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.
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,” 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
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