Songs for a New World — the Show You've Always Wanted to See Live
Jason Robert Brown's song cycle receives its first New York revival as part of the Encores! Off-Center season.
For a generation of musical-theater kids, Songs for a New World was it. Few of them actually saw the show — Jason Robert Brown and Daisy Prince's song cycle only played a handful of performances at the WPA Theatre in 1995 — but as happens with many a musical that goes on to achieve cult status, a cast album propelled it into the stratosphere. It's gone on to be produced around the world, but Songs for a New World is only now receiving its first New York revival, kicking off the 2018 Encores! Off-Center series. And it's everything someone who was obsessed with the recording could want.
Brown describes his loosely structured Songs for a New World as being "about hitting the wall and having to make a choice, or take a stand, or turn around and go back." In short, it explores the epiphanies people face every single day, whether you're a kid who wants to get out of awful circumstances by playing basketball, or a housewife who's threatening to jump off the balcony.
The joy of seeing it onstage — especially in Kate Whoriskey's impeccable production at New York City Center — comes from being able to fully appreciate how certain songs and arcs are connected. When we first meet the wealthy Jewish housewife in "Just One Step," she's desperate for the attention she's not getting at home as she threatens to swan dive onto the street. A few minutes later, we get the sense of how her life got that way through "Stars and the Moon," about a woman who willingly gave up love and romance for a wealthy suitor. Shoshana Bean delivers both songs with nuanced sensitivity, finding well-rounded stories in each one (she nails stand-alone songs like "Surabaya-Santa", a Kurt Weill parody about a drunk and lonely Mrs. Claus, and "The Flagmaker, 1775", about a woman sewing a flag to keep her hope alive while her husband and son are at war).
Similarly, Mykal Kilgore expertly examines the story of a young man whose life takes him from the basketball court ("The Steam Train") to the place he once bragged he'd never be: a prison cell ("King of the World"). Also, his amazing voice, which could fill the room to the ceiling without the help of amplification, is insanely good.
Meanwhile, Colin Donnell and Solea Pfeiffer find the love and heartbreak in "The World Was Dancing," where a young couple get engaged and break up, only to realize, in "I'd Give It All for You," that they can't stay away from each other. Their performances in these numbers — as well as solos like "She Cries" (Donnell) and "Christmas Lullaby" (Pfeiffer) — are just beautiful.
A quintet of dancers backs the performers with expressive, modern choreography by Rennie Harris. Certain numbers are accentuated with light design choices, including a star drop from scenic designer Donyale Werle and lighting designer Mark Barton, a naughty Santa suit by Clint Ramos that Bean gets a lot of mileage out of, and, since it's Encores!, music stands. Leon Rothenberg's crystalline sound design allows us to hear every note the band plays and every one of Brown's excellent lyrics (a particular favorite: rhyming "dog" and "Quogue" in "Just One Step").
It's easy to see why Songs for a New World resonates with so many people. Brown's score is filled with soul-stirring melodies (played here by an excellent nine-piece band), and his lyrics brim with emotion, hope, and soul. In dark times, a number like "Hear My Song", with its themes of resilience in the face of hardship, is particularly impactful. It couldn't be a more perfect time for this show to take the stage once again.