In the vein of “less is more,” you just can’t beat Jason Robert Brown’s abstract musical Songs For a New World. Four performers share the stage, singing through a song cycle that runs the gamut from heartbreaking to gut-busting. It’s always an effective show, with Brown’s mellifluous melodies and poignant (and frequently hilarious) lyrics lending themselves beautifully to a spartan stage and simple musical accompaniment.
Toronto has seen some fantastic productions of the cycle, including a truly definitive 2006 run that featured powerhouse vocalists Sharron Matthews and Thom Allison. Now, five years later, Andrew Lamb is bringing his own vision to Brown’s masterpiece with Angelwalk Theatre. The director realizes he has some big shoes to fill but feels he has something special to bring to the table.
“For me, it was how is this production going to be different than all those other productions,” says Lamb. “My notion about this piece is coming full circle to a new beginning. It’s that moment you decide that you’re going to close one chapter and start a new one. That new beginning exists throughout the piece and links all the songs together.”
Brown’s talent for storytelling is evident throughout Songs for a New World, with tales of romance and loss mixed in with a healthy doses of humour and even spirituality. Unlike traditional musicals, each performer takes on a different role with each song; they are simply identified as Woman One, Woman Two, Man One and Man Two, and this standardized anonymity allows them to move fluidly from one tale to the next.
The show itself has quite an interesting tale to tell, given its somewhat utilitarian beginnings.
“Songs for a New World wasn’t even supposed to be a musical when Brown wrote it,” Lamb points out. “He just wanted a showcase to get him hired as a music director.”
But some early work-shopping in Toronto and an off-Broadway run proved so popular with audiences that countless productions were spawned across North America, landing Brown his first big gig as composer for the Tony award–winning musical Parade.
Like its 2006 predecessor, Lamb’s production breaks from Brown’s original concept in allowing the cast more onstage interaction with each other, even when the characters are not engaged in a scripted duet. “We’ve used other company members as an ensemble,” Lamb says, “so when Woman One sings the song ‘I’m Not Afraid of Anything’ or ‘The Stars and the Moon,’ she’s actually interacting with the other cast members.”
The busy director is also planning his first season as the newly appointed artistic director of Toronto’s Roseneath Theatre, as well as orchestrating a major personal production of his own.
“My fiancé proposed to me at Christmas during the Mirvish run of My Mother’s Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding,” says Lamb. “We’re getting married on June 3 in the Toronto harbour on this two-level yacht with a retractable roof.
“It’ll be quite the production.”