Our world is an ever-changing complexity. The modern era is seeing a massive shift in paradigm as we gain access to information at a rate never seen before, and this shared information is allowing our species to evolve on a sociological level at a rate that would have been impossible even two decades prior. Capturing the consequences and feel of that shift in a two-hour musical is a damn ambitious goal and a nearly impossible task, but Songs for a New World tries and comes closer than you might think.
Playing from March 23rd through to April 1st, 2017 at the Pal Studio Theater located in Coal Harbour, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, is a re-imagining of an off-broadway musical by the same name. The original was written and composed by Jason Robert Brown and was his first effort, and the Vancouver redux is the first foray done by Mary Littlejohn and Damon Jang of Fabulist Theater Productions.
The re-imagining is a series of single set-pieces that focus on disparate themes that tie together through two characters that appear only infrequently, and one is far easier to notice than the other. The entirety is minimalist, with simple costume changes, few props, and still images projected onto a floating background. The end result is individual pieces are intense but feed into a larger whole that is an emotional gut-punch, a condemnation of a dying world and a statement of hope for the one to follow.
All of the music was written twenty years ago, but the performances and terms modernize the whole and show the relevance of the stories being told. For those that worry about such things, spoilers lurk ahead. You have been warned.
The opening brings is to an airport where a soldier is looking to go to war. She is the first character we see, the one we attach ourselves to; the second is a small refugee girl, followed by a host of others. The whole cast comes and goes while singing The New World, a song about transitions and the sharp decline a life can take through unexpected events. Airports are a perfect setting for such a song, and planes have become an important symbol in our world: from the attacks on nine-eleven to the advent and invasiveness of the TSA, we are reminded that nothing is certain and nothing is stable, that the war is being fought (the soldier) but the consequences are often unintended and severe (the refugee girl).
It’s subtle, and here the story shifts from the original play dramatically. The off-Broadway show’s second song was On the Deck of a Spanish Sailing Ship, 1492, and was about a captain praying for his crew and passengers. The ship setting remains, but the boat is now full of refugees families seeking solace from the utter destruction of their homes. The greed of a very few destabilized entire countries and ruined the lives of people by setting countries against them, and the countries that were so duped will not take responsibility. The result is destitute millions, homeless nationals that have no place to go begging for a homeland of their own. It’s a stark song and a stark set and it is insanely powerful.
The darkness of that song demands a counterbalance, and we get it in the form of Just One Step. Both original and redux feature a wealthy woman climbing onto the window ledge of a highrise in an attempt to get the attention of an absent and cheating husband. Here, this is played for laughs – the celebrity insanity and over-reaction one might expect from someone on a reality television show, where the attention is more important than the outcome. It’s sung by Charity Principe and it’s both uncomfortable and genuinely funny, a tightrope walk as perilous as stepping onto that window ledge, but handled with grace by the performer. It’s important to remember that we joke about the things we’re not comfortable discussing, and the illogical extreme emotional reactions we’re taught are real by reality television is warping and damaging entertainment.
Switching again to utter darkness, the screen above shows pictures of war-torn Somalia, a product of rampant colonialism where the result has been civil war and child soldiers. Actress Shina Lakasa comes out dressed as such a child, and her fragile voice belies a powerful presence that makes a beautiful mockery of I’m not Afraid, a song that speaks of the fears that rule other people and the chains they have wrapped around her, a realization that leads to her casting those people aside. It’s intense, stark, and mighty, a slap in the face to an audience still reeling from the emotional whiplash of prior scenes.
When the scene ends and the world fades to darkness there is a palpable sense of relief that is mangled by the appearance of homeless people. The audience was taken aback, not sure how these invisible people snuck into the theater until they are revealed to be part of the show. The song they sing, the River Won’t Flow, was originally a duet between two derelicts, but here it becomes an ensemble piece that speaks about a system that is stacked, vicious, and all-consuming. Of note is addition near the end, where a police siren sends the homeless people scattering – they know that the police are not there to serve and protect them, and the song only concludes when the police are gone.
The small refugee girl then returns to briefly steal our attention, a small moment that feels isolated and intimate. Played to vulnerable perfection by Arta Negahban, her brief but haunting memory ends and leads us into something that looks more lighthearted, at least at first.
Kate MacColl takes the stage to sing Stars and Moon. The song is about a woman set upon by three suitors and the song is improved here. The direction and performance make it clear that this is a woman torn by conflict: she is lost between what she wants and what society says she should want. She listens to society in her choice and… there’s a song called America by Simon & Garfunkel, about two lovers that train across America. It’s catchy and fun and, towards the end, there’s this aching moment of melancholy and there’s a moment here where Kate captures that exact feeling, a single moment where mirth turns to silencing heartbreak. It’s impossible to look away from, impossible to ignore.
Following this is another song that undergoes a similar journey. She Cries was initially a song a man sings about the power women have over him, but here it’s subverted. The man is a bartender giving advice to drunken fools, the idiots and pick-up artists that are as trapped by the horrid dating game as the bartender is himself. The tragedy here is a reminder that the first thing toxic masculinity asks young men is to mutilate their own emotional well-being, but the only thing ignoring emotions does is cause them to fester. It’s another powerful moment in a string of them, and singer Aerhyn Lau left the stage to thunderous applause.
The first act was not done yet, though. Viciously, brutally, a taste of the tragedy to come: Rema Kibayi rules the stage with Steamtrain. Both the original and the redux tell the story of a young man pursuing a future in basketball, taking spoken asides to tell of the hardships he’s overcome. The original played this straight, but Rema adds complexity to the song by making it clear that this is his only way out of a created hell, an impossible dream that he can achieve but will have a heavy price. He will pay it, and gladly, and his command of the song and his performance left the audience breathless and in need of the intermission that followed.
We were given fifteen minutes to catch our breath, to recover and settle.
Talk was excited, brittle, and when the lights faded the audience hushed and waited, needing whatever was to follow.
Originally, the World was Dancing was a song about a man whose father bought and lost a store, and how that made him leave his fiance. It was trite there, but here… the singer is presented as a drunken frat boy who learns that the market is not his friend, that nothing is permanent. He moves the arms of his first love to another girl and then to a man, pulled by the forces of society to marry his first love but yearning for the arms of his man he truly loves. His world falls apart and all he learns is not to trust, not in the world or the systems of that world, and the shame he feels leaves him desolate and his world broken.
After that the audience needed something light, so we’re treated to Cheryl Mullen performing Surabaya-Santa, the tale of Mrs. Clause getting ready to leave Santa. It’s cute and does what it has to do, lighten the mood of the audience, but once again there’s a subversion here: Cheryl takes the lyrics and turns them into something, a critique of codependency and the importance of being your own person in a relationship. It’s fun, but this isn’t the sort of musical that lets us have fun moments without being punished for it.
So, naturally, we get Christmas Lullaby, a song that was originally about a woman reacting to news of her pregnancy with wonder and comparing herself to the Virgin Mary. Arielle Tuliao’s performance comes from the perspective of someone utterly alone and very much pregnant, and the joy of the song turns to ash when she realizes how very much alone she is. Abandoned, homeless, her comparison to the Virgin Mary is born of pure desperation, a cry for help from a god she will never see.
The world fades to darkness. Images blaze to light: riots against police brutality, the DAPL protest, others. A single barred spotlight manifests and frames Frankie Cottrell as he sings King of the World. This is one of the play’s most powerful songs and Frankie delivers, turning the ravings of a deluded man to the warcry of an imprisoned American Dream, the very best a country has to offer locked away for fighting for the things a country was founded on and strived for. There’s a shock that runs through the crowd as they realize the full weight of what is being implied: that the American Dream itself has been locked away by the greed of the people that know ruin that nation and the people that live therein. The song offers a final note of hope, however, a slim chance for a better world to come.
I’d Give It All For You is a statement of that hope. The boy whose father bought and lost a shop searches for the man he fell in love with, the two of them both wandering the highways of their homeland in search of one another. They find one another, they love one another, and by the honesty of the search and the finding, it is implied that their lives can truly begin.
Their moment, lovely as it is, ends. The soldier from the opening scene saves a refugee and the two of them flee from unseen attackers, a brief moment that cuts and leads to another woman.
The Flagmaker was meant to be the song a woman who sits at home, weaving and holding her house together while her husband and son fight in the war. Here, the woman is fighting for herself: the song becomes a feminist anthem as images of suffragettes and feminist figures flicker on the screen behind, giving a glimpse at some of the struggles women have had to suffer to come as far as they have and reminding us all that the battle is not yet done, not for some, not until we are all equal.
For others, though… Flying Home was always a song about a dying soldier, the soldier from the beginning. She dies saving someone and her soul sings about flying home, about how her duty is over and she will know peace. The original play implied a sense of glory, but here there is none of that: war is stupid, her life was paid to sate the greed of men she will never meet, her life spent protecting the innocent lives that were ruined by those same men. It’s a powerful song and a powerful performance and it feels like this is where the play should end…
… but the refugee girl takes the stage once more. There’s a short transition at an airport, the soldier’s mother waiting for a child who will never come home and refugees seeking an echo of the home they have lost.
Hear My Song, the finale, is an echo of both the first and second songs. We return to the refugee camp where the song is a funeral dirge for everything lost and a prayer for a more compassionate future, one where they may have a home once more.
It ends. The audience stands, claps, the cast bowing to thunderous applause. There people walking out at the end look shocked, thoughtful, chattering amongst themselves. This play makes you work for answers, for meaning, and this iteration is incredibly dense. Ambitious? Yes, and all the more beautiful for it. Highest possible recommendation; if you have the chance to see this, do so.
You can learn more about Songs For A New World be clicking here, learn more about Fabulist Theater Productions by clicking here, learn more about PAL Studio Vancouver by clicking here, or purchase tickets by clicking here. Do get tickets online – the show I got to see was sold out, and the general quality of what was on stage should keep them packed for the whole of their run. Still, this is well worth seeing and those tickets are worth their weight in gold.