Lyrical revue by versatile talent lures class act

Though the connective tissue of a traditional musical is an intricately
structured plot, sometimes it doesn't take that much to bind a show's
songs together. If those songs soar, disturb, thrill, provoke; if the
performers and musicians can deliver them the way the composer
intended; if the audience responds to the power of the songs -- well,
who needs a conventionally told story?

Jason Robert Brown's Songs for a New World is a case in point.

Call it a revue, call it a song cycle -- whatever you call Songs for a
New World, which previews Wednesday and Thursday and opens Friday at
Actors' Playhouse in Coral Gables, it's the 1995 piece that anointed
Brown one of musical theater's hottest young talents.

Brown, who turns 35 in June, has already won a Tony Award for his score
of the 1998 musical Parade . His listing on the Internet Broadway
Database describes him as ''lyricist, arranger, composer, musical
director, orchestrator, conductor, musician'' (all of which he
continues to do), and though he dropped out of college, he's a teacher
as well -- he worked at the New World School of the Arts in 1989, and
this semester he's teaching at the University of Southern California.

And he is, say director David Arisco and the four powerful
singer-actors in Songs for a New World , the real deal.

'His work is remarkably prescient. People heard it and said, `What the
heck is this?' It's changing musical theater,'' says Carbonell Award
winner Rachel Jones, who so adores Brown's Songs that it lured her back
to the stage after two years of being a full-time mom to her toddler
daughter. ``It's a workout. It's not just going back onstage, it's
coming back to really work.''

Jones' fellow performer, Tally Sessions, won the Carbonell for playing
the title role in Actors' production of Floyd Collins and once appeared
in Brown's The Last Five Years , the story-in-song of a shattered
marriage. He, too, sought out the chance to do Songs for a New World .

''As actors who sing, there are pieces you pursue,'' he says.
``Revivals [of classic musicals] will always be there. You don't get a
chance to do a show like this often.''

Arisco, who describes the self-contained numbers in Songs as ''16
one-act plays,'' calls Brown ``. . . a great storytelling lyricist. But
the songs won't be received by every audience member in the same way we
perceive them . . . I like listening to the CD of this show loud in my
car. Jason's a noteworthy new composer whose music is vibrant, alive,

The little musical ''plays'' that make up Songs for a New World were
written when Brown was in his early 20s, single and struggling to
establish himself. He wrote it, as he says in a program note, ''. . .
in tiny apartments and at open calls and tech rehearsals . . .''
Stylistically, the songs dip into pop, jazz, gospel, a Kurt Weill
parody and, in Stars and the Moon (which Brown laughingly calls ``a
medley of my greatest hit''), the sort of ironic story-song that Harry
Chapin used to write. Some are gorgeously melodic, others more
dissonant and complex. Thematically, Brown is presenting people longing
to make it, desperate to connect, assailed by troubles that will either
toughen or defeat them -- as cast member Kevin Kirkwood puts it, ``The
songs are about hitting a wall, then going over or around it, or
turning back.''

Their creator knows how they feel.

Though Parade won Brown his Tony, it was less successful both
critically and commercially. Brown was musical director and contributed
several strong numbers to the musical version of Urban Cowboy , which
tried out at the Coconut Grove Playhouse in 2002 before moving on to a
disappointedly short Broadway run. His work is admired, praised, but he
hasn't yet come up with a smash.

''Younger people acknowledge what I've done, but I've chosen to work in
a commercial medium,'' Brown says by phone from Los Angeles. ``I've
made peace with the reality that 'til I write a show that makes a lot
of money, the powers that be will see me as esoteric. I've had traces
of bitterness or defensiveness. I don't like the business part of
showbiz. I like writing music.''

Acknowledging that some darkness runs through Songs for a New World ,
Brown says, ``The show is done a lot at colleges, and college kids seem
to get the darkness better. And younger performers are comfortable with
the narrative devices and tonal textures. . . . I didn't want to do
anything explicit [to connect the songs]. There's a cumulative
emotional narrative. People cry at the end but don't know why.''

Blythe Gruda, Sessions' costar in both Floyd Collins and Songs ,

''The opening number is this beautiful, four-part piece,'' she says,
``then you have these solos that really kill . Where these numbers go
is stunning.''

Christine Dolen is The Herald's theater critic.

songs for a new world