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Yes, the musical “Songs for a New World,” which runs Friday Jan. 12 through Jan. 28 at City Repertory Theatre in Palm Coast, includes a piece about the voyage of Christopher Columbus.
But the 15th-century explorer who cut the ribbon to centuries of genocide in the Americas is joined by some strange shipmates in this work, which debuted off-Broadway in 1995. Seafaring Chris is joined by flag-maker Betsy Ross, a young woman contemplating suicide from a building’s ledge on New York City’s Fifth Avenue, a dead soldier and a tart-tongued Mrs. Claus, who’s tired of her hubby devoting too much time to his job.
No, “Songs for a New World,” by composer-lyricist-playwright Jason Robert Brown, isn’t some absurdist fantasia by Ionesco. Rather, this non-traditional, difficult-to-label work is what one critic called an “abstract musical,” and what many others call a song cycle. It’s what Richard Strauss, Samuel Beckett and Neil Simon might have come up with had they been locked away together in a summer workshop near Thomas Mann’s Davos.
“A musical has a plot that takes you from beginning to middle to end,” says pianist and music director Ben Beck. “A revue has songs related by an era [or other commonalities]. This is a collection of 17 pieces that are related by this thematic idea of a new world and what that means for these different people on their journeys. There’s no typical plot. There’s not even a reoccurring character to hang onto.”
Unusually for City Repertory, the play this time won’t have John Sbordone’s directorial hand.
“It’s about one moment – as the song says in the opening number – where people have to decide where to go from this fork in the road,” says director Tyler Adcock. “They’ve reached sort of this precipice or this place where they can decide one thing and go one direction, or decide the other. It’s about that nexus of a moment.
“In the show, there’s the moment where you realize a marriage has ended and where do you go from there? The moment where you realize you haven’t achieved a goal that you’ve been working towards – where do you go from there? The moment you realize you screwed this friendship up and now you have to make amends – where do you go from there?”
The form may be challenging. The themes are not. Theater hardly gets more relatable than that.
Brown didn’t even conceive of the work as a unified whole. As a songwriter, he had written pieces for many unrelated occasions, events and venues when, he says on jasonrobertbrown.com, he noticed “songs that had been written years and miles apart seemed to make sense together. Words and melodies that came from different times and places all seemed to add up to one statement.”
That statement, Brown says, is “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.”
The songs of “Songs for a New World” feature pop, jazz, gospel and other styles. Joining Beck on piano will be percussionist Aaron Jennings. There’s no costuming for the four-person cast, which includes Laniece Fagundes, Chelsea Jo Conard, Aladdin Demps and Everett Clark.
While there is no story, there are stories. And characters – whether it’s that ledge-walking woman who hopes to get the attention of her neglectful husband (in the song “I’m Not Afraid of Anything”), the two dudes who try to one-up each other on whose life is worse (“The River Won’t Flow”), a prisoner (“King of the World”) or former lovers who attempt a reconciliation (“I’d Give It All for You”).
So, how does “Songs for a New World” keep from being an episodic mess?
“When you first look at the script, you go ‘How do I make sure this can act as one large piece of theater instead of an episodic journey for these people?’,” Adcock says. “It’s because of the continual examination of that one moment from different perspectives, and it’s done through such unique voices. It doesn’t feel episodic in that way. It feels like one piece of theater.”
“Something we talked about with the cast from the very beginning was that each of the four of them, even though they’re not playing a single character that goes through their own story, that they each have a spirit,” Beck says. “We see that consistently through each of their songs.
“So, when we get to the very end of the show, we do see growth and we do see that it’s not just this existential ‘Oh, I don’t know what to do,’ but there really is a sense of resolve” in the characters.
“ ‘Resolve’ is a great word,” Adcock says. “It’s not resolution but its resolve, or perhaps the embracing of the unknown. Embracing that throughout your life, you’re going to come to these crossroads and be faced with these consequences and decisions that you didn’t see coming, or you caused yourself and didn’t know it until later. It’s the acceptance of the idea that I am prepared for that – I know how to make those decisions, I’ve learned something about myself at the end that will allow me to take the next step in my life.
“That’s the resolve that you get at the end. You’re resolved to live without knowing exactly what each moment is going to bring – because life just doesn’t happen that way.”
–-Rick de Yampert
“Songs for a New World,” at at City Repertory Theatre, directed by Tyler Adcock, 7:30 p.m. Jan. 12-13, 19-20 and 27, and at 2 p.m. Jan. 14, 21 and 28. Performances will be at CRT’s venue in City Market Place at 160 Cypress Point Parkway, Suite B207, Palm Coast. Tickets are $25 for adults and $15 for students. For more information or tickets, call the CRT box office at 386-585-9415 or or easily book tickets online here.