Teens take on challenging revue

Special to the News & Record

               GREENSBORO -- Not unsurprisingly, they were inspired by the "Hey,
               let's put on a show!" plot in the musical "Babes in Arms."

               The teenagers who starred in that Livestock Youtheatre production
               thought that if the characters they were playing could do it, so could
               they. And so, Phanatics Musical Theatre was born. The company's
               first show, "You Thought We Wouldn't Make It," was presented in
               February 2000 and raised $1,500 for the American Cancer Society.

               "We actually didn't think past that first show," says
               Phanatics artistic director Steve Royal. "But now we
               have our incorporation so we're a nonprofit division of
               the Livestock Players Musical Theatre. Ohmigosh,
               the paperwork! It took all summer, but it was worth it."

               Even with the group's status official, things got off to a
               slow start as a new school year proved distracting to
               Phanatics members. But in January, the troupe
               decided on a show and has been working with
               Livestock's artistic director, Barbara Britton, and City
               Arts to arrange publicity, costumes, and technical
               matters for this weekend's run.

               "Since the Youtheatre is still very much alive, we're
               planning on doing about one show per year," Royal
               says. "We just want more opportunities for young people to be in a
               show and maybe produce shows that aren't as mainstream as those
               presented by the Youtheatre."

               Phanatics' second production will be "Songs for a New World," which
               opens tonight. Appropriately, the musical revue presented by these
               young people was written by 20-year-old Jason Robert Brown.

               "When I got to New York City, I was determined to write my big
               Broadway musical," Brown says. "The only problem was that I didn't
               really know anybody in New York other than the delivery guy from the
               Chinese restaurant, and I didn't think he would be such a great
               collaborator since he couldn't even give me the right change. So I
               decided I would just take a bunch of songs I had written for various
               abandoned pieces and put them up at a cabaret, and I could find
               collaborators from there. But some things take on a life of their own."

               Brown met Daisy Prince, the daughter of legendary director/producer
               Hal Prince, while he was working in a piano bar, and she agreed to
               direct "Songs of a New World," which had a short 1995 run in the
               100-seat WPA Theatre. And when Stephen Sondheim backed out of
               writing music and lyrics for Hal Prince's new musical, "Parade," Prince
               went to the then-23-year-old Brown to fill in.

               Written by Alfred Uhry ("Driving Miss Daisy"), "Parade" was based on
               the true story of Leo Frank, a German Jew and Brooklyn native living in
               Atlanta, who was accused of killing 13-year-old Mary Phagan in 1913.
               A worker in his pencil factory, Phagan had come to his office to ask for
               her week's pay, later to be found dead in the factory's basement. Frank
               was convicted of the murder in a wave of anti-Semitism, but when the
               governor commuted his death sentence to life in prison, Frank was
               taken from his cell by a mob, then lynched.

               "Parade" was critically well received but had trouble finding an
               audience even before its promoters went broke. Nonetheless, Brown
               won a 1999 Tony Award for his work.

               "Songs for a New World" often deals with the same type of difficult
               themes found in "Parade." Each of the revue's 19 songs deals with
               finding the courage to go on in spite of life's crises. For example, "King
               of the World" is sung by a man strapped into an electric chair. "I'm Not
               Afraid" is performed by a woman unhappy in her marriage, and "Just
               One Step" is sung by an unhappily married woman standing on the
               ledge of a skyscraper. "The Flagmaker" is performed by a woman
               sewing a flag for the men she's sending off to war, and it's followed by
               "Flying Home," about a dead soldier saying goodbye to those he's
               leaving behind. Musically, the songs also vary greatly, with some jazz
               influence, some Joni Mitchell homage, and even a Kurt Weill pastiche.

               "Songs for a New World" is a challenge to adults, much less teenagers.
               But Phanatics -- the troupe borrowed its name from a member's e-mail
               password -- is thriving on the challenge and is already looking forward
               to its next show. However, Royal admits auditioning friends or other
               kids his own age can be sticky.

               Phanatics is open to high schoolers in all area schools, but it can often
               be more difficult for young people to commit to a show, or to realize the
               amount of work involved with staging a revue. "Songs for a New World"
               started out with a cast of 14 (the musical was originally written for only
               four), but that number had been whittled down to 10 by a couple of
               weeks before opening night. Royal directs, with Justin Cowan as
               musical director.

               "We're proud of our achievements," Royal says. "And people seeing
               'Songs for a New World' will see why we chose it. It's complex, and
               each song takes you to a different setting, which is different from book
               shows with just one basic theme. We saw the potential in the score. It's
               difficult, but very different and unique."

songs for a new world