Offering hope amid a sea of uncertainty, “Songs For A New World” is such a perfect piece to speak to the current times that sometimes even its creator has a hard time accepting it was written over a quarter-century ago.
“I can’t believe I wrote these songs, some of them 30 years ago, and that they’re still so relevant,” writer and composer Jason Robert Brown said during a visit with the cast at Paper Mill Playhouse, according to Producing Artistic Director Mark S. Hoebee.
“There’s so many moments in the show where you go ‘Wow, he had a window to the future somehow.’ Or maybe it’s just universal themes that keep recurring in life. But he definitely has a gift, that Jason,” said three-time Tony Award nominee Carolee Carmello (“Parade,” “Finding Neverland”), who is starring in “Song For A New World” alongside Roman Banks (“Dear Evan Hansen”), Andrew Kober (“Beautiful”) and Mia Pinero (“West Side Story”).
“It seems incredibly appropriate for this moment in time for us,” Hoebee said. The theater, opening the doors, bringing people back again. We’re coming into a world that feels familiar, but it’s not the same. It’s different, and that’s exactly what every one of these songs is about — whether it’s the captain of a ship in 1492, or whether it’s a woman who’s kind of over her relationship with her husband standing on the balcony of their penthouse and deciding whether or not she’s going to jump.”
Carmello was excited to reunite with Brown, who also wrote the music and lyrics for “Parade,” which she called the “favorite theatrical experiences of my life,” as well as return to Paper Mill and support regional theater in New Jersey.
“This show is so much about trying to look toward the future and get through experiences that are challenging. So I think the material was so appropriate for the moment of like, ‘Okay, guys, we’re looking on the horizon. And we’re going to get through this together.’ It was a very sort of moment of solidarity … “
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Carmello said the return to the stage, while a most welcome one, was a jolt.
“For the most part, during this year and a half, I felt kind of retired. I’m getting to that age where I’m slowing down and I thought, ‘Okay, this is what retirement is.’ I would ride my bike and make myself lunch and work on my house. And so I had settled into this more relaxed lifestyle … And then getting back into rehearsing eight hours a day and being on my feet and trying to learn harmonies and memorize lyrics, it was a real challenge.”
A meaningful production
Banks said not only does the show speak to the current times, it resonates with his own journey.
“On a daily basis, there’s so many things I’m fighting to accomplish that I want to give up all the time. And this show is all about meeting that crossroad and still choosing how to put your foot down, how to take the next step, when to take the next step. A lot of the characters are in very uncomfortable places or speaking of being in very uncomfortable places and navigating ‘Where do I go from here?’ “
He said the audience impact of the show helps him derive a sense of purpose.
“I’m not really good at doing art that doesn’t feel like it’s important and necessary, because then it’s hard for me to justify that I’m contributing to the world, which dearly needs contribution right now. I just pray that as audiences see the show, we’re able to give them something that’s greater than ourselves. And we’re able to strike a chord with them at some point in the show that might make them think a little deeper or see people with a little more empathy or have a little more compassion for themselves and others.”
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Full circle moments
Specific moments in the show speak to Carmello and Banks.
“There’s a song at the end of the show called ‘Hear My Song,’ where we all sing about ‘it’s dark right now. But hang on, there will be light soon.’ That kind of imagery of ‘we know this has been really tough. But we’re going to get through this together.’ “
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“I really love doing ‘River Won’t Flow,’ because I love what it talks about,” Banks said. “But I also love that it’s the first time all of my castmates and I can really get to jam out on stage. So it’s always fun to look at them and we just bounce off of each other’s energy.”
He said “King of the World” is a full circle moment for him.
“That’s a song that I used to sing in college with my best friend all the time. So doing it in a professional setting and really getting to make it my own and channel what I’ve always felt when I hear the song is really special to me, and I hope it resonates with audiences as strongly as I want it to.”
Keeping with the themes, Hoebee recognizes there are a lot of unknowns as Paper Mill and all other theaters re-open their doors.
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“That’s the big question now. Things are opening but will they stay open? We’re making plans and making contingency protocols and things like that, but moving forward is big,” he said.
In addition to safety protocols at the theater, which include masking and proof of vaccination, Paper Mill is offering a liberal exchange policy for tickets, which should allow patrons to stay home if they feel ill or get cold feet about returning.
“To have warm bodies in the seats who seemed to be really enjoying themselves and enjoying the fact that we are all together experiencing something again was really special,” Carmello said. “I think I didn’t realize how much I missed it.”
Performances of “Songs for a New World” run through Nov. 7 at Paper Mill Playhouse, 22 Brookside Drive in Millburn. For tickets and more information, visit PaperMill.org.
Ilana Keller is an award-winning journalist and lifelong New Jersey resident who loves Broadway and really bad puns. She highlights arts advocacy and education, theater fundraisers and more through her column, “Sightlines.” Reach out on Twitter: @ilanakeller; [email protected]
Source: Asbury Park