Up close and personal
First musical by Jewish Theater Ensemble focuses on intimacy between characters, audience.

By Deborah Hirsch

Songs for a New World" may be too new to have gained much recognition, but this innovative collection of vignettes is a fresh form of musical theater that students should experience, said Mike Descoteaux, director of the Jewish Theater Ensemble's winter mainstage production.

The musical, which opens tonight in Shanley Pavilion, features a six-member cast facing changes in life throughout a variety of time periods and places.

"This is basically the cutting edge of music theater," said Descoteaux, a Speech junior. "I hope we can swing beyond stock musicals and do more adventurous things in student theater. That's what student theater is for trying new things and pushing theater forward."

"Songs for a New World," by Tony-Award-winning composer Jason Robert Brown, marks JTE's first musical production.

Descoteaux said he was inspired to direct the show when the composer visited Northwestern for a workshop last Winter Quarter. "The more I listened to it, the more I realized it would be a perfect show to do on campus," he said.

Brown first produced the show in 1995 and won the Tony for "Parade" in 1999. Brown will visit NU next Tuesday and Thursday to hold a workshop with student composers and preview his new play, "The Last Five Years." Brown is also the youngest composer to win a Tony, which means that his music really relates to college students, Descoteaux said.

"A show like this has never been done on campus," Descoteaux said.

Nicole Sauler, the show's producer and Weinberg junior, said many people label the show a revue at first glance, but an abstract storyline runs through the 16 songs. "There is no dialogue. It's all about the lyrics and the acting," she said.

The strong focus on music required a lot of talent, said musical director and conductor of the show's five-piece ensemble John Pacheco, Weinberg and Music junior. "It's a virtuosic show for everyone involved," he said.

"Songs for a New World" is an exciting and innovating musical but also a very intimate experience, which Sauler said initially attracted her to the show.

"The most important part of the the show is that each character has to make a choice between the new world and old world, being safe and being adventurous," Sauler said.

She added that the show is appropriate for a college production because the characters face situations that could happen in anybody's life.

"Aside from some of the most beautiful music I've ever heard, it's deeply personal, like seeing a bunch of vignettes that someone's poured a lot of soul into," said Matthew Amador, a Speech junior. Amador said his character comes to accept that not everything is perfect and learns that happiness can even be found in unlikely situations.

Descoteaux said his goal was to bring each actor to the audience instead of approaching 12 different characters. The script even specifies that the actors use their own names for their characters.

"You're watching an actor explore himself through different circumstances," he said.

Because of the personal nature of the show, the designers chose to accentuate the actors through the choreography and costume design.

"We observed the actors' gestures to incorporate their personalities in their dancing," said co-choreographer Molly Curry, Speech junior.

The actors wear black costumes with a specific color added to represent each of their individual journeys, Sauler said. To accommodate the complicated changes in setting, the musical uses a simple series of platforms raised above the stage.

"The actors are in your face, it's definitely an intimate show," Sauler said.

Descoteaux said he hopes "Songs from the New World" will influence people who aren't interested in musical theater to realize that a production can say something about life without a million-dollar budget.

"This is a phenomenal show, and this is a good venue to see the show," Descoteaux said. "There's no way to come in here and not hear something that affects you." nyou

songs for a new world