If Beckett is the absurdist rebel of the theatre world, Jason Robert Brown has to be his musical theatre counterpart. With no narrative, plot or definitive characters and complexly barmy music that can at times sound like Stephen Sondheim played in rewind, Brown’s most famous musical Songs for a New World is undoubtedly an uphill challenge for any theatre company.
Songs is stubbornly determined to defy categorisation, forever straddling the border between musical and song cycle, the tunes united only by a sense of time, moment and place. An unrecognisably new world away from the musicals of Rodgers and Hammerstein, everything about Songs goes against the rule book. The lyrics stumble over one another, keys rocket in all directions and harmonies blur in and out of one another unexpectedly, creating an intriguing yet at times bewildering soundscape of jazz, gospel, pop and classical music that must be a nightmare to sing.
I therefore take my hat off to Straight Line Theatre, only a fairly new company, for their daring to dip a toe into the mad world of Robert Brown with such gusto. The songs here were performed impeccably well with some truly pitch-perfect performances and beautiful arrangements. Sung with a real dynamism and unafraid to hit the high notes, this show continued to surprise and its catchy tunes left me humming and signing all the way home. Despite the difficulty of conveying any type of message without a thread of story, I also clearly felt the sense of a modern world of prospects – a kind of Great Gatsby longing of all time.
However, for all the show’s show-stopping vocals, I would have liked to have seen a slightly better use of the theatre space, clearer and more driven direction along with more storytelling in each individual performance. The small bits of minimalistic choreography used throughout, which added a much more satisfying visual picture, could have also been extended and increased.
Songs for a New World requires from its audience quite a leap of faith and a very open mind. Considering that the more obscure musicals of Sondheim (Robert Brown’s more tamed peer) are still dissatisfying audiences today, I sadly feel that many people will still not be prepared to desert their treasured musical theatre classics for a show quite so experimental as Songs. Yet, for all you trepid musical adventurers, it is definitely worth taking the voyage into the alien musical land that is Songs for a New World.
***- 3/5 stars
Songs for a New World is at C eca until August 27at 20.00 as part of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. For more information and tickets, see the Edinburgh Fringe website.