Songs for a New World
by Jason Robert Brown
Theatre New Brunswick
Fredericton, October 2000
If you're the sort of person who collects original cast albums of Broadway shows, you'll probably love Songs for a New World, the show Theatre New Brunswick has chosen to open its season. On the other hand, if you think there's something really important missing from those albums -- for instance, a plot, characters, coherence, a central insight or idea -- you might wonder, as you leave the theatre, what it was that kept you at the Playhouse.
Perhaps it was the often-fine songs. Music and lyrics are by Jason Robert Brown, who recently won a Tony Award for the score of Parade, and many of the songs in Songs for a New World -- perhaps especially "I'm Not Afraid of Anything" -- have an authority and coherence that would make them, if they were in a show, show-stoppers. And all of them are certifiably mainstream American Musical Theatre songs: a ten second clip from any of them would allow a listener to categorize this as Broadway material. This is not always a good thing, and indeed as the evening progresses they begin to sound rather like more of the same (except, perhaps, for "Surabaya-Santa," a parody of Kurt Weill, sung by Mrs. Claus).
Perhaps what kept you there was the fine, confident voices and stage presence of the four singer/actors (all four new to TNB). What was perhaps most impressive about the evening, in fact, was the continuing sense of completed, solid ensemble among the four voices -- each is a strong solo voice, but the high points were the way they hit Jason Robert Brown's challenging and passionate harmonies together, making the four voices into one experience. I was especially struck by the power and confidence of Suzette Araujo, and the rock star stage presence of Jet Matas. Shannon McCaig, as the more delicate, pure voice, was clear and effective, and if Derek Marshall's voice was the least strong of the four, it was still sure and supportive. And all four of them had all the moves and the stage presence you expect from people who've probably spent their lives learning how musical theatre works -- how to sell a song, how to convey an emotion with a single accurate movement.
It's not so likely that what kept you there wasn't Johnny Leroux's geometric and effective set, composed of various cubes and blocks of grey, against which, and out of which, the characters and the various props appeared with startling and arresting suddenness; and it probably wasn't Chris Saad's finely timed and skillful lighting, although both certainly contributed to making the evening seem more than the sum of its parts.
But finally, the evening didn't amount to much more than the sum of its parts. Songs can't include the texture of life, they arise out of it. Finally, there is no texture here, no reason why one song should follow another, no reason why one song shouldn't be dropped out and another substituted, and no narrative structure at all. Nor any characters, or none that last more than the few moments of a song -- even though Brown has said that on stage, as opposed to on a CD, the show is about the relationships among the four people. In fact, it's not: it is, as he's also said, a revue rather than a show, composed of material written for shows that never materialized, and as such it raises the question of why TNB should have done Songs for a New World rather than a musical show with some structure -- perhaps even Brown's own Parade. In the program notes, David Sherren says that, on a second listen to the songs, each tells a story, and each centers on a "defining moment in a life." Perhaps so, but I find it hard to think of a song worth singing that doesn't do that. Those of us who want TNB to continue to be a central element in the cultural life of Fredericton want drama and theatre; we can get music anywhere, even on TV, if necessary. Songs can't include the texture of life, they arise out of it. There is none of that texture here.
And even on its own terms, as a revue, there are some serious problems. Most of the songs have a generalized, upbeat, Up with People! feel, a kind of New Age Christianized uplift which exhorts us to aspiration but doesn't actually have much concrete to say about what we might aspire to. "Flagmaker" -- a song about Betsy Ross making the first American flag -- is a central illustration of the problem; on the one hand it's a sort of feminist protest against war and masculine aggression and all that awful patriotic claptrap; on the other hand, there she is, sewing the flag and spilling the red white and blue down across the set. Brown seems to be playing every card he can imagine ever being dealt.
In part because of this, the evening is rather like a textbook demonstration of the sorts of skills you need to win a Tony Award -- all except the acting, which is restricted to empty (though effective) gestures. When the song is about mutual support, the actors give each other a hand getting up on a platform, when it's about camaraderie, they look at each other with smiles of mutual support, when it's about personal triumph, well, you can predict what they do. Even more striking, the staging does the same sort of thing, echoing the metaphors of the songs with visual effects. A song mentions a mirror, and hey presto! there's a mirror: a song refers to a moon, and one magically appears overhead. It's a little like the camp songs where you have a motion to go with every line. "Take a look," says a song, and someone pulls out a telescope. "Shine a light," and by gosh there's somebody with a light.
These effects seem to be director Leigh Rivenbark's attempt to render the songs more visual and theatrical, in the absence of situation, context, and character. I can't suggest any better way of coping with the problem -- but this one doesn't succeed. This isn't drama -- it isn't even theatre. the characters appear from invisible doors and trapdoors in the set like apparitions, do their songs, and disappear.
Further, and perhaps most troubling, the sound in this production is curiously disembodied: you watch the singers' mouths move and wonder if they're really singing, because it's clear that the sound is coming from the speakers on either side of the stage. The only actual natural sound all evening was the percussion, which clearly came, quite separate from everything else, from backstage, and once when one of the characters slapped the set next to her. I understand that to generate the kind of "Broadway volume" this show needs you need either to be Ethel Merman or to be miked and amplified, but I've rarely felt so distanced from a performer in the Playhouse. Most of the evening felt like really fine lip-synching. This impression was strengthened by what was perhaps the worst decision about the evening -- director Rivenbark saw fit to hide the fine musicians, Ryan DeSouza and Glen Deveau, backstage (they didn't even come out for a bow). Given that the show made no pretence to be anything more than a revue, it's incomprehensible to me that the audience couldn't be invited more into the music making.
It's unfortunate, I think, that Theatre New Brunswick has begun this defining season -- the one which, I'm afraid, may be the one which decides whether or not it continues as an institution providing professional theatre to our community -- with a show which offers so little to our theatrical experience. I was disheartened by the small size of the Friday night audience in what is a drastically curtailed Fredericton run, and alarmed at the prospect of a Christmas season show to which, it seems likely, many people won't bring their children. I am not a fan of the kind of kiddy-porn many theatre companies proffer to fill the seats at Christmas, but I do know that it's possible to give that future audience a real theatrical experience without pandering to them. TNB has achieved this in the past. Norm Foster's Ethan Claymore may be a fine play, but I think it's significant that TNB is not offering school performances of it.
Perhaps, in part, what kept you at the Playhouse was the feeling that Theatre New Brunswick needs you. That's not a particularly good motive for an evening at the theatre.