Jason Robert Brown’s musicals have had a good innings at the Fringe in recent years. At last year’s festival there were two productions of his most famous work “The Last Five Years” which generated much hubbub for fans and musical-lovers alike. Although musicals used to be commercial enterprises confined to London’s plutocratic West-End theatre scene, the Fringe has seen a recent surge in young company’s attempting great feats of the imagination by taking musicals to the Edinburgh Festival on a shoestring budget. Paul Virides’ new company Straight Line Theatre joins the party just in the nick of time with Robert Brown’s song cycle “Songs for a New World” which is set to be a hit at C venues this year.
For a first musical, Jason Robert Brown took a bold move by fashioning a show from the debris of his other compositions. But from the ashes comes a startling new work which defies the musical genre entirely. In Brown’s work there is an absence of plot, character, and narrative. Instead, songs are arranged by theme and message. It work seems to be more like Eliot’s Wasteland rather than anything on Broadway in recent times. I suppose its not surprising that “Songs” started life as an Off-Broadway show and has been revived mostly Off-Off-Broadway. When pressed for the show’s theme, Brown replied quite abstractly that it captured the sense of ‘hitting the wall and having to make a choice, or take a stand, or turn around and go back.’ Whether or not you buy into Brown’s work as musical modernism or feel that “Songs” was nothing short of a discordant pot-boiler, Virides’ production is set to revive the show and allow a new audience to decide.
The project came about when James Ball and Paul Virides, graduates of York University, found a common interest in Brown’s music. Ball has experience writing musicals himself, and, in fact, premiered his new musical “Red Snow” last year in York. With Virides as director, and Ball obviously taking on the musical direction, the show had the right ingredients to progress into a fully fledged fringe project.
The newness of Brown’s first musical clearly mirrors the outlook of Virides’ new company. Virides says that after choosing the musical “It sort of just fell into place.” This admission reveals a lot about the company’s ethos. We see here a relaxed, laid back approach to Brown’s work. All this positive thinking is possibly the best way to approach the enormous task of taking a musical to Edinburgh. Either that or you’d lose your own head.
The show will feature Gabrielle James, Lizzie Nuttall and Fen Anthony Greatley, who will multirole a number of songs in the show. So if you want to see a musical by an artist in his prime, produced by a company in their prime, take the short walk to C Eca’s Studio A and see whether Brown’s “Songs from a New World” marks a re-imagining of the musical genre, or is simply a jukebox musical written by a master.