Fort Lewis College’s newest major, musical theater, will formally introduce itself this weekend with a perfect vehicle: “Songs for a New World,” by Jason Robert Brown.
“First off, we wanted a smaller show that would give more soloistic opportunities for some of our freshman musical theater majors,” said Michael McKelvey, assistant professor of musical theater and director of the show.
Originally cast for four players, “Songs” at FLC will showcase 12 musical theater majors: Grace Andrews, Stacia Baker, Travis Carlson, Iris Hughes, Wyatt Krob, Bella O’Bryan, Maya Mouret, Ryann Nunley, Warren Rockett, Haley Sandford, Caroline Smith and Jade Sophia.
“Also, ‘Songs’ would introduce our audience to some contemporary musical theater,” McKelvey said. “Since Jason Robert Brown is one of the prominent composer/lyricists of the past 25 years, we thought his first staged work would be a good introduction.”
Brown, 52, launched his career with “Songs” back in 1995, when he was 25 years old. He’s gone on to win Tony Awards for several musicals including “Parade” and “The Bridges of Madison County.” But “Songs” set Brown a template for invention.
“The music in ‘Songs’ is difficult to say the least,” McKelvey said. “His music challenges the performer both harmonically as well as rhythmically. His music also provides an acting challenge for our cast. Every song works as a vignette or scene unto itself. This means the cast performs 15 or so short stories through the course of the evening.”
The work is hard to categorize. “Songs” has been described as a song cycle, a musical revue and an abstract musical. It has 15 different set pieces that could each anchor an old-fashioned, narrative-driven American musical. But it’s different. One idea drives the show, a throughline, as it were. Brown himself described it this way: “It’s 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.”
If you go
WHAT: “Songs for a New World,” a musical song cycle by Jason Robert Brown, directed by Michael E. McKelvey, Fort Lewis College Department of Performing Arts.
WHERE: FLC Drama Building, MainStage Theatre, 1000 Rim Drive.
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Friday (Feb. 17) and Saturday, Feb. 23-25 and 2 p.m. Sunday.
TICKETS: One free for FLC students, other students $10. Adults $25 and seniors $18. Available online at www.durangoconcerts.com.
MORE INFORMATION: Visit www.fortlewis.edu/theatre or call 247-7089.
In a 2018 New York Times review of the work at New York City Center, critic Laura Collins-Hughes wrote: “ … the small stories Mr. Brown tells stand on their own, song by song.”
“Songs” may have a revue format, but the music varies greatly. In a 2018 Playbill interview, Brown said his youthful work “is actually meant to be a showcase of various styles I could write in, so there’s a very deliberate attempt to have a little of everything, gospel and R&B and jazz and rock and salsa and polkas and German music hall parodies and country and singer-songwritery things. It’s an entire map to my DNA.”
Curtis Reynolds, music director, conductor and pianist, will lead the onstage band. He will be accompanied by guitarist Chris Jensen, and percussionists Iz Tenorio and Brooke Pasmick.
There is a not-so-hidden cultural and historical arc that underlies “Songs” and its laser focus on the decisions we make. The arc has to do with the American dream, which the title alone gives away. From the opening sequence, “The New World,” sung by the company, to the finale, “Hear My Song,” uncertainties abound.
“These songs were meant to be musical short stories,” Brown said in the Playbill interview. “Things don’t necessarily go well for the characters in this show, but they all end up fighting through it together.”
Judith Reynolds is an arts journalist and member of the American Theatre Critics Association.