Primary tabs

SF Playhouse Produces Songs for a New World

December 15, 2020

San Francisco Playhouse, which was among the first theaters in the U.S. to do a pandemic-time onstage filming when it recorded Yasmina Reza’s Art in October, now offers a video of a musical performed live on stage, rather than via Zoom sessions.

Songs for a New World, with music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown, is available through Dec. 31, video- access tickets are priced $15 to $100, with SF Playhouse’s “pay what you can” offer.

This 1995 debut song cycle from Tony Award-winner Brown, of Parade and Bridges of Madison County, was warmly praised at its New York City Center revival two years ago in The New York Times:

“It was his first musical, three years before Parade, and it’s the work of a young composer-lyricist doing what young artists do: flex their muscles, imitate their elders, feel their way toward a voice of their own. These songs are, in effect, Mr. Brown’s baby pictures, and from the first piano notes of the buoyant opening number, ‘The New World,’ this concert displays them in a clear and warming light.”

The story spans time and geography from the deck of a 1492 Spanish sailing ship and a sailor sighting the Americas; to a ledge, 57 stories above Fifth Avenue and a contemporary New Yorker contemplating suicide; to Mrs. Santa Claus (appropriately in the season).

In Brown’s own description, his concept song cycle on the theme of life choices is “about one moment. It’s about hitting the wall and having to make a choice, or take a stand, or turn around and go back. The moment you think you know where you stand, the things that you’re sure of slip from your hand, and you’re suddenly a stranger in some completely different land.”

Called a “COVID-safe show” (for the cast) at its London revival this fall, The Guardian said, “Brown’s song cycle on the theme of life choices adapts well to social distancing, with a cast whose big voices make the huge auditorium feel small,” adding: “At first it’s like watching a pop group that has fallen out so badly they have restraining orders against each other. But it helps that this piece features people in what we now call isolation bubbles.”

In the San Francisco cast, which is smaller than in other productions: Katrina Lauren McGraw, Rodney Earl Jackson Jr., Cate Hayman, and John Paul Gonzalez, directed by Bill English. Music director Dave Dobrusky also provides musical accompaniment on keyboard; choreography is by Nicole Helfer.

Besides composing, arranging, and producing on Broadway, Brown is also a soloist with his band the Caucasian Rhythm Kings, performing concerts around the world. For the past four years (and ongoing), his monthly sold-out performances at New York’s SubCulture have featured performers such as Anika Noni Rose and Lauren Kennedy. Brown has also taught at the USC School of Dramatic Arts, Harvard University, Princeton University, and Emerson College.

Janos Gereben appreciates news tips, corrections, and words of encouragement at [email protected].