Times - Picayune; New Orleans, La.; Aug 9, 1998; Theodore P. Mahne;

For composer Jason Robert Brown, watching the new production of "Songs
for a New World" last weekend at True Brew Theatre was something of a

As the creator of the musical revue, he's certainly familiar with the work, but in
many ways, he said, it was as fresh for him as it was for the rest of the

"Just sitting and watching the show was a great emotional experience for me,"
he said. "This was the first time I've ever seen the show because I've always
played it."

The current production at True Brew, directed by actress/choreographer Diane
Lala, marks not only the New Orleans premiere of "Songs for a New World,"
but also the first production of the show outside of New York. It premiered at
the WPA Theatre in 1995 and has received one other production in Brown's
hometown of Nyack, N.Y.

While visiting New Orleans last week, the composer said he was impressed
with what he saw, especially the cast, which includes Kerry Mendelson,
Michael Larche, James Murphy and Lala.

In her director's notes for the show, Lala described the overall theme of the
revue: "The show is about hitting a wall and having to make a choice or take a
stand or turn around and go back."

Brown agrees with that assessment, adding that the songs melded together in
this theme over the course of several years.

"It has to be understood that it was all written in a very piecemeal fashion.
When I wrote most of these songs, it wasn't an intention to turn them into a
show," he said. When the idea to create one show from his songs arose,
adjustments were made as a common theme revealed itself.

"In the process I started throwing out a lot of old songs and writing new ones,"
Brown said. "I was surprised that they all did fit together. One wound up
illuminating the next one in certain, specific ways."

The result was "Songs for a New World," Brown's first musical. The original
cast recording of the show is available on RCA.

In exploring the decisions we make in life, as well as the hopes and the dreams,
Brown used a variety of song styles, ranging from broad comedy to touching
love song to full-voiced anthem. That blend reflects his widespread musical

"My life kind of changed the first time I heard a Joni Mitchell record. She
specifically changed the way I write songs," Brown said. But before she came
along, I'd say it was equal parts Billy Joel, Stephen Sondheim and Stevie
Wonder all floating around in there. Then there's Charles Ives and Leonard
Bernstein. There are so many composers who formed part of my

"My ambition was first to be an actor, a big theatrical star. Then it was to be
Billy Joel, playing the piano in front of an arena full of people screaming at me,"
Brown said, laughing. "Somewhere along the way those two ambitions got all
mixed up in each other. . . . That hybrid gave birth to `Songs for a New
World.' "

Even as performers seek out new works, the opportunity to present a new
show outside of New York is a rare one.

"In New York City, it's not impossible to find a place to produce your work.
Everyone has theaters to fill, they all have subscribers to take care of. If you
can find a theater that you respect and that matches up with the work you do, if
you've written a good piece, it'll get done in New York," Brown said. "What's
much harder is to get a second production, to have it travel outside of New

"What's wonderful about True Brew is that they've taken something that no one
knows, by a writer who nobody outside of New York knows, and they
decided to take a chance and do it."

He particularly cites the performers in the current production: "They wanted to
challenge themselves (the harmonies to the songs are extraordinarily complex)
and they came through with flying colors."

Because each song in the show has such a rush of associations with it, it was
impossible for Brown to choose a particular favorite as he joined the audience
last week.

"It changes every time I hear the show," he said. "These songs are so fraught
with the emotions and feelings of what it took to get me to this point in my

It's a career that appears on the brink of taking a major step forward. As a
conductor and arranger, Brown's work currently can be seen Off-Broadway in
"Dinah Was" and "A New Brain."

On leaving New Orleans, Brown was returning to New York to continue
working on a new musical, "Parade," scheduled to open at Lincoln Center in
December. It will mark his Broadway premiere and the buzz for the show is
high - there's already talk of potential Tony nominations.

"Parade" will be directed by Hal Prince and written by Pulitzer Prize-winner
Alfred Uhry ("Driving Miss Daisy," "The Last Night of Ballyhoo"). Daniel
Ezralow will choreograph. (Brown also is writing "The Moneyman," a dance
musical, with Ezralow.)

"Parade" tells the story of a Jewish factory owner in the Deep South who finds
his identity and manhood only after he is falsely accused in the death of a
13-year-old girl.

"I've known Hal for a long time," Brown said. His daughter, Daisy Prince, was
the director of the premiere of "Songs for a New World."

"They brought the project to me and I still feel that I'm too young to do
something so monumental," he said. "But there was no way I was going to say
no to this. It's such an enormous challenge for me to live up to these two titanic,
talented human beings. But they're also wonderful people, great collaborators."

Local audiences have the rare chance to catch the work of this rising composer
now. "Songs for a New World" continues through Aug. 29 at True Brew
Theatre, 200 Julia St. For tickets or information, call 522-2907.