Posted on July 29, 2015 at 2:38 am

A new production of Songs for a New World opened in London this week at the St. James Theatre, commemorating the 20th anniversary of the original Off-Broadway production. (The NY Times review from 1995 can be seen here.) Director Adam Lenson has assembled an amazing cast: Cynthia Erivo, who just set the Royal Festival Hall on fire when she sang there with me in May; Jenna Russell, the Tony-nominated star of the Sunday in the Park with George revival, who’s done several wonderful London concerts with me over the years; Damian Humbley, the original Jamie in the Chocolate Factory production of The Last Five Years; and newcomer Dean John-Wilson, by all accounts an astonishing young singer.

We’ve collected the major reviews here:


London Theater Review: ‘Songs for a New World’ with Cynthia Erivo

St. James Theatre, 312 seats, £39.50 ($62) top. Opened, reviewed July 24 2015. Running time: 1 HOUR, 30 MIN.

Twenty years after Jason Robert Brown burst onto the American musical theater landscape at age 25, London gets a first-class revival of his breakout show, “Songs for a New World,” with a dream cast. Adam Lenson’s production — featuring an effortless performance by Cynthia Erivo, due on Broadway later this year as the star of “The Color Purple” — isn’t the musical’s UK premiere (which happened at a tiny fringe venue in 2001), but it is easily the highest profile outing here in London, and it’s good enough to make you realize that the Brits have missed a trick. What’s more, it’s an illustration of how wide a gulf the Atlantic is when it comes to musical theater.

Too fragmented for a musical, too unified to count as cabaret, Brown’s song cycle is absolutely its own thing: sixteen self-contained numbers, threaded together by musical and thematic motifs, each a story in itself. Its numbers manage to be both catchy and complex, but they are all character pieces with ample opportunities for actors. In “Just One Step,” for example, a wealthy wife gets her way by threatening to jump from her 57th floor apartment window — and it’s left to us to determine which is emptier, her threat or her life.

Britain doesn’t really have musicals like this. Chamber musicals come around every so often, but they’re rarely this arthouse. Brown asks the audience to do the work, never spoon-feeding us or spelling out a story, but letting us find the connections between these people, their songs and their situations for ourselves. The overall diagnoses is left up to us.

Usually, it’s taken in terms of life-changing moments. As the opening number states, “it’s about hitting the wall and having to make a choice, or take a stand, or turn around and go back.” Think of it a collection of shorts, each defined by the epiphany at its heart — the determined young sports star’s realization that the odds are stacked against him in “The Steam Train,” for instance, or the two newly rekindled lovers who swear to one another that “I’d Give It All for You.”

Director Lenson draws out something else as well: He ties the show to New York in particular and cities in general. The stage is a warehouse-style apartment on the edge of New York Harbor. Outside the window, the Statue of Liberty, that famous first glimpse of a new world for so many, has turned her back, perhaps rejecting these lost souls or else protecting them. In the foreground, as we look out from what must be New Jersey, are two clumps of dead tree trunks that recall the charred steel uprights of the toppled World Trade Center. To a London audience, unfamiliar with Manhattan’s geography, this could easily be the view from Ground Zero — fitting for a musical about moving on from those moments that change everything.

Andrew Riley’s design makes that apartment ready for a refurb, with floorboards in need of a sand-down and dry, dead leaves on the floor. The four actors slide a rusted steel door closed as if shutting themselves away, and stare out at the world through huge windows. It works beautifully: Brown’s characters feel detached from the rest of society. They address the world from afar, as something separate, something to be defeated or used and which might very well defeat you or use you back in turn.

Movement director Polly Bennett has them shuffle furniture throughout as if rearranging a flat, adding to the overall feeling of uncertainty behind this chorus of self-doubt. It’s an eloquent and unshowy expression of the whole.

Admittedly the setting does lessen the historical scope of the piece, and songs like “On the Deck of a Spanish Sailing Ship, 1492” and “The Flagmaker, 1775” don’t carry their stories when sung by contemporary figures.

However, the pleasure is in watching four actors playing the material so deftly. Jenna Russell (“Sunday in the Park with George” on Broadway) catches the ambiguity of these numbers, particularly in “Stars and the Moon,” so that hardness gives way to hope and sadness softens into a shrug. Erivo, excellent throughout, delivers “I’m Not Afraid of Anything’” as if she were alone in her bedroom, looking at herself in the mirror. Damien Humbley, with his resounding bass, finds the self-awareness in various glowering, washed-out men, and Dean John-Wilson, the least established of the four actors, gives a runaway rendition of “The Steam Train.”

Frankly, it’s great to see real acting through song, a rarity given the British musical’s roots in musical hall, which tends to treat songs as set-pieces. The cast’s careful interpretation — the lines they run over, those they snap or swallow — betrays the closeness of their readings.

The St. James Theatre, the London venue where “Songs for a New World” is playing a limited run, hasn’t always made sense since it opened in 2012. Its programming has often resembled a miscellany. But “Songs for a New World” is a perfect fit for a venue that feels like an Off Broadway playhouse in London and, with Britain’s infrastructure lacking a space for small-scale, art-led musicals, the production might point the way to the theater’s true sense of purpose.

Songs for a New World review – ghosts jostle in musical micro-stories

4 stars

Jason Robert Brown’s melodic 1995 show is an oddity, but a consistently interesting and thrilling one in this exquisitely cast revival featuring the impressive talents of Cynthia Erivo, Damian Humbley, Dean John-Wilson and Jenna Russell.

It’s more of a song cycle than a traditional musical. There is no book, and yet in Adam Lenson’s staging, it hangs together beautifully musically and thematically, and while there’s no progressing narrative, there is a complete micro-story in every single dramatic song.

Each number gives us a new character, and yet there are so many echoes and reverberations that it sometimes seems as if this bare, New York loft apartment overlooking the Statue of Liberty, a place both of arrivals and departures – is full of jostling ghosts.

Through a series of seemingly unconnected songs, Brown introduces us to individuals at moments in their lives when “the sky starts to change and the wind starts to blow”. There are lost jobs and broken marriages, new life starting, old lives left behind. Brown, who went on to write the brilliant Parade, was just 25 when he wrote it, yet it has a delicate, mature Chekhovian regret in both its scoring and subtle emotional layering.

This is a show that knows that every new beginning also marks an ending, that the person we will be tomorrow is not the person we are today. The show is like a series of accumulated bruises.

In the wrong hands it could be mawkish, maybe even self-absorbed. But the simplicity of the staging combined with standout performances ensure this grabs the attention and touches the heart. The quartet are all mesmerising, but Russell is particularly riveting in Stars and Moon as a woman who realises that she has squandered the ultimate prize, and Cynthia Erivo is guaranteed to send shivers down your spine every time she opens her mouth.


Songs for a New World review

4 stars

Songs for a New World is the gorgeously melodic and poignantly told 1995 Off-Broadway song cycle revue that first introduced Jason Robert Brown, then just 25, to the world. He has since had four original book musicals reach Broadway.

In some ways, though, his work has never been better than here, which is really like 16 shows for the price of one. Each number is its own nuanced, richly dramatised mini-musical, telling its own complete story. Adam Lenson’s riveting new production is both sensationally sung and thrillingly acted.

Set in what looks like a downtown Manhattan loft apartment, with high wide windows opening out on a view of the Statue of Liberty and what could be shards of the fallen towers of the World Trade Centre, the cast of four cut isolated figures who occasionally come together in wonderful harmonies. But each is trapped in his or her own memory.

Jenna Russell and Cynthia Erivo are two of our very finest exponents of acting through song, illuminating the material from within. In Stars and the Moon, which has become a cabaret standard, Russell charts a woman’s heartbreaking realisation that achieving what she thought she wanted wasn’t what she needed. Erivo brings an effortless naturalism and lyricism to I’m Not Afraid of Anything and it’s true: she’s both utterly fearless and peerless.

Damian Humbley, possessed of one of the very best male voices in British musical theatre, lends I’d Give It All for You a ringing clarity and clout. And Dean-John Wilson, the least well-known of the quartet, marks his own territory and holds his own in their company with an athletic and authentic presence, with a stand-out performance of King of the World.

“Songs for a New World”

4 stars

There’s a cracking cast in this revival of Jason Robert Brown’s song cycle.

If there was a big ol’ rule book on how to succeed in staging song cycles – musical shows with no narrative but some sort of theme, featuring one composer’s songs performed back to back – then rule one would be ‘get a really, really good cast’. Without one, listening to non-stop show tunes can be a little hard, a little flat and a little boring.

Director Adam Lenson has definitely adhered to that golden rule. In his new production of Jason Robert Brown’s ‘Songs for a New World’ – themed around life’s tipping points – his cast of four are about as good as you could get. Musical theatre stalwarts Jenna Russell and Damian Humbley, the fast rising Cynthia Erivo and relative newcomer Dean John-Wilson are riveting pretty much the entire way through. They make a nice, varied team: their singing styles different but complimentary.

Russell moves effortlessly from song to song, and it’s her and Humbley that bring what little narrative there is to the show. With simply a look, or a tilt of the head they suggest a story, something John-Wilson and Erivo don’t do. Russell also masters the two songs that will make you laugh – without which the night would be a smidgen earnest. In the hilarious ‘Surabaya Santa’, she’s Mother Christmas just before she decides to dump Father Christmas, and in ‘Just One Step’ she’s an ignored wife trying to attract her husband’s attention by making a show of throwing herself out of a window.

In the pipes department, they’ve all got star quality. Erivo’s voice is clear, strong sharp and beautiful. She can belt it out and rein it in with barely a thought. John-Wilson’s sound is more pop-band than musical theatre and he’s been given mainly soul numbers, which he aces. With an experienced ease, Russell and Humbley bring oodles of character and nuance to the tunes. The entire group of voices are a rich, velvety mixture that’s easy to drown in.

A couple of Robert Brown’s songs are fun and you’ll be humming earworm ‘The New World’ on the way out, but really this show is only about the superb performances.


Songs for a New World (St James Theatre)

4 stars

Celebrating twenty years since its premiere Off-Broadway in 1995, Jason Robert Brown’s seminal song cycle has been triumphantly revived at the St James Theatre.

Set to a backdrop of the Statue of Liberty, the show features a number of stories of American life, past and present, which could just as easily be the experiences of people anywhere in the world.

As the opening song “The New World” (a glorious start which sets the tone of the next 90 minutes) says, “it’s about one moment” that can change the course of a relationship, career or entire life.

Though the four people on stage are at first glance unrelated, changing character from song to song, there are themes running through the piece from hope, or the lack of it, to wonder and despair that make it more than simply a collection of disparate songs.

Though cleverly directed by Adam Lenson to interweave several of the tales being told, some of the movement by Polly Bennett seems redundant. The piece is brought to life by its stars; the actors themselves, and Brown’s music.

Jenna Russell is the stand-out, unrivalled in her ability to act through song. One moment she brings peals of laughter and the next tears to your eyes; every solo she has, she delivers impeccably, from the suicidal wife in “Just One Step”, an angry Mrs Claus in “Surabaya Santa” to cabaret standard “Stars and the Moon”.

Cynthia Erivo, soon to head to Broadway with the Menier Chocolate Factory’s production of The Color Purple, once again showcases her perfect vocals with stirring performances of “I’m Not Afraid of Anything” and “Christmas Lullaby”.

Damian Humbley is on top form, particularly with “The World Was Dancing” and a duet with Erivo of “I’d Give It All For You”, although he and Dean John-Wilson – the weakest of the four, though he too has flashes of brilliance – certainly don’t have the best pick of the songs as Man 2 and 1 respectively.

As with any song cycle or revue, there is a large gap between the best and worst tunes in the show, but using his immense talent for writing songs that tell a story, Brown paints a universal picture of love, loss and longing that ends on a note of hope.

Though there are occasional issues with the sound levels, meaning some of the words can get slightly lost, musical director Daniel A. Weiss and his band are magnificent.

With influences from pop to R&B and gospel, Brown’s music has an incredibly devoted following, and he’s even been hailed as the next Sondheim. With the beautiful melodies and intricate lyrics that began his career on full show here, you can see why.

Review: Songs for a New World (St James Theatre)

4 stars

For people of a certain age, their American musical theatre hero is Jerry Herman. For others, of a different certain age, that hero can be any one of a number of principal players: Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, Stephen Schwartz, Adam Guettel, Jonathan Larsen, Alan Menken, Andrew Lippa, Georgia Stitt, Michael John LaChuisa, Jeanine Tesori or Tom Kitt. No doubt there are other worthy contenders too.

For those whose most impressionable years were the late 90’s, the composer who is usually ranked high, if not highest, is Jason Robert Brown.

Brown is a gifted composer, with a good ear for fine, haunting melodies which can eat into your soul, and tug on your every emotional fibre, as well as complicated and crushing harmonies which can resonate and thrill. His lyrics can be bleak, but they can also be unashamedly sentimental or brutally funny.

He has had a somewhat tense relationship with Broadway, but his last two major works, The Bridges of Madison County and Honeymoon In Vegas, were accomplished mature works; the first (Bridges) was too exquisite for the punters of Broadway who prefer The Lion King and Wicked, and the second (Honeymoon) had the misfortune to feature some leading players and a production which did not permit the material to sparkle. Still, Brown has won three Tony Awards, so on any view of it, his musical skills are advanced.

Songs For A New World was Brown’s first major show, produced off-Broadway in 1995. People have argued since then, tediously, about whether it is a musical or a revue or a song cycle or something ineffably in-between. If it matters, my view is the title gives it away – it is a song cycle.

It has never struck me as a particularly theatrical work. Some of the music is exhilarating, some engaging, some pedestrian. It is interesting to hear Brown’s thoughts and musical interests coalesce into a stream of consciousness. But, apart from a couple of numbers, it has always seemed a curiosity to me, a springboard, a marker in the sand – rather than a complex or mature work in its own right.

Now playing at the St James’ Theatre is Adam Lenson’s production of Songs For A New World. Lenson’s production does nothing to change my view.

The work is a song cycle, the true interest of which lies in its music and lyrics. Anything which serves to detract or distract from those key elements merely lessens the impact and interest of the piece.

For reasons best known to Lenson, but elaborated on, in an unenlightening kind of way, in the programme, he has chosen to stage the piece as if it were a book musical. There is a curious set, an even more curious selection of props and small furniture items, and some estimation of costumes. It seems more 70s or 80s than 90s, but pointlessly so.

The cast are required to adopt meaningful poses and move in odd patterns, placing, replacing, and removing the furniture and props in a kind of endless, almost Beckett-like, fugue of introspection and pointlessness. Quite why they are so compelled is never explained and, certainly, never clear. Nothing is added to the music by this fatuous nonsense. Indeed, almost all of the moments of excellence occur when one performer works in a tight spotlight.

What is important in this work, as in all of Brown’s work, is the interpretation and delivery of the music. And it is in this department that Lenson’s production strikes gold.

Artful patchwork is on song

3 stars

This revival marks the 20th anniversary of Jason Robert Brown’s abstract musical — an artfully woven patchwork of songs about uncertainty, decision and survival. Adam Lenson’s production emphasises its dramatic qualities and is both well cast and powerfully performed.

Most of the songs have deliberately unspecific settings and picture relationships or personal turning points. A couple of them address key historical moments, such as Christopher Columbus’s voyage to America, but they’re mainly haunted by nebulous memories of departures, reunions and bad luck.

The stylistic mix embraces soulful ballads, gospel, swing and funk, with more than a touch of Stephen Sondheim. These different idioms don’t sit together all that comfortably, and the dominant tone is sentimental — mostly plaintive, sometimes treacly, often repetitive.

Damian Humbley’s appealing tenor voice feels underused, while athletic Dean John-Wilson is the most uneven of the four performers. But Jenna Russell is at her best in an energetic pastiche of Kurt Weill, and Cynthia Erivo brings a radiant clarity to every line she sings.