THE BASICS: SONGS FOR A NEW WORLD, the 1995 off-Broadway theatrical assemblage of music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown ran successfully on demand from June 10 to June 27. Directed by Amy Jakiel with digital videography by Chris Cavanagh and music direction by Stephen Piotrowski leading a six person orchestra from the piano it starred Brian Brown, Steve Copps, Michele Marie Roberts, and Cecilia Snow. With all sixteen songs (and two “transitions”) it was filmed in and around Buffalo in over a dozen locations. The show streamed beautifully via “ShowTix4U.” Runtime: One hour and 28 minutes
THUMBNAIL SKETCH: Not a musical, per se (there is no overall dramatic arc and no character continuity) it’s not quite a cabaret, either. This musical is a collection of songs from other Jason Robert Brown projects. That’s not a bad thing when you think of how many different shows Irving Berlin songs appeared in before they were a hit. SONGS FOR A NEW WORLD does have a consistent (and easy to listen to) musical style for many of Brown’s songs, but he’s also adept at different genres (blues, jazz) and even includes a very funny parody of the Kurt Weill – Bertolt Brecht song “Surabaya Johnny” which becomes “Surabaya Santa” as sung by “Mrs. Claus.” The true through-line from song to song, though, is the subject matter. In Brown’s own words: “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.” Or, to quote Second Generation’s publicity, it’s a “song cycle full of love, loss, hope, and discovery.” Or, to use a popular term during this shutdown, it’s about having to “pivot.”
THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION: I can’t imagine a better show to have produced during these pandemic times. The small cast helped with social distancing and talk about relevance! Certainly every viewer has a story or ten of having to either go with “Plan B” or not even having a “Plan B” to go with.
So far during the pandemic there have been a few other local theatrical Plan B high -quality, small-cast, streamed offerings including SEA MARKS (only Chris Kelly and Kristen Tripp Kelley) and THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING (Victoria Pérez, solo) filmed by Pan American on the Irish Classical Stage. And in September the Alleyway Theatre gave us CURRENTS:716 by commissioning fifteen local playwrights to create mostly solo performance pieces, a few with two actors, and then had them individually filmed by Full Circle Studios on location at sites around Buffalo. So getting four of Buffalo’s musical theater stars together for SONGS FOR A NEW WORLD seemed quite expansive!
In my review of CURRENTS: 716 I wrote “They weren’t, but they could have been, co-produced by Visit Buffalo Niagara because they make the Queen City on the Great Lakes look, well…regal!” and I can say the same about SONGS FOR A NEW WORLD. The over one dozen venues included The Buffalo and Erie County Botanical Gardens, The Buffalo Museum of Science, the Explore and More Museum, along with Silo City, The Freedom Wall on East Ferry Street, other Buffalo murals, and the big “Theatre District” installation at the corner of Main and Tupper.
Watching the show, it was quickly evident that the singing and music were recorded separately on a soundstage (The Smith Theater which is more or less “home base” for Second Generation) and then the actors were digitally recorded acting and lip-synching to themselves in their various venues. (The reward for sitting through the credits was an outtake featuring Michele Marie Roberts muffing a video take of “Surabaya Santa.” You hear her continue to “sing” while you watch her struggling to eat a snack. Very funny.)
So the audio quality was first-rate. It’s a technique that has worked well recently for small groups of Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra musicians and their “Out of the Box” series (still available to stream here for free) which also includes a performance along the Buffalo River near the grain elevators.
The most recognized number in SONGS FOR A NEW WORLD is, I would believe, “Stars and the Moon” which just about every Broadway star has covered. And with good reason. It’s wistful, sad and sassy and very Sondheim-esque. As expected, Roberts certainly delivered on that one. She, among her many past roles, ripped my heart out with her recent performances in the musical FUN HOME, floored me as “The Lady of the Lake” in SPAMALOT, and will also be remembered by many for her lead in THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY along with co-star Steve Copps, who again comes up with a big voice here in SONGS.
I wrote in my review of HAIRSPRAY back in 2019 “As to the ‘younger’ cast members, I have seen Brian Brown in all of his roles to date and he brings that ‘it’ quality that you won’t want to miss to the role of Seaweed.” Well, the magic continued here.
And, I can’t wait to hear Cecilia Snow again soon. Some may recall this fairly recent graduate of The Crane School of Music (Renée Fleming’s alma mater) from AIN’T MISBEHAVIN’ . There is nothing like a conservatory trained voice. Perfectly on pitch, smooth, consistent quality. I hope to see those names – Brian Brown and Celia Snow – on many playbills going forward.
But I do have one big regret. I wish that I had watched SONGS FOR A NEW WORLD earlier this month so that I could have told you in time for you to have streamed it yourself. That ship has sailed. But I can say that Second Generation Theatre consistently puts on first rate productions, so I wouldn’t hesitate to visit their website regularly for updates.
Lead image: L-R Brian Brown, Michele Marie Roberts, Cecilia Snow, and Steve Copps
*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)
ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.
TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.
THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.
FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.
FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!