Most of the people I know experienced Songs for a New World for the first time through its untouchable original cast recording. Jason Robert Brown was all of twenty-five when Daisy Prince encouraged him to shape his individual songs into a cycle and put it on stage with a quartet of rising singers: Brooks Ashmanskas, Andréa Burns, Jessica Molaskey, and Billy Porter. It ran for three and half weeks in an off-Broadway theatre, so not a lot of people got to be there in person. The resulting cast recording, though, reached me–in high school in California–several years later. It’s the jumping-off point for Brown’s career; it features his most well-known song (“Stars and the Moon”) and later led to Parade, his collaboration with Daisy’s father, Harold Prince. For people, admittedly myself included, who revere Brown’s writing, it is the urtext of his talent. It’s tough, then, for me to admit that the show is starting to feel out of step with the times.
Paper Mill Playhouse has revived Songs for a New World as its opening production following more than a year shut down by the coronavirus pandemic. It makes a lot of sense: there are only four people in the cast, it’s mostly solos, it doesn’t require a lot of set. That’s the beauty of Brown’s score–the songs do most of the work. There is so much packed into them lyrically, musically, and dramatically. If you get a great singing actor to bring them to life, you can almost leave them alone. The songs will take you there.
Mark S. Hoebee’s production mostly understands this. He doesn’t try to connect the songs to each other (they aren’t related!) and he doesn’t try to define “characters” outside of the individual numbers (they are new people in every song!). Generally billed as “Man 1”, “Woman 1”, etc., they are here listed by the actor’s name, further highlighting that, yes, they are the same actor, but no, they are not the same character singing every song. Having seen productions that don’t get that, it was a relief that Hoebee did not try to impose a overarching narrative.
The production can get a little busy, though. The lighting by Charlie Morrison is, at times, beautiful in its intention and captivating in its angular shaping of the empty space around an actor. At other times, the lighting feels more like a cruise ship spectacular, moving around too much and shooting out at the audience. These moments distract from the simple truth of the song and pull our eyes away from the actor. The choreography by Kenny Ingram feels a little like the production doesn’t trust the songs to be interesting on their own. There are a lot of sharp pops on the beat, a lot of actors striking poses and moving hips when the groove kicks in. It’s a tough job for a choreographer. The show doesn’t really call for dancing.
In the Woman 1 role, Mia Pinero opened the show with her crystal clear tone, causing someone behind me to go “What a voice!” after she’d only sung two notes and was in the middle of a phrase. Pinero sounds wonderful on the opening, “The New World”, and each time she is called on to interstitially reprise the song. Pinero seems a little nervous on her first solo song, “I’m Not Afraid of Anything” and her pitch and timing wavers, but her “Christmas Lullaby” in the second act is lovely. It is a gentle song on the surface, but Pinero is able to mine its depths for the pathos underneath. When she reaches the climactic key change, it’s quite moving.
The songs for Man 1 and Man 2 are where the show’s cracks are spreading. Man 1 is typically cast with a Black tenor (Billy Porter, Mykal Kilgore in the recent Encores! production) and Man 2 is typically cast with a white baritone (Brooks Ashmanskas, Colin Donnell at Encores!). As more time passes and the world changes, Man 2 becomes more and more of an asshole. His first solo song, “She Cries”, is a (maybe intentionally) misogynistic rant about how you have to run away from a crying woman or she’ll get you to engage with her feelings. In “The World Was Dancing” he ignores some substantial problems with his parents because he’s more concerned with whatever woman he is dating (and/or cheating on) at Princeton.
Man 1’s songs are plagued with Black stereotypes. In “The River Won’t Flow” he says, “I never had me no house. / I never had me no phone,” and, “This corner is where I was born to be.” In “The Steam Train” he says he wants to be a basketball player because everyone from his school is either in jail, dead, or selling donuts on 125th Street. In “King of the World”, he’s imprisoned for an unspecified crime. The characters in Man 1’s songs are constantly beaten down by their circumstances. He does have “Flying Home” at the end, but it’s a little too late to have a Black deus ex machina absolve the pain.
In the Paper Mill production, Man 1 is played with great charisma by Roman Banks. Banks has an undeniable presence and shines even when he is buried under continuous Black trauma. He doesn’t quite have the voice of a Porter or a Kilgore, but he could easily get there in the future. Andrew Kober plays Man 2 with a kind of vague nonchalance. It feels like Kober doesn’t know how to reconcile the things he’s saying with the earnestness of the music, so he’s sort of adrift.
The real reason to see this production is Carolee Carmello as Woman 2. Carmello’s silhouette received entrance applause when she took the stage in the dark. Her voice is indescribable. Her iconic vibrato is soul-touching. She is a singular interpreter of Brown’s work, having originated the role of Lucille Frank in Parade, and she brings that magic touch to all of her songs here. She is as comfortable with the extreme comedy of “Just One Step” as she is with the deep regret of “Stars and the Moon.” In “Surabaya-Santa” (the show’s daffiest number), she slips into Lotte Lenya-Marlene Dietrich-Liza Minnelli mode and it’s almost too enchanting. It made me long for her to sing some actual Kurt Weill, not just Brown’s pastiche. Towards the end of the show, Carmello delivers a thrilling, definitive version of “The Flagmaker, 1775” that makes full use of her incredible instrument. It gave me goosebumps several times.
All things combined, Paper Mill’s revival of Songs for a New World is a good opportunity to hear this score in person. The band, led by Sinai Tabak, is exemplary and the singers, particularly Carmello, find some interesting things to do with the songs, even if you’re very familiar with them. It’s an easy train ride to Millburn from New York City and even if the twenty-six-year-old show feels out of step with the contemporary times, there are still many things to appreciate about it.