What's On
21 Aug 01
Songs of hope and despair
by Roger Foss

What¹s a nice musical like this doing in the flop parade?  Even by off-Broadway standards, Songs for a New World was a turkey.  Closing after a brief three-week run five years ago, Jason Robert Brown's musical seemed doomed to trot off into show biz obscurity.  But this hotly-tipped composer must have got something right.  His show has since been produced more than 80 times in the States and, sitting watching the UK premiere at the Bridewell, it¹s easy to see why audiences eventually took to this ensemble piece written for four performers ­ and why the American cast CD has become a collector¹s item.

Brown, who went on to write the score for the Tony Award-winning Parade, is from a new generation of American theatre songwriters who make the sound of Sondheim seem rather predictable.  In a song cycle of 16 stirring numbers you are swept along on an exciting musical voyage of self-discovery that takes you from the finding of the New World in 1492 to the much more personal stories of contemporary Americans teetering on the brink ­ in the case of one love-starved woman, literally on the edge of a parapet threatening to take the final step into oblivion.

There is no plot to speak of, which inevitably means that Brown ends up a bit like Rodgers without Hammerstein.  Nevertheless, each song is a musical in miniature capturing one person¹s life-changing moment: young man tries to move on from the shadow of his father¹s failures, a spoilt wife dreaming of a movie star lifestyle gains everything except love.  If the first half is about individual fears, struggles and disappointments, the second holds out hope for the communal spirit of humankind. Fortunately, in between the lofty Stars and Stripes idealism there's also plenty of cutting humour.  I¹m surprised that Ute Lemper hasn't snapped up the scathing Kurt Weill send-up Surabaya-Santa.

Clive Paget¹s production, staged on an almost bare set, throws the spotlight where it needs to be because the joy of this show comes from simply sitting back and listening to Sarah Redmond, Golda Rosheuvel, Craig Purnell and Nigel Richards singing ­ four exhilarating young performers whose soaring vocal chords never once disconnect from their heart strings.

songs for a new world