Songs for a New World (Review): Harvest Rain

With a few quibbles, I really enjoyed my first Harvest Rain-produced musical, Songs for a New World (1995) by Tony award winning composer Jason Robert Brown, directed by Tim O’Connor.  Four principal singers (Angela Harding, Luke Kennedy, Naomi Price and Luke Venables) are backed by a five piece band (Daniel Gibney, Daniel Grindrod, Marcus Parente, Jack Kelly and Matlohn Drew) and an acting ensemble of twelve – Harvest Rain’s interns getting some valuable on the job training.  The JWCoCA studio is a perfect space for small, ‘chamber musicals,’ and I fantasised as I drove home about how great it would be if Brisbane had a permanent small space dedicated to this kind of work, perhaps linked or associated in some way to music theatre training institutions around the state.  Anyway …

Songs for a New World is a play about relationships, and one of the more fragile of human emotions: hope.  It’s in the ‘small’ show musical class; the revue-style format is more of a mood piece, an essay as opposed to the full-blooded narrative book of most musicals, at least the blockbusters that many have come to associate with the American musical theatre.  Like others before and since, this musical work doesn’t rely for its success on big production values, but on the integrity and quality of the ideas, its music, and on the ability of a production to engage with the piece.  The play focusses on individual stories drawn from a cross-section of American society, people at decisive moments in their lives.  As a song-cycle, the work is also very much a musical-theatre actors’ piece, a meditation that explores a life’s realities set against its aspirations.

I’ve not seen a Jason Robert Brown musical before, and there’s a lot to like about the this one.  However,  Songs for a New World is often thematically and musically derivative.  At times Brown conjures up a Disney sound (Mencken/Elton John that segues into Sondheim and back again).  Whilst some songs have that distinctive 90s Broadway sound,  the best and most original have their own off-beat and ‘scratchy’ lyrical drive; I wanted more of these. Brown’s play also reminded me a lot of Urine Town, another small musical with its clever musical pastiche and the same edgy comic quality.  It’s closest though in its treatment of the bitter and the sweet in personal relationships to Sondheim’s Company – another series of vignettes.  Unlike Sondheim’s astringent take, however, Brown’s gets a little too close at times to the sentimental for my taste. Like Les Miserables, there’s no spoken dialogue. 

… it’s testing stuff for the small company. Luke Kennedy and Naomi Price’s vocal and character range ensured that they made the most of their songs’ musical and dramatic potential – terrific work!

The real delight for me was in discovering Brown’s lyrics, which are simply sensational, and deserving of close attention.  When a musical performer understands how potent a song’s lyrics can be to drive character, relationship and situation, then the work can be marvellous indeed; they’re pure gold in the acting part of the triple-threat armoury, but I suspect too often play second fiddle to the musical line of a song.  So I was a bit disappointed to lose some of Brown’s ‘voice’ through some overly-loud and strident tone that muffled the lyrics.  In addition to their musical originality, the best of the songs in the show also had a clear story behind them; it was in these that the convergence of lyric, music and character worked best.  Luke Kennedy and Naomi Price’s vocal and character range ensured that they made the most of their songs’ musical and dramatic potential – terrific work!

It’s fair to say that Songs for a New World challenges itself and everyone involved – no bad thing, of course.  It felt a tad long, but I think that’s as much about the work’s structure as anything else.  As far as the play as a whole is concerned, whilst the theme is clear, there is no overall narrative spine – no story-line on which to hang what are musical monologues with the occasional duologue and company piece – and don’t we just love story!  The lack of a unifying narrative is probably the single most problematical thing about the work, and something Tim O’Connor doesn’t quite manage to solve in this production – despite the visual metaphor of the set’s boxes. 

If it has a weakness, then it’s that the production of Songs for a New World just doesn’t hang together as a dramatic whole; we get the trees, but no sense of the wood in which they grow.

Each song is treated as a solo that seems to spring out of nowhere, unrelated to what has gone before.  I wonder whether it was in order to compensate, even distract from this apparent lack of connection, that the decision was taken to go for a big vocal attack; songs were belted when a caress or a sideswipe would have been more appropriate.  For example, The Flagmaker 1775 (One More Star One More Stripe) number relates to that very American and traditional communal women’s craft of sewing and quilting.  The song is designed to serve as comment on the role of mother/wife/lover/sister – stitching the flag that waves their men on to successive generations of war.  Rather than the subtle and sober tone called for, it becomes a big number, complete with red lighting that saturates the stage.  It’s one among a few lost opportunities for a tonal shift, a change in the show’s dramatic texture, when a quieter treatment and different connection with the audience would provide that necessary rest time in the cycle.  Less anthem, more irony …

And the other quibble (well, not a quibble, more a bee in the bonnet) has to do with acoustic enhancement of voices.  Why, in a theatre the size of the Judy’s studio were the singers miked?  Is it because of the growing expectation that actors’ voices aren’t good enough no matter the size of the venue?  This is a pernicious idea that’s getting far more traction than is warranted.  The principals in this show have strong enough voices not to need any, and the entire company of 16 working a number certainly didn’t.  Indeed, I suspect most of the singing would have been far more affecting and effective without miking.  I longed to hear a real voice located in a body on stage, not coming off the big speaker hanging from the ceiling and covered by the inevitable metallic ‘skin’ that acoustic enhancement brings with it.  I don’t care how good the equipment or the audio tech EQing the show, live voices are in a league of their own, and the more thrilling for it.  Harding, Kennedy, Price and Venables are all good enough to take on this challenge, and I’m looking forward to seeing more of their work and hearing their unmediated voices in performance.

Brisbane has several companies that encourage the development of new and emerging musical theatre talent.  Harvest Rain, arguably the leading player, is here to stay it would seem.  It’s celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, and if its website is any indication, its future is looking very bright.

PS  Did you see Artistic Director Tim O’Connor’s call to action in a comment to the post State Pride or Stage Fright? on the blog?  If not, read it.  There’s a lot of rubbish in other comments, but Tim’s is a tonic.