Tony Award-winner Jason Robert Brown's optimistic song-cycle about life, love and hard choices gets a staging at the Hayes
The song cycle is a tricky beast. It’s not really musical theatre, though the songs are generally written with theatrical flourishes, and it’s not really cabaret, though the numbers tend to convey a sense of the personal and intimate, unbound by longer stories. Rather, the song cycle is a series of musical numbers, each one a complete entity unto itself, linked loosely by a theme.
In the case of Songs for a New World, written by contemporary musical theatre composer Jason Robert Brown (who wrote stage musical-turned-Anna Kendrick vehicle The Last Five Years), the theme is broad: it’s the “moment of decision” that can change, liberate, or damn the course of a life.
Following a critically acclaimed season in Melbourne under the helm of actor/director Luke Joslin (recently on Sydney stages in Sydney Theatre Company’s Machu Picchu and Seekers musical Georgy Girl), this production has embraced Brown’s thesis statement that Songs for a New World is really more of an abstract musical – that even though each song is about a different, distinct person and moment and time, each of the actors follow a roughly evolving storyline, conceptually linked, to reach a kind of spiritual awareness. Sort of like re-incarnation toward enlightenment.
Set on the deck of a weathered ship – the ultimate in transition imagery – the four actors known as Man One and Man Two (Christopher Scalzo and Cameron McDonald) and Woman One and Woman Two (Teagan Wouters and Sophie Carter), share their disparate stories. Scrawled across the ship, graffiti-style, are names, dates, and places – a gentle evocation of time and place for each story that is ‘activated’ by lighting cues as each new number begins. (Some of these settings are a little heavy-handed: there’s a song about the divine joy of new life that is set in 2015 Syria – for extra poignancy supposedly, though the location is not inherent to the story).
Songs for a New World was written in 1995 and it hasn’t aged well; its conservative and hyper-gendered content feels dated in 2016. The women are derided for demanding happiness or change, and exalted for their “softness” (pregnancy, doing ‘women’s work’), while the men are heroes or kings in the middle of epic journeys. It’s almost like the show is an argument for biological determinism. And it’s still strange in 2016 to see a song cycle boasting multiple love stories – but all of them heterosexual.
The best argument for producing Songs for a New World now is still the music – Jason Robert Brown composes tight, knotty and ambitious numbers led predominantly by piano, and his vocal arrangements are challenging. At the Hayes, under Lucy Bermingham’s musical direction (following Geoffrey Castles’ work as music director in the initial Melbourne season), the band is exciting – sharp, decisive and responsive. The song cycle is the very definition of ‘a big sing’ and the four performers are a gifted ensemble. McDonald is refreshingly stoic, with a hint of danger, and Wouters brings her clarion soprano and its implied innocence to the stage with great skill, but it’s Scalzo and Carter that command the most attention.
Scalzo’s voice is always thrillingly expansive – his range and power are unexpected against his instinctual sensitivity. His talents are best on display in ‘Steam Train’, a defiant clamour to overcome disadvantage, and ‘On the Deck of a Spanish Sailing Ship, 1492’, as he assumes the role of a captain caught in a storm, pleading with God for the life of his crew.
Carter has the trickier job of selling comedy; she manages to get through a Kurt Weill torch song parody about an unhappy Mrs Claus with panache, which is no small feat, and she is tasked with perhaps the best-known songs from the cycle, now sung in countless cabarets and concerts – ‘Stars and the Moon’ (a woman reflects on her past loves) and ‘The Flagmaker, 1775’ (a woman stitches a flag for a new country while her husband and son fight the battle for it) – and does them justice, with wry self-awareness in the former and surprising vulnerability in the second.
This is the sort of show that is going to be of most value for diehard musical theatre fans: Jason Robert Brown’s work is notoriously difficult, and his music is so well-executed here by Bermingham’s band and the cast of four that it’s worth seeing for that reason alone. As a theatrical work, even an abstract, non-narrative one, it’s not quite as satisfying.