Last week, I auditioned for a local production of Songs for a New World. Last Tuesday, I received an offer to perform in an expanded cast production of the show. I accepted what will be one of my most challenging roles for the opportunity to interact with material that has impacted the lives of so many of my students and myself.
For those of you who do not know, Songs for a New World is a song cycle musical composed by Jason Robert Brown. It does not have a plot. It does not have what you traditionally think of as characters in a musical. It is a series of songs based around the moment decisions are made.
The show is traditionally performed with four actors assuming the ambiguous, everyperson roles of Woman 1, Woman 2, Man 1, and Man 2. They meet up in stunning moments of harmony in the very different stories they tell. In one song, Man 1 takes the role of a ship captain piloting pilgrims across the sea to the new world, praying to God for some form of salvation on a disastrous journey. In another, Woman 2 recounts her rocky relationship as the latest in the series of Mrs. Claus' trapped by herself in the North Pole on Christmas Eve. Man 2 sings songs of the women he's loved and left and Woman 1 sings songs of insecurity and hope. The characters have arcs that can be interpreted through shared themes of the human experience.
I first learned about Songs for a New World in 2007. Two of my first theater students asked if they could perform an absolutely beautiful duet called "I'd Give It All For You" in the drama club's annual fundraiser cabaret. I listened to the song and instantly fell in love. There was something so honest about the song that resonated with me. It told a specific story about a specific breakup and reconnection between two people (Woman 1 and Man 2) that reminded me of all the people who came and went without warning in my life. It's stunning theater and it was an absolute pleasure to work with these students on that song.
Since then, I have worked with students at this particular school on Jason Robert Brown songs at least once a year for their various theater studies. Advanced theater students have a musical theater unit where one brave student chose, I kid you not, "Just One Step" as a musical theater song to build an original scene around. Perfect character piece for her. Others have asked me to work with them on audition cuts of "Christmas Lullaby," "On the Deck of a Spanish Sailing Ship," "She Cries," and "Stars and the Moon." Another pair of students found a way to split "I'm Not Afraid of Anything" into a lovely duet about supporting a friend in a dark time that left the audience in tears at their fundraiser.
The students constantly turn each other onto Songs for a New World, and from there they begin to explore his other shows. Students come into auditions with cuts from 13, Urban Cowboy, Parade, and even Bridges of Madison County every time we let them choose their own music. I love it. When I play for the audition, it goes fine. When someone else plays, it might not. JRB's music is beautiful, but incredibly challenging to sightread for a piano player unfamiliar with his signature rhythms and song structure. I always tell my students to use his songs for auditions in one of three scenarios: 1) when I'm playing for them, 2) when they are specifically asked to perform from a JRB show, 3) when they bring their own accompanist. Otherwise, I'll help them find something similar that's a bit more piano player-friendly.
For me, Songs for a New World is a show I constantly find new depth in. As I grow older and experience more of life, I find more things to latch onto.
That's good news for this production. Vocally, I'm a Man 1. That's the high belting tenor part. I'm splitting that track with two other tenors who better fit the youthful energy of songs like "Steamtrain" and "King of the World." That leaves me with my favorite song in the show, "On the Deck of a Spanish Sailing Ship, 1492" and the Man 2 song "The World was Dancing." I've had so much happen in my life since I first learned of this show in 2007 that I think I'm finally starting to understand the delicate balance between power/control and fear/helplessness that these two songs embody.
This casting also means that I will mostly be singing baritone harmonies throughout the show. I've been asked to sing alto in musical theater more in my adult life than baritone. That's what I mean about this being the most challenging role of my life. I have never struggled so much in a first rehearsal for a show as I did going through Man 2's harmony lines in "Opening Sequence: The New World" last Wednesday night. It's quite literally a different vocabulary than I've ever trained in. I can teach other people bass lines because I bang them into my head before the rehearsal, analyze the chord structure, write out the solfège, and rely on their prior training as baritones/basses to fill in the rest. On the spot on my own? Good luck.
I feel so fortunate to be involved in this production. The cast sounds great together. We all know how to blend or stand out as necessary. We can all laugh at ourselves, too, which is a good sign. We're also one of the first productions going up in a brand new black box theater space in my area, which is unheard of. We're right smack in the middle of the suburbs. We don't get black box theaters. We get high school auditoriums and converted church spaces.
Here are all the ticketing details for the production. We run two weekends, October 7-9 and 14-16 in Pompton Lakes, NJ. Fridays and Saturdays are at 7PM; Sunday matinees are at 3PM. If you're in the area, I'd love to meet you at the show.