Posted on May 24, 2012 at 3:40 pm

As Songs for a New World evolved over the course of my first five years in New York City, I was absorbing a lot of different music in that way that is really only possible when you live by yourself and don’t have to spend your money on anything other than buying CDs. (I realize the whole notion of “buying CDs” now seems quaint, but this was in the early 1990’s and we actually had to go to music stores and give money to people if we wanted to have a copy of a song we could listen to whenever we wanted.) “The Steam Train” is sort of an unholy mixture of Bruce Hornsby, the Manhattan Transfer, and what was then called “new jack swing.” I was never going to convince anyone that I was Teddy Riley, but I was willing to try.

I don’t know why I wanted to write a song about a basketball player in the projects. Hoop Dreams wasn’t even out yet, so that wasn’t the inspiration – and that movie is of course authentic and authoritative in ways that “The Steam Train” doesn’t even approach. The whole song seems ersatz to me, and it did even then, but I thought the music was cool and I hoped that perhaps having an actual black person sing the song might give it some credibility that my lame-ass phony-baloney “Nike and Adidas” jokes wouldn’t otherwise attain.

This whole line of thinking is made ridiculous by the fact that I already had my cast in place for the show, and I knew that my tough basketball player from the projects was going to be played by …
… Billy Porter.

Billy is one of the greatest singers in the world; I say that with no hyperbole intended. From the first time I heard him (when he came into Don’t Tell Mama’s on a night I was working the piano bar), I knew that he was a rare and magnificent creature, a phenomenal musical imagination couple with an extraordinary instrument. And he is a formidable actor as well, intensely emotional and committed and funny and just generally wonderful. What’s he is not, however, is a basketball player from the projects. The staging originally included some rudimentary dribbling and shooting – that was cut very quickly. When we handed Billy the basketball in rehearsal, he held it like it was a wet schnauzer.

But, for all of its ludicrousness, I can’t help loving it. Here’s my fake “street” song about a sport I never watch sung by someone who looked as much like Michael Jordan as I look like Chris Hemsworth. And all of that notwithstanding, I still think it’s awesome.

Billy never got to sing on the original cast album for the show, so this is a rare chance to hear him take on this material which was really shaped so specifically for his voice. There are two other fascinating things to listen to here: my 1993 keyboard programming (on a Korg T3, if you were wondering), which is both soulless AND inept; and none other than Tony Award-winning singer Debbie Gravitte singing backup with Andréa. I had originally hoped Debbie would record all of the songs for Woman 2 for the demo, but it took us all so long to get the harmonies right for the ensemble numbers that I never got the time to work on the solos. I still hope she’ll sing them someday!

The Steam Train (demo) from Songs for a New World (1995)
Music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown
Billy Porter: lead vocal
JRB, Andréa Burns & Debbie (Shapiro) Gravitte: ensemble vocals
JRB: piano/programming
Recorded at Night Owl Studios, NY, NY, Spring 1993

While I never got to hear Debbie sing “Stars and the Moon,” I have heard countless other wonderful women bring it to life, and I wanted to share one of those performances with you here.

Julia Murney is one of the most profoundly gifted musical theatre singers on Earth, and we’ve had the opportunity to collaborate on a number of projects, including a concert version of The Last Five Years that we did at UCLA in 2007. Julia was also featured in an orchestral concert of Songs for a New World that I conducted in Adelaide, South Australia in 2003. (You can hear her epic rendition of “The Flagmaker” from that concert here.) Here is her gorgeous performance of what I like to call “a medley of my greatest hit.”

Stars and the Moon (live) from Songs for a New World (1995)
Music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown
Julia Murney: vocal
The Adelaide Art Orchestra (JRB, conductor)
Roger Butterley: acoustic guitar
Randy Landau: acoustic bass
Georgia Stitt: piano
Recorded by some crazed showtune queen with a crappy tape recorder, Adelaide Festival Hall, Adelaide, South Australia, 6/16/03

I have had the privilege of working with some amazing singers, y’all! Grateful am I. Enjoy.