A Show To Remember

An innovative show started summer with a bang at the Drama Barn earlier this term.  Songs For A New World captured the hearts of cast and audiences alike and, as Fabienne Harford reports, will continue to have a lasting impact.

Last night I attended the final performance of Songs for a New World, and instructed myself to watch for noteworthy moments, interesting directorial choices; my mind ready for critical analysis.  Over an hour had passed before I realized I was crying I looked down at my page and realized that not only had I written nothing but for the first time I couldn’t seem to form any logical possibilities for what I should have been written.  There seemed nothing that could translate from my heart to my head; none of the emotions this show caused in me could be articulated.  So now, two days later I sit down again, ready to finally write what I know and what I saw.  The show opened with the cast already in position, and as the audience sat down you could feel the conflict of anticipation and expectation.  No one seemed to know what genre the show was.  Most of them loathed ‘musicals’, and those who didn’t were ready for jazz hands and song and dance. As the show began, one thing was clear, no matter what you were expecting this was not it.  The show begins with a single piano, then a single light, then a single voice breathing out the melody that is threaded throughout the piece.  I’m fairly certain everyone in the audience stopped breathing.

Throughout the first few numbers the audience seemed unsure of what to think.  Everyone was floored by what had just collided into them; by the pure force of it.  In the enclosed space of the barn, the music collapsed on top of the audience in wave after wave of sound and harmony.  Before people could respond to the first song it had evaporated into a second, then a third, and we had travelled from the present day to the deck of a Spanish Sailing Ship in 1492.  But it didn’t matter when or where we were; what time or what place, it was all irrelevant. The songs were timeless and the themes were pertinent to every person in the audience: helplessness, guilt, regret and anticipation - need. By the end of this first collection of songs, the audience began to feel they had a handle on what to expect: a combination of harmonies, soft and strong turning thoughts into liquid poetry.  But at the start of the next song all our preconceptions were destroyed.  Just One Step was completely different from anything that had gone before.  As Portia Ilsley struggled with her cheapskate husband, the audience was so surprised that the show was going to offer something humorous that they were unable to hold it together, especially when Ilsley sneered her husband’s name.  Ilsley had one hysterical song after another, with Surabaya Santa being the climax, with the pure wit tossed about as a woman struggles to leave her love - Santa Claus.  So, when she took centre stage in a long black dress, the audience already had smiles on their faces and were ready to laugh.  Again, too much was assumed.  Choking back tears, Ilsley became a flag maker on the eve of the American Revolution, desperately trying to distract herself from the possible loss of her husband and child.  When it was over the audience were left in complete shock

There was a complete candidness as Leanne Sedin began her first solo that managed to capture the audience from the first line.  As she sang about her ability to face any fear, her emphatic determination blossomed, echoing the swell in the music.  Just when the audience were once more beginning to find a comfortable pattern, the music fell away, as did Sedin’s defences as she whispered: “David loves me” and the realization hit her with an impact so visible that the audience felt it; “He’s afraid of me.”  One moment Sedin’s character consumed the stage and swallowed all the audience in her voice, and in the next moment she became a scared little girl, completely transparent as she breathed, “I am not afraid”.

Aga Serugo-Lugo had a phenomenal combination of solo moments.  His roles traversed from a role of a captain of a ship in the opening sequence, to a basketball pro for the finale of the first act, and all were handled with complete commitment.  He had the audience collapsing in laughter with his basketball antics, and as he began to speak it was incredible to watch the faces fall as he candidly spoke of his father's abuse.  Suddenly a stereotypical character became real; became round. In the second act he sang King of the World. The music’s rhythms and the ideas of this song were thrust together to mesh, and create a collection of highly charged sounds and thoughts.  His final number led into another group number and was simply breath taking.  Flying Home began so softly that there was a physical response in the audience, and as the song grew, as voices were added, it carried the audience with it.  Sedin later returned to sing a duet with Eamonn O’Dwyer. The lyrics of the number contained such accurate and perfectly articulated thoughts that the result of their combination with the beautiful music was heartbreaking.  Then, near the end of the second act, Sedin took the stage once more to sing Christmas Lullaby.  The simplicity of the performance of this haunting religious piece was stunningly beautiful and one of the most moving moments in the show.

O’Dwyer, who directed the production in addition to performing was able to grab the audience completely in his first solo number, She Cries.  He came running on stage and portrayed such a combination of emotions that it was impossible to attribute just one to him.  The result was a character so well rounded and fully developed that although no one could define what he was feeling every one could remember experiencing the same thing.  Throughout the production this seemed universally managed. Most of the characters presented in the script could easily be classed as two-dimensional, but the cast never failed to grant them all depth.  O’Dwyer opened the second act by discussing his relationship with a girl and with his family.  The intensity between him and Sedin, (who played the girl in this song), was beautifully developed and this was further illustrated when the two of them sang I'd give it all for you. O’Dwyer’s directorial choices throughout were always subtle, but very powerful, and he managed to thread themes through all the pieces, linking them with united messages.

The first number’s musical themes were tossed around throughout the play and occasionally surfaced in the form of transitions.  One note worthy transition was when Sedin sat in the dark and sang “a new world calls me in the darkness,” and although the words could easily have been sung in her belt range, and easily have meant nothing, she managed to communicate the fear that exists in us all about what to expect from life.  Although only a few lines long the transition was beautiful, and allowed us to witness a journey.  The contrast between the lyrics at the start and at the end is inspiring.  In Sedin’s transition she sings “a new world waits and I’m not ready,” and by the end of the show this has twisted into “a new world calls me and I’m ready”.

I was intrigued when I overheard a friend who loathes musicals explaining that he liked the show because “it wasn’t a musical."  Throughout the show, almost every word is sung and if it’s not sung it is spoken rhythmically to music. Maybe it didn’t feel like a musical because it wasn’t fitted with the usual out line people associate with musicals.  Songs for a New World has no obvious plot.  Every song begins a new story; every moment offers a new idea; every word is invaluable, not because the lyrics further the plot because they mean something.

At the end of it all, I don’t think I could tell you what I saw.  I can’t define the genre, and I think possibly what makes the show so special is that distinct characteristic.  It is indefinable.  I’ve never seen a comedy so sad, and I’ve never seen a tragedy so funny.  I’ve never seen a musical that spoke so well, and I’ve never seen a play convey such pure emotion.           

- Fabienne Harford

songs for a new world