This summer, New York City Center’s Encores! Off-Center series features three-time Tony Award winner Jason Robert Brown’s first major work, Songs for a New World (1995). It was the revue slash song cycle slash abstract musical that put the now Tony-winning composer-lyricist on the map.
Performed by two men and two women, the characters and their stories are tied together by the idea that one moment can change anyone’s life, be it a neglected wife, Mrs. Claus, lovers reuniting, or a Revolutionary War flagmaker.
Running June 27–30, and directed by Kate Whoriskey, this collection of powerful songs examines life, love, and the choices ordinary people make when faced with extraordinary moments.
What was your inspiration for Songs for a New World? Why put these songs together, in this order, like you did?
Jason Robert Brown: I can only take a certain amount of credit for the order of the songs. My original inspiration was [Richard Maltby, Jr. and David Shire’s] Closer Than Ever, which I saw at the Cherry Lane Theatre on a trip to NYC when I was 19. I decided I was going to do a revue like that with my own songs, and so I started building it. After a couple of late-night performances at Eighty-Eights in the Village (long gone, alas), I asked Daisy Prince if she would help me shape it into a more substantial piece. It was Daisy who really gave the show its shape and its arc, for which I am eternally in her debt. I knew we had to start with Christopher Columbus, but I had no idea how to fit in Betsy Ross or Mrs. Claus, never mind something like “The World Was Dancing.” Slowly, over several years, Daisy and I figured out who these characters were, why they were all played by the same four people, and what story they were trying to tell. During that development, many of the original songs fell away, and I ended up writing more than half of the material just for the specific piece we were building.
Songs for a New World ran Off-Broadway when you were only 25. How did you come up with these songs and lyrics as such a young man?
Always a mystery, but I think if you see enough movies and shows and read enough books, there are things that you begin to recognize about the human condition, things you absorb and internalize maybe without even knowing it. I’m a writer because I want to bring stories to life—those stories live in me and resonate in me for reasons well beyond my comprehension, but I couldn’t write them if I didn’t, on some level, feel them and want to understand them.
We do think of each of the four performers in the show as having an individual arc through the piece, and all of them having relationships with the others. Even though they’re constantly changing identities, Daisy and I always thought of them as being the same person throughout, as though their spirit took on other external forms but remained the same internally. And part of the joy of the show to me is that they all therefore recognize each other.
Many of the songs in Songs for a New World deal with relationships between people. Why do you think person-to-person moments are so impactful in the face of change and discovery?
[Writer] Marsha Norman always says that every playwright really only has one story to tell, and they spend their lives telling it over and over in different costumes. I think part of my story is about finding a community, locating a place in the world that feels like home and people that feel like family.
Do you have a favorite song from Songs for a New World?
I have a peculiar kind of affection for the songs in the show, as I think any writer does with his or her very early work. It’s wildly ambitious material, musically, even when I didn’t quite know how to achieve those ambitions. Whenever anyone asks a favorite, I do tend to mention the underdogs; “The World Was Dancing” was a very important song in my development as a writer, even though I don’t think it’s on the top of anyone’s playlist. But I may love “Flying Home” most of all. There’s a clarity to it that I really like, and I surprise myself by still finding new things in it.
In the cast album for Songs for a New World, you sing one line in the final number, “Hear My Song.” It goes, “Listen to the song that I sing/And trust me.” At this point, the entire show is nearly done—why should we trust you?
That’s the point of community, isn’t it, that we have to learn to trust each other even in moments of crisis or moments of indecision. Things don’t necessarily go well for the characters in this show, but they all end up fighting through it together. When the people I love are in crisis, I have to reach out to them and tell them to hold on to me and I’ll pull them through it, and I count on them to do the same when I’m at the end of my tether.
Have you ever thought of follow-up songs for the scenarios you’ve created for these characters?
Given that these songs were meant to function as sort of musical short stories, no, I can’t say I’ve never really thought about doing more with them. They’re nicely self-contained, even when they’re elliptical.
Man 2, played by Brooks Ashmanskas in the original Off-Broadway cast and on the cast album, sings similarly-sounding songs to your other male protagonists. Does Man 2 stand in for you?
I think Man 2 ended up with the “me” songs just because of the vocal range. “King of the World” is actually one of the more autobiographical songs in the piece, but people don’t notice that because it’s always a black man singing it. I have thought it would be fun to have a theatre where every year they’d do one of my shows and every year the same guy, the same nerdy Jewish intellectual, would play Evan Goldman in 13, then Man 2 in Songs, and then Leo Frank in Parade, and then Jack Singer in Honeymoon in Vegas, and Jamie Wellerstein in The Last Five Years. Then maybe take a few years off before The Bridges of Madison County...
Songs for a New World has similar motifs and sounds to your other works. How do you describe the Jason Robert Brown sound or style?
Oh, I don’t know. Songs is actually meant to be a showcase of all the various styles I could write in, so there’s a very deliberate attempt to have a little of everything in there, gospel and R&B and jazz and rock and salsa and polkas and German music hall parodies and country and singer-songwritery things and whatever the hell “The Flagmaker” is. If there is a “Jason Robert Brown” sound (and I think there probably is), it’s all there in this score, like an entire map to my DNA.
Major productions of Songs for a New World have always had female directors. Is that important for this piece?
I didn’t ask Daisy to work on the show because she was a woman, I asked her because I trusted her and thought she had wonderful ideas, and we’ve had many glorious collaborations since then. If there is a “female sensibility” in the show, I can’t say I would know how to identify it, but I do think it’s immensely valuable for me as a creator to have female collaborators in the room—I’ve done work where there were only men in the room, and it’s infinitely less satisfying, both creatively and personally.
Songs for a New World is your first production to be performed at New York City Center. What does that mean to you?
That’s a big f***ing stage! I’m very excited to be part of the history of this building and this series. It’s nice as I get older to see my work get more accepted into the canon; that’s a very gratifying thing for a writer, and since my career has always been a little bit sideways, it feels like a real prize to have my work showcased in this historic place.
Any upcoming projects you can share?
I’m thrilled that Daisy and I are working on a new show together, The Connector, with a book by our genius friend Jonathan Marc Sherman. We’ve just finished a new draft and hope to have it out in the world soon. It’s a very strange and very ambitious piece, and like everything I’ve done with Daisy, it tries to find a way to speak in its own theatrical language. Tremendously exciting for me—at 47 years old, I’m still looking for new worlds.
Katie Labovitz is the Editorial Associate at New York City Center.