Posted on April 21, 2007 at 3:24 pm

I’m in the house today making rehearsal tapes for the cast members of the really exciting production of Songs for a New World that we’re doing next month, and it put me in mind of the origins of some of this material. It’s a fascinating process for me now, listening to these songs, because they have layers and layers of events embedded in them. Not just the when-I-wrote-them, but the rehearsals at the WPA in 1995, the parties at Hal and Judy’s house, the production in Nyack in 1997 (with Beth Leavel as Woman 2!), a college in Minnesota, a community theater in Boston, a church in Toronto, a dinner theater in Topeka, an audition, a concert, a recording, it all plays out at the same time, one moment peeking through as another recedes.

One of my favorite memories of the original rehearsal process was Billy Porter speculating about how, in twenty years, he and Andréa were going to be teaching the show at some regional theater and saying, “When I did this show in 1995, we hit that E-flat every night, y’all! Now pas de bourrée, pas de bourrée, and throw that basketball, bitch!” I know Billy still thinks of that when he’s teaching a masterclass and someone comes in with “King of the World.”

I dealt with “King of the World” in this entry, and in addition to Ty Taylor’s awesome performance of it on the original cast recording, you can hear Billy sing it on his own CD, At the Corner of Broadway + Soul, but I thought it would be fun to let you hear it the way Billy and I were doing it originally. This recording comes from about a year before the actual production. We did a recording session in a studio in the basement of an apartment building in midtown, and I bashed on the clunky piano and rushed like crazy, and Billy emoted and funkified.

“King of the World” from Songs for a New World (1995)
Music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown
Billy Porter: vocals
JRB: piano/conductor
Recorded and mixed by Jeremy Harris at Westrax Recording Studios, NY NY, September 1994

I’ve also talked a bit about the origins of “Surabaya-Santa” in this essay, but I wanted to give you all a chance to hear Kristine Zbornik in action. (If you really want the whole package – and you do, you do – she’s performing all this month and next in NY at the Metropolitan Room. Here’s the info on that.)

Out of all the songs in all of my shows, “Surabaya-Santa” is the only one on which I share a writing credit, and that’s because Kristine came up with the idea for the song and also wrote the insane monologue in the middle.

Two things I’m surprised I have to explain:

1. “Surabaya” is a town in Indonesia. It has no direct relevance to the events described in the song. There is a famous Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht song called “Surabaya-Johnny” (from the musical Happy End) in which a woman who had been seduced years earlier with the promise of a sedate life on the land denounces her husband, who has been at sea almost constantly since their marriage. When Kristine came to me with the idea of a song about Mrs. Claus being abandoned on Christmas Eve, I thought immediately of “Surabaya-Johnny” and decided to rip it off as closely as I could. Oh, sorry, not “rip off,” I meant “pay homage.”
2. On the original cast recording, Jessica Molaskey performs the first verse of the song in a dead-on impersonation of Lotte Lenya, complete with uncertain intonation, rapid vibrato, and overheated German accent. It’s really funny. But I’ve never seen it work for anyone other than Jessica, and it’s not the way the song was intended. If you watched Jessica do it, you’d get why she was putting on the accent, and it makes sense, but I think on the recording it sounds like arbitrary craziness. The Lenya shtick is a joke on top of another joke. This song is dense enough without adding one more layer to it; I suspect Jessica did it the way she did because she didn’t trust the song to be funny enough. So be it – I love Jessica and I loved her rendition, but Kristine’s version here is truly the way I envisioned the song, and I think a more useful model for anyone who has to sing it. (I didn’t really mean “has to,” like you’re being forced at gunpoint.)

This recording isn’t really from the “in utero” period, it’s from a concert that I did at Cooper Union in 2002. (You can hear our original demo on this CD, presuming it’s still in print.) I loved performing with Krissy back in my piano bar days, and this concert really felt like an opportunity for us to reconnect and for her to “repossess” the song, which, as you can hear, she does with considerable élan. I can’t describe all the physical things she’s doing to get those laughs, but trust me, they were pretty wild.

from Songs for a New World (1995)
Music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown
Additional text by Kristine Zbornik
Kristine Zbornik: vocals
JRB: piano
Recorded and mixed by John Guth at the Great Hall at Cooper Union, October 25, 2002

All of which is to get you even more excited about the concert at Strathmore on May 16 and 17. It’s been such a kick digging back into this material, and I can’t wait to see Alice, Laura, Brian and Tituss chomp into it and make it their own. It’s been more than a decade since the show premiered in New York, and I’m amazed that it’s still growing and finding new audiences.

Which brings me to my final awkward point: I’m so buzzed about these concerts that I’m trying to find a way to record them for a DVD. I’ve got everything I need to do it except the money. I’m looking to build a small investor pool to capitalize the recording and editing; I already have several possible distribution channels. If this is at all interesting to you, shoot me an email and I’ll get right back to you with some specifics. Asking for money on the Internet is always a sketchy thing to do, but we’ve had some fun times, you and I, so I’ll take the shot.

Back to work for me. I’ll try and check in again next week!