Visit promises rewards for students, faculty

By Chris Casey
News Tribune staff writer
Duluth News

Andrew Bennett recalls the reaction he got from two friends after he played
``Stars and the Moon'' from a CD he discovered -- ``Songs for a New World.''

They cried.

``It was about that time that we knew we had something there,'' said
Bennett, a senior majoring in musical theater at the University of Minnesota
Duluth. ``And it was about that time that I thought, `Hmm, this is something
I'd like to direct.' ''

Two years later, that's what Bennett is doing. Making matters more exciting,
if not tension-filled, is the fact that the show's acclaimed New York
composer, Jason Robert Brown, will be watching in Dudley Experimental
Theatre tonight and Thursday.

Bennett first spoke with Brown when the composer came to Minneapolis last
summer with the touring production of ``Parade,'' which Brown scored. ``I
snuck down (to the orchestra pit) during intermission and talked to him
about how much I admire his work,'' Bennett said.

This was before Bennett learned he would direct Brown's ``Songs for a New
World,'' the first-ever Stage II musical. Stage II is the student-run arm of
UMD Theatre; it typically mounts three shows a year, but this year will
stage four.

Bennett knew that Brown sometimes visits colleges, so when he returned to
UMD in the fall and got director duty for ``Songs,'' he looked up the
composer's e-mail address.

``I really wasn't expecting it,'' Bennett said. ``I was just really happy to
get a reply from him in the first place, and (today) I'm picking him up at
the airport.''

If he's got clammy hands on the steering wheel, it will be understandable.

``My favorite composer was (Stephen) Sondheim, and, when I heard (Brown)...
'' Bennett said. ``He's pretty much in my mind taken over Sondheim.... I
think he's going to change the face of musical theater.''

Kate Ufema, an associate professor of theater and UMD faculty adviser to
``Songs for a New World,'' said the department is using money from the
School of Fine Art's guest-artist fund to pay for Brown's two-day visit. He
will critique the preview of ``Songs'' tonight, attend opening night on
Thursday and teach master classes in theater and music in between.

Ufema said Brown is the biggest theatrical name to visit the campus in her
seven years at UMD.

For students, she said, ``This is a wonderful opportunity to talk directly
with a professional who is living and working in New York in the genre that
they aspire to.''

Bennett said Brown's presence will ``heighten the tension a little bit'' as
well as offer the ``ultimate director's notes.''

Shouldering a large burden is Tony Sofie, the show's musical director. The
senior theater major (he already has a UMD degree in vocal performance) will
play keyboards, piano and synthesizer during the show, while Josh Rose will
handle percussion.

``It's because we have the combination of Andy and Tony that (this show) is
possible,'' Ufema said. She calls the project ``very ambitious.''

songs for a new world