NYC Working Professionals Share Friendship and Life Lessons in Presentation of Jason Robert Brown's 'Songs for a New World'
A group of working NYC professionals with a talent and passion for the performing arts are coming together this May for a special presentation of Jason Robert Brown's first musical, Songs for a New World. This production uses the themes and adages from this profound work to illustrate the human response to change and the beauty of embracing the journey for all its worth. With the added bonus of getting to perform with a group of friends, this cast is also excited to prove that you can always follow your dreams and find that creative outlet that provides balance to the routine of everyday life and responsibilities.
BWW had the chance to catch up with the organizer of the event, Barbara Jacobs, who is also part of the cast, and cast members, Daniel Hopkins and Amanda Chin, to chat about this powerful musical and its life lessons, their chance to perform with friends, and inspiring all New Yorkers to never stop pursuing their passions.
How did the idea for this presentation of 'Songs for a New World' come together?
Barbara Jacobs: SFNW actually evolved from a completely different idea. I had been taking voice lessons from our MD, Scottie Hawley, for about a year when we started talking about possibly putting together a cabaret act of some kind. It was all very vague and amorphous except for the fact that I knew I would want to do something with a small ensemble as opposed to a solo cabaret. Very early in the process, I reached out to a few friends I knew from AfterWork Theater to see if they'd be interested - and, they were - all I needed to do was figure out the theme and material. I came up with a list of themes, but wasn't particularly motivated by any of them so, after I wrapped a production of Into the Woods, I askEd Scottie to send me a list of songs that he thought I would like, but probably didn't know. Jason Robert Brown's (JRB) work was prevalent on the list and, indeed, the first song on the list was "Stars and the Moon." I listened to it and didn't make it through the rest of the list - I became obsessed with learning the other songs in Songs For A New World (SFNW). Scottie and I started playing around with many of the SFNW songs and I quickly realized that this was our material. The deal was sealed for me when I realized that I also (unknowingly) had assembled the perfect cast for this show. When I told the cast about the plan to shift gears and present SFNW instead of a cabaret, the Steam Train started rollin'.
What songs is the cast most excited to perform? In thinking about JRB's first musical about that crucial moment of decision, what emotions do you hope the material will evoke?
BJ: One of the things that I love about this show is that every song has multiple layers to be excited about - whether it is the song's message, its musicality or its drama. I would guess that each of the four of us values something different in each song, driven by our own life experiences. Personally, I'm most excited to perform the Opening/Spanish Sailing Ship combo as they set the context for everything that follows and they are musically stunning. Those songs and every song that follows is, to some degree, about a path not taken and lessons learned. The emotional rollercoaster during the show is real - it runs the gamut from reassurance to regret and everything in between.
Amanda Chin: I have a different answer to the favorite song question every day! Today it's "The Final Transition," which is not on the soundtrack. There is a recurring theme of fear for Woman 1 throughout the show and in most of her numbers she experiences a range of emotions as she tries to convince herself of the way forward. "The Final Transition" is the first point in the show (albeit just before the finale) where she starts a song with pure and genuine conviction and can tell her story with total confidence.
Songs for a New World brings together a group of friends to perform and inspire the masses. What makes this experience so special for the cast?
BJ: Part of it is the material, but I think the larger part of it is the growth that we've all experienced working through this challenging piece. The four of us know each other from a community theater context that is focused on fairly large scale productions -- when we're in shows, we generally inhabit a defined character that exists in a defined setting for two hours. However, SFNW is different. The 19 songs in this song cycle are 19 different stories - some are short stories, some are novellas, some are comic strips, some are epic sagas. It is both a vocal and acting challenge to deliver on these 19 stories in 3-6 minutes a piece. Largely due to Scottie's efforts, we are all better singers and actors than we were when we began. Having the opportunity to witness this growth in people that I already knew and loved has been a beautiful thing to experience.
AC: It's been a blessing to be able to dive so deeply into this material with some of my favorite people. I thought they were each insanely talented to begin with, so I've been a bit surprised by how much they've each grown throughout this process. This has got to be attributed to Scottie and how he's found the best in all of us and brought it to light. I've been so happy to work with him.
Daniel Hopkins: As a cast, we're all from different backgrounds and have taken very different paths in life, but we're all brought together through or love of theatre. I not sure anything makes me happier, and fills me with more life than when I'm performing! To have the opportunity to share that passion with this cast, these friends, who have an equal passion is honestly the most incredible feeling. I feel so very fortunate to be part of this project....and therein is the inspiration: When you find something that makes you happy, put all your efforts and passion into it and don't let "life" get in the way! - Don't get me wrong, it's not been easy juggling many hours of rehearsals with a busy (stressful) career - but at the end of the day - If it makes you happy, there really isn't anything more important and for that, there's always room to make time.
Your cast features young adults who are all working professionals in NYC. How do they balance their working lives with their artistic pursuits? Any advice for others searching for that creative outlet and community support?
BJ: It very much comes down to the old adage, "where there's a will, there's a way." If you make emotional space to pursue something you love and get life from, you will find a way to strike a balance with your day job. Indeed, most of us in the SFNW cast have multiple projects going on - as actors, singers, dancers, directors - in addition to our day jobs. My experience has been that there's a bit of a halo effect that comes with engaging in these creative endeavors and makes me an all-around happier camper in every aspect of my life. My biggest piece of advice for anyone with an interest in the arts is to just get out there and try - there are community theater groups, cabarets and choirs galore in NYC that are there for the taking. Go to a meet and greet, make a phone call, go to a performance and, eventually you will find a group that offers something that lights a fire in you. And, if you don't find it immediately, be open to experimenting until you find the right context - or, consider creating one of your own.
AC: I would be remiss if I didn't mention AfterWork Theater! It's a social theater group that is all about having a creative outlet while making new friends, and it's how we all came to know each other. Whether it's theater, or photography, or swing dancing that interests you - go find a fun way to do it, and you'll meet fun and supportive people whom you can link up with on your journey through life.
What lessons/pieces of wisdom do you hope audiences with take away from JRB's Songs for a New World? Why do you think the content remains to be relevant?
BJ: I think the material continues to be relevant because - citing another old adage - "the only thing constant in life is change." And, people can be fearful of change because they're fearful of the unknown consequences of their decisions. I hope people walk away understanding that change puts them on a path forward and is something to be embraced, not feared.
DH: "I'm embarrassed to say, I'd not heard of Songs for a New World until this production; but as I've immersed myself in its songs, I've come to realize the show is a pretty poignant reflection on the human condition, and gives it a timeless relevance.
I would say "The World Was Dancing" is the most poignant song for me in the show. The song makes me reflect on those moments in life when you miss an opportunity or lose a love, because you've allowed the fear of taking a risk to win the day. It reminds me of the importance of holding on tight, taking a chance, living life to the full, and loving deeply. After all, the great conclusion of our lives should never be one of defeat or regret."
Do you have future plans for performances and/or ways to keep bringing friends together to perform?
BJ: Absolutely. Since Day 1, I've been calling SFNW my incubator project so I could develop a clear vision of what my road ahead might look like. There is no doubt that there will be another undertaking with a similar profile to SFNW - I already have a list of possibilities to consider. Stay tuned....
AC: Just trying to put the finishing touches on this piece first before thinking about the next project, but I certainly hope we can do this again! A few titles and themes have been mentioned, so my wish is that something comes to fruition. Additionally, along with our larger group of friends, we have been known to sing around the piano once or twice, so we'll always have that!
**Additional members of the cast include Cardozie Jones. Direction provided by Alan Hanna, with musical direction by Scottie Hawley.