This note opened the programme of 'Songs For A New World' by Jason Robert Brown. The piece played at London's St James Theatre in July 2015
I vividly remember the moment at university when a friend gave me the CD of Songs For A New World and said "listen to this now, it will blow your mind". He wasn’t wrong. I had never heard anything like it. It felt connected to the history of musical theatre but also combined it with the contemporary sound of pop, rock, and R & B. At the time I remember excitedly describing Jason Robert Brown as the fusion of Stephen Sondheim and Billy Joel.
Ten years after first discovering this show, it has been one of the most thrilling experiences of my life to finally be in a rehearsal room with it; to become aware of its enduring relevance and to delve into its many secrets and intricacies. While the songs might initially seem detached, closer inspection shows them to use repeated motifs, language and themes. Threads of frustration, longing, compromise and hope form a delicate web that connects the lives and stories of the four unnamed characters. Like a concept album or a long form poem, each song subtly juxtaposes with the next and the cumulative power is undoubtedly greater than the sum of its already wonderful parts.
The piece tells a story about America but it also conveys a universal narrative about the lives we all lead; the chances we take, the compromises that are forced upon us and the thought that if we take a leap into the unknown that we might be rewarded for our bravery. Blending time periods, locations and tone, the piece fluctuates between ambiguity and specificity. It leaves trails of clues about its deeper meanings and correlations. We all know people who have gone through the events found in this show. In fact we are all those people.
The opening number of the show suggests that 'it's about one moment'. But the piece is about a multitude of these moments. Moments that are singular, but which accumulate and build on top of one another. The moment when someone is born and the moment when someone dies. The moment that a relationship begins and the moment it ends. Heartbreaks, triumphs, milestones and the moments that define what it means to be alive.
On researching and preparing for this piece, and through rehearsals, I kept coming back to a quotation from a beautiful essay by Anthony Doerr. One that defined why the songs and stories in this piece needed to be told.
“What lasts? Is there anything you’ve made in your life that will still be here 150 years from now? Is there anything on your shelves that will be tagged and numbered and kept in a warehouse like this? What does not last, if they are not retold, are the stories. Stories need to be resurrected, revivified, reimagined; otherwise they get bundled with us into our graves: a hundred thousand of them going into the ground every hour. Or maybe they float a while, suspended in the places we used to be, waiting, hidden in plain sight, until a day when the sky breaks and the lights come on and the right person is passing by.”
Thanks so much for passing by. I very much hope you enjoy the show.