the talented others: he is unafraid to wear his heart on his sleeve. This lovely score is all about feelings translated into words and music. Bill’s love of life always collides – sometimes gracefully, sometimes messily – with his unabashed love of musical theater. Heart And Music is not just the title of one of A New Brain’s greatest songs; it is also the best description of its author’s prodigious talent. – Andre Bishop Lincoln Center Theater, July 1998

Credits

Gordon Michael Schwinn: Malcolm Gets Lisa, a homeless lady: Mary Testa Rhoda: Liz Larsen Waitress: Kristin Chenoweth Mr. Bungee: Chip Zien Richard, the nice nurse: Michael Mandell Nancy D., The Thin Nurse: Kristin Chenoweth Dr. Jafar Berensteiner: John Jellison The Minister: Keith Byron Kirk Roger Delli-Bovi: Christopher Innvar Mimi Schwinn, the mother: Penny Fuller For this recording the part of Roger was sung by Norm Lewis Musical Director/Piano/Violin (Track 29): Ted Sperling Assistant Musical Director/Synthesizer: Phil Reno Cello: Laura Bontrager Woodwinds: Alva F. Hunt. Jr. Percussion: Glenn Rhian French Horn: Roger K. Wendt Additional musicians for this recording: Double Bass: John Babich Pianist (Tracks 10 & 22): Jason Robert Brown Violins: Marshall Coid, Cecilia Hobbs Gardner Viola: Jill Jaffe