Some critics have labeled Songs for a New World as an abstract musical, there given the fact the show by Tony Award winning composer and lyricist Jason Robert Brown tells its collection of stories in sing-scenes with no over-arching plot and no consistent characters throughout the evening.
Yet the show has a very strong sense of unity about it that local audiences will witness when Uptown Players presents Songs June 21-July 7 at the Kalita Humphreys Theater.
In essence, Songs for a New World is a musical exploration of life’s emotions: risk, fear, hope, dreams, and love. As composer Brown said, “It’s about one moment. It’s about hitting the wall and having to make a choice, or take a stand, or turn around and go back.” It’s about those moments in life when everything seems perfect and then suddenly disaster strikes. But it’s even more about surviving those moments. It’s about the way we regroup and figure out how to survive in a new set of circumstances – a new world – even against seemingly overwhelming odds.
The Uptown show, which originally debuted off-Broadway in 1995, features Feleceia Benton, Jonathan Bragg, John Campione, Peter DiCesare, Danielle Estes, Walter Lee, Laura Lites, and Sara Shelby-Martin. The show is directed by Coy Covington, with music direction by Kevin Gunter. Covington took time out of rehearsals to discuss the production.
A+C: What attracted you to direct this show?
COY COVINGTON: I’m drawn to this show primarily for two reasons. First, because it is made of 16 independent songs that don’t directly relate to each other. So really, each song provides its own canvas. They’re not blank canvases but there is room to color and shade, so all of the creative team is looking forward to bringing fresh nuance to the piece. You can bet Uptown will add a new hue or two.
I am also drawn to this show because it demands masterful singing. Oddly, to me anyway, it shows up constantly in high school productions. A quick trip to YouTube will bear witness to the fact that high schools should not be doing this show. Painful. The tessitura of the songs range from basement to balcony and it takes polished, well-trained singers to make the score soar. Thank God, Uptown’s cast is all over it.
A+C: It’s not really a musical or revue, so how would you describe it?
CC: It’s a theatrical song cycle – a set of songs with a unifying idea performed in sequence as a single entity. The unifying idea in Songs is that all the numbers center on “what if” moments. Moments where your life has changed and how you choose to deal with this “new world” in which you find yourself. Or in some cases, how you don’t deal with it.
A+C: Do you have any favorite numbers in Songs?
CC: Well, there are two huge songs that come close to the end of the show that are both real barn-burners: The Flagmaker and Flying Home. They are emotionally charged and require full-tilt wailing. We’ve got that covered. But I also like the introspective Stars and the Moon (which over the years has become a staple of many a cabaret chanteuse). Another favorite, Just One Step, about a woman on the edge (literally) is hilarious and also treacherously difficult – verging on vocal gymnastics.
A+C: Why do you think the show resonates with audiences everywhere?
CC: If you’ve ever felt fear, indecision, regret, ambition, hope, heartbreak – and I think we all have – then there are moments in this show that will punch you square in the heart. We plan to keep a defibrillator handy.
A+C: What’s the hardest part about directing this show?
CC: A four-member cast usually performs Songs but we decided to enhance it to eight. As it turned out, over 150 people auditioned and the level of talent was astounding. Our final eight are staggeringly exceptional – but they’re so good that it made an equitable distribution of the songs nearly impossible. They’re all such powerhouses that any of them could have sung any song in the show. Guess that’s a nice problem to have.
– SCOT C. HART
A+C asked members of the Uptown Players production of Songs for a New World to tell readers what song or musical artist they hold closest to their heart:
Jonathan Bragg (Cast Member): One, by U2 has always been a favorite of mine. When listening to it, you get the feeling that Bono is both pleading and demanding. I could listen to it 20 times and hear it 20 different ways. I think that ambiguity makes for a great song.
John Campione (Cast Member): Though nearly impossible to pick a “favorite song or artist,” I always gravitate towards I Don’t Wanna Be by Gavin DeGraw. Growing up, I found it difficult to be comfortable in my own skin and honestly accept that people could like and accept me if I took down my walls and really let them see me for who I am. Ever since the first time I heard it, this song has been a constant reminder and anthem for me to stand up for my own individuality.
Peter DiCesare (Cast Member): The song is In Whatever Time We Have from Stephen Schwartz’s Children of Eden. While performing that beautiful duet in a high school production, I experienced a feeling that my life would never be the same; I knew I had to spend my life on the stage. It’s been a wonderful adventure ever since then! “From this day forward nights won’t seem so black, from this day forward we will never look back. In whatever time we have.”
Danielle Estes (Cast Member): The song is Your Daddy’s Son from the musical Ragtime. It was August of 2002 and all I could think about was what I wanted to be when I grew up and where I should go to college. My senior year had barely started when the show choir went to the musical Ragtime at Music Theater of Wichita. After Sarah sang Your Daddy’s Son I felt a rush of emotion come over the audience. In that one moment, I knew I wanted to pursue a career in musical theater. I wanted the ability to make an audience feel deep emotions, whether they were moments of sadness, joy, gratefulness, or extreme happiness. In that moment, I made the choice to pursue my passion for music and the journey has been amazing!
Walter Lee (Cast Member): The artist that has touched my life is Beyonce Knowles. Growing up in a small town being a flamboyant black male wasn’t the easiest, especially with the intense amount of bigotry in my community. Beyonce’s music was my escape from all of that. She will always be #1 in my book because I truly believe that I would not be where I am, and who I am, today without her.
Laura Lites (Cast Member): I’m gonna have to go with You and I (reprise) from Chess. My senior year of college I had an amazing director, Jim Alexander, who taught me so much of what I know now. He passed away suddenly the week after the show closed. Turns out Jim’s next project was Chess. I had never heard more than a song or two from the show, but the music filled my soul. It moved me and also helped me grieve over my lost mentor. You and I (reprise) is at the end of the show and the music and lyrics were such a fitting farewell to him. I cry every time I hear it and hope more than anything I can play that role one day and make him proud.
Sara Shelby-Martin (Cast Member): The artist is composer Stephen Sondheim. The show was the original Broadway cast of Sweeney Todd. I was in high school and saw it with my aunt in NYC. I was DONE IN. After hearing A Little Priest, and how the audience reacted to it, I decided that being the comic relief as opposed to being the ingénue was where my interests lay. So I’ve opted to be the supporting character and have LOVED it.
Coy Covington (Director): My song is In Buddy’s Eyes from Follies. It was my first of year to be a part of Broadway Our Way (Uptown’s renowned annual fundraiser) and tackling this difficult song had my knees knocking. It went over better than I had dreamed and the fact that I had pulled off my first Stephen Sondheim solo was something of a milestone for me.
Kevin Gunter (Musical Director): My “song” is Khachaturian’s Piano Concerto in D-flat Major. I spent the better part of a year memorizing it as a college student, won a major competition (along with the right to perform it with a live orchestra), and then found myself facing a potentially serious injury at the same time in my life. The recovery process lasted up until the night of the performance, and playing that fabulous piece with a full orchestra was one of the most heart-poundingly ecstatic, exhilarating, and triumphant experiences I had as a young person. I still find myself listening to it to get “pumped up” just before theater performances.
BJ Cleveland (Stage Manager): My favorite show song is Unusual Way from Nine because it speaks to an unrequited love that never came to be. Also, the first three chords of How Could I Know from Secret Garden can bring me to tears.
Suzi Cranford (Costume Designer): My favorite song is Wild Thing by the Troggs. It is my tongue in cheek anthem to my children, and it was my youngest child’s nightly lullaby. It makes me feel “groovy.”
Rodney Dobbs (Set Designer): Cat’s in the Cradle by Harry Chapin. As schmaltzy as Chapin can be, this song always served as a reminder of how fast my son was growing up and how I always needed to make time to share in his life and experiences. Now that he is grown and “moved away,” I hope he would be okay if he found that he’d “grown up just like me.”
Dennis Canright (Master Carpenter): The songwriter that hits home closest would be Cheryl Wheeler. Her writing has an almost perfect way of expressing emotion and life experiences. At a very difficult point in my life I heard her song Almost. The first two lines are, “I’m almost everything you have ever wanted. I’m almost your best dream come true.” Those words and the whole song really summed up several past relationships and made me aware of how short I was selling myself. Kind of opened my eyes.
Nancy Rubin (Patron Services Manager): The first song that came to mind was Ballin’ the Jack from On the Riviera starring Danny Kaye. My mother taught it to my sister and me when we were young because it was a favorite of her parents. As we got older we used to sing it while we were drying the dishes, folding the laundry, or whenever we wanted to make her smile.
Songs for a New World presented by Uptown Players, June 21-July 7, 2013.