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Songs for a New World – Off-Broadway Revue 1995

Songs for a New World – Off-Broadway Revue 1995

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Synopsis

Some things take on a life of their own. I was twenty years old when I got to New York City, and I was determined to write my big Broadway musical. The only problem was that I didn’t really know anybody in New York other than the delivery guy from the Chinese restaurant, and I didn’t think he would be such a great collaborator, since he couldn’t even give me the right change. So I decided I would just take a bunch of songs I had written for various abandoned pieces and put them up at a cabaret, and I could find collaborators from there. But some things take on a life of their own, and I couldn’t stop working on this material. Then I met Daisy Prince at a piano bar where I was working, and she came to see the show, and she seemed to really like it, and so out of nowhere, I asked her if she wanted to direct it. I had never seen Daisy direct so much as traffic – there are just times when my intuitions are really strong, and if I’m lucky, I pay attention: in this case, I was lucky, and Daisy said it sounded like fun. She asked me to write an opening number to say what the show was going to be about. So we started working, and working, and working, and eventually, Daisy and I had been working on Songs For A New World for three years, and we still didn’t have an opening number. Now, as far as we were concerned, Songs for a New World was still just going to be a collection of my cabaret and theatre songs, a way to introduce my writing to the world. But the show had become more than that – it was starting to take a strange new shape, and Daisy and I were powerless to control it: somehow, songs that had always been perfect on their own seemed awkward in context; songs that had been written years and miles apart seemed to make sense together; words and melodies that came from different times and places all seemed to add up to one statement. We had discarded piles of songs – I don’t know why they weren’t right, but I know they weren’t – and new songs had been written to replace them. And there we were, doing a workshop in Toronto, and we needed an opening number to say what this show had turned into, what Songs For A New World was really about. It’s about one moment. It’s about hitting the wall and having to make a choice, or take a stand, or turn around and go back. I hadn’t realized that that was what it was about, but I sat down at the piano in the rehearsal room at 1:30 in the morning, and suddenly I knew. The moment you think you know where you stand, the things that you’re sure of slip from your hand, and you’re suddenly a stranger in some completely different land. A year later, we opened at the WPA Theatre, with four brilliant performers, a five-piece band, and an unbelievably talented group of designers finally bringing my songs to life. The set for Songs For A New World looked like a combination of the deck of a ship and a playground – a vast wooden space with platforms and stairs and ropes, and hidden treasures. As the cast finished the first song, Ty pulled a piece of white fabric out of the ground, and it flew toward the ceiling and became a sail – magically we were On The Deck Of A Spanish Sailing Ship, 1492. Then, for Just One Step, the sail fell to the ground, revealing Jessica up on a ledge, fifty-seven floors above Fifth Avenue. (As she sang, a crowd assembled below her – Brooks was thoughtful enough to share his popcorn.) In the middle of The Steam Train, Ty turned around and the scrim magically showed a city shining off in the distance. The first sound in the second act was Andrea’s voice, coming from an old radio in The World Was Dancing. A grate in the stage began glowing, and Ty sang King Of The World trapped in a chair above the grate. A massive American flag began eerily descending from the ceiling, and Jessica became The Flagmaker, 1775. While Jessica stayed in front of the flag, Ty stepped to the front of the stage to sing Flying Home – they were connected across time to each other. As he sang, “I am ready, Father, to fly!” the flag rose into the heavens. Then there was the finale. I was never sure what to do with the last line of Hear My Song – who was most appropriate to sing it? Daisy suggested I sing it myself until I could make a decision . . . and I ended up singing it every night of the run. At first, I was really resistant to the idea – I thought it was kind of cheap and distracting – but then I realized it was almost inevitable. There was this guy onstage playing the piano, and it so happened he wrote all the songs, and at the end of the show, he sang, “Listen to the song that I sing,” and . . . well, it made the show kind of make sense. Now I can’t imagine how the show would work without it: it makes the piece more than a collection of songs – it becomes a prayer: hear my song. Songs For A New World played only twenty-eight performances at the WPA, a standard run there, but it represented for me one of the only times in my life so far where something actually felt like it was supposed to. I guess when a show isn’t a big commercial success, the general temptation is to keep working on it, to fix it, to make it “right” – I’ve never had that urge with this show; it may not have been everybody’s bag, but I know we nailed it: every actor, every musician, every one of Brian Besterman’s orchestrations, every inch of Gail Brassard’s costumes and Stephan Olson’s scenery, every cue of Craig Evans’s lighting and Jim Bay and John Curvan’s sound design, every step of Michael Arnold’s choreography, every laugh and ovation – they were all just as good or better than they were when I dreamed about them. All under the extraordinarily talented direction of Daisy Prince, a phenomenal collaborator in every way. I turned twenty-six this year, and it occurs to me that Songs For A New World is a pretty good summation of the first twenty-five years of my life, and especially my first five years in New York City – maybe that’s what it’s really about after all. I realize that not every composer gets to have his first show in New York be such a magical experience, and I know how lucky I am. What I also know is how little of the entire experience I actually had any control over; some things take on a life of their own, and if you’re smart, you just trust in the moment, hold our breath, and sail away. – Jason Robert Brown ©1996

Credits

Brooks Ashmanskas Andrea Burns Jessica Molaskey Ty Taylor Settings by Stephan Olson Orchestrations by Brian Besterman & Jason Robert Brown Sound Design by Jim Bay and John Curvan WPA Theatre Kyle Renick, Artistic Director Lori Sherman, Managing Director Conceived and directed by Daisy Prince