Conceptually, Songs for a New World is a tough sell: situated somewhere between a musical and a song cycle, the work is an abstract collection of pieces unified under the theme of ‘the moment of decision’. Patched together by composer Jason Robert Brown and director Daisy Prince in 1995, the show is an assortment of songs that Brown had originally written for other venues and events, meaning there is no central narrative but rather a medley of one-off vignettes. Indeed, as Brown himself describes it, the show is not about one explicit thing, but “about hitting the wall and having to make a choice, or take a stand, or turn around and go back”; it’s about resilience. And with all that’s going on in the world at the moment, these stories about resilience have never been more powerful or essential.
Produced by Lambert Jackson Productions, who have recently ‘staged’ another of Brown’s musicals, The Last Five Years, the show is constructed completely in isolation: the actors perform their parts from the safety of their own homes, and are brought together through the magic of Danny Kaan’s editing. Moreover, director Séimí Campbell counters the innate bizarreness of the musical’s structure by utilising it to reflect the anxieties and issues currently affecting the world. With topics ranging from COVID-19’s debilitating effect on the theatre industry to the widespread protests sparked by the unjust murder of George Floyd, Campbell juxtaposes Brown’s powerful songs with montages of contemporary news, allowing the compelling score to prove insightful 25 years later.
Indeed, in one of the more moving and political sequences, Campbell draws parallel between a ship captain in 1492 praying for the safety of his crew with the plight of minorities in modern Western society: as the Captain waxes poetic on the “children who believe in this promise land”, Campbell features images of the HMS Windrush and vigils to George Floyd, revealing the inevitable emptiness of this “promise”. It’s a tear-jerking, thought-provoking framing, and its just one of the many incredible moments that Campbell constructs throughout the production.
However, this powerful direction only succeeds because Campbell and Lambert Jackson have assembled an A-List team of performers. Starring Rachel John (Hamilton), Ramin Karimloo (Phantom of The Opera), Cedric Neal (Motown The Musical) and Rachel Tucker (Come From Away), the show couldn’t have a more talented or capable ensemble; you would be hard pressed to find any better actors to execute Brown’s mesmerising score. Song by song, the awesome foursome deliver knock-out vocal performances, belting and ballading in a manner seldom seen before and offering harmonies that must be heard to be believed; if nothing else, watch the show just for the magic of their music.
Unfortunately, because Songs for a New World essentially operates as a faux-cabaret, there are bound to be some numbers that don’t quite hit the mark: after 90 minutes and 18 songs, there are one or two sections that drag and feel out of place amongst the high standard otherwise delivered. Nevertheless, Campbell and his team have put together a thoughtful discussion on what ‘the moment of decision’ could mean in contemporary society, and they are backed up by some of the most impressive performances put online so far; Songs for a New World may be the weirdest show you’ll watch during lockdown, but possibly the most rewarding.
Songs for a New World is available online until the 25th July: visit the Other Palace website for tickets and more information.