Review: Songs For A New World and Lucky That Way. How Jason Robert Brown Owes His Career to Yoko Ono

Jason Robert Brown was in his twenties when he composed his first musical, “Songs For A New World,” its first production in New York lasting just 12 performances and changing people’s lives. The show was revisited at City Center this weekend in two separate ways, both of them wonderful.
“Songs For a New World” was revived as part of the Off-Center Encores concert series with a cast of four singers, five dancers, and a nine-person orchestra
And, in the upstairs lobby before that show, it was also the subject of a new 20-minute musical, “Lucky In That Way,” with four singers and a pianist, created by The Civilians, with lyrics and dialogue entirely based on interviews with the company of the original 1995 production of Brown’s show.

The revival featured 19 songs – jaunty and jazzy, or lush and lyrical — that are supposedly connected to one another thematically; each (so we’ve been told) tells a story of one or more people facing a new challenge, entering a new world. The theme is obvious in some of the songs, such as “The New World,” and “On The Deck of a Spanish Sailing Ship, 1492,” both sung by the entire company. But in two comic numbers, for example, Shoshana Bean portrays a woman complaining about her husband – in “Just One Step,” her husband’s name is Murray and he won’t buy her a coat; in “Surabaya-Santa” (a clever take-off on Kurt Weill–Bertolt Brecht song “Surabaya-Johnny,”) it’s St. Nick himself, and the boozy, sexpot Mrs. Claus is sick of spending all her Christmases alone. (“Go ride your reindeer through the sky, Nick/I don’t suppose you’ll ever want me by your side/I know you now/You want a plaything, not a bride.”) Bean also sings what has become one of Brown’s signature songs “Stars and the Moon,” with its half-comic, half-wistful lyrics.

“I’ll give you stars and the moon and a soul to guide you
And a promise I’ll never go…
I’ll give you truth and a future that’s twenty times better
Than any Hollywood plot.”
And I thought, “You know, I’d rather have a yacht.”
In “King of the World,” standout Mykal Kilgore portrays a prisoner (perhaps a political prisoner) who wistfully recalls a time when he was free and in charge of his own destiny (“Once upon a time I had tides to control/I had moons to spin/And stars to ignite.”)
Each song is well-crafted and terrifically theatrical. But “Songs for A New World” as a whole feels less like an integrated work of theater, and more like a concert in which a young artist is, in a sense, auditioning for us – showing the range of his skills and styles as a composer and a lyricist. It was not long before the promise of this first musical bloomed into the fully realized musicals that have won Brown a cult following (and a mainstream following too) – Parade, 13, The Last 5 Years, The Bridges of Madison County.
If the revival of “Songs for a New World” was unavoidably a concert (and appropriately part of a concert series), director Kate Whoriskey ramped up the stagecraft to make it an especially theatrical concert, with elaborate lighting, a descending moon,  and five extraordinary dancers executing Rennie Harris’ thrilling hip-hop-inflected choreography.
Lucky in That Way

“Lucky in That Way,” by contrast, was a simple, unadorned, and riveting concert five new songs and interstitial dialogue that explained how “Songs For A New World” came about and what it’s meant to the creative team and to the original cast, all of whom remain close even as they have gone on to acclaim as theater artists (Brooks Ashmankas, Jessica Molaskey, Andrea Burns, and Billy Porter.)
The most memorable number in “Lucky in That Way” was entitled “Delightmare,” composed by Grace McLean, which explained how Yoko Ono should probably be given credit for launching Jason Robert Brown’s career.
“Jason was musical directing a show by Yoko Ono,” Pearl Rhein as Daisy Prince (the original producer, and daughter of Hal Prince) sings/explains.
“I got fired regularly because she didn’t like that I could read music,” Ronald Peet as Jason Robert Brown sings/explains.
The man who ran the theater felt so bad about how Yoko was treating Brown that, to make it up to him, agreed to listen to the collection of songs that Brown had put together. That was “Songs for a New World,” and he decided to put it on in the theater.


Songs for a New World

Encores! Off-Center

Music and Lyrics by Jason Robert Brown
Choreography by Rennie Harris
Music Director Tom Murray
Directed by Kate Whoriskey

Cast: Shoshana Bean, Colin Donnell, Mykal Kilgore, and Solea Pfeiffer


Lucky in That Way

The Lobby Project

Written by EllaRose Chary and Jay Stull

Directed by Jay Stull, music director Matthew Dean Marsh

Composers: Rona Siddiqui, Zack Zadek, Grace McClean, Adam Gwon, Brandon James Gwinn and EllaRose Chary

Cast: Sam Bolen, Ronald Peet, Pearl Rhein, Christina Sajous and Joanna Schubert


Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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