UA Theatre sets sail April 14, singing ‘Songs For a New World’

UA Theatre sets sail April 14, singing ‘Songs For a New World’

Before he won Tony Awards for “Parade” and “The Bridges of Madison County,” before the film “The Last Five Years,” Jason Robert Brown made his Off-Broadway debut in 1995 with “Songs for a New World.” Described as somewhere “between musical and song cycle,” the “abstract musical, a series of songs all connected by a theme,” comes to the University Theatre stage April 14-23 under the direction of Morgan Hicks.

“The lore is that Jason Robert Brown arrived in New York at the age of 20, ready to make it big as a composer,” says Hicks, who is just stepping into the role of interim head of the master of fine arts program in directing at the University of Arkansas. “He had a dozen or so ideas for great musicals but didn’t know which one to start working on, so he wrote some amazing songs for a bunch of different ideas … A ‘best hits’ of shows that never actually were.

“Thematically, what we find in all of the songs is the idea of one pivotal moment,” Hicks explains. “The moment when a decision is made that takes us on a journey. In that decision, we commit to one path but also walk away from the path not chosen.

“It can be a huge decision — like setting sail to a new continent — or it can be a small decision, like the choice to let an insensitive comment pass without jumping on it to start a fight. We have a thousand of these moments every day, and some of them haunt us a little more than others. Some of them change who we are, and some of them define us,” she muses. “That is what the show is really about. Every song is a different story, but they all pull together under that common theme.”

One of the early numbers in the show is “On the Deck of a Spanish Sailing Ship, 1492,” and Hicks and Morgan McInnis, the MFA student scenic designer, took the idea and ran with it.

“We began to explore that visual metaphor of the ship: the ship that sails,” Hicks says. “I sort of fell in love with the visual metaphor of the ghost ship and leaned into that for our environment.”

“I really loved the way Morgan described this, so we decided to make the world we see on stage the pieces of that ghost ship she talked about,” McInnis picks up the story. “Ship elements make up the show’s design vocabulary, so the ship sails become projection surfaces, the ship cargo boxes become platforms, and the crow’s nest can become a balcony for certain moments. The set serves as a backdrop for all of the different stories that come to life on top of it as the show progresses.”

Taking the idea even further, vocal director Betsy Jilka, an instructor at the UA, says “it’s as if each of these people has ancestors who have come off that ship, and they become the people in the musical, i.e. a Civil War soldier, Betsy Ross making the flag, a ’90s street basketball player, or a hippy from the ’70s, to name a few. It’s all an amalgamation of those people and the choices they make.”

Those characters and points in time are supported by costumes designed by Callie Lythgoe, an MFA student and graduate assistant.

“My role has been focused on specifying the identity of each singer and creating a story around them, then telling that story through their clothes,” she explains. “I hope the audience can recognize the new world as a world that they can impact through their decisions. The world we live in is composed of every choice we’ve made in the past, and every decision we make shapes the world we live in in the future. My costumes reflect people in their moments of choice all throughout history.”

“Whatever choice you make is the exact right choice, because it is your choice,” Hicks muses. “It doesn’t mean that the other choice wouldn’t also have been beautiful. But that choice is a ghost ship that you can allow to sail away from you without being haunted by it.”


‘Songs For A New World’

WHEN — 7:30 p.m. April 14-15 & 19-22; 2 p.m. April 16 & 23

WHERE — University Theatre on the University of Arkansas campus in Fayetteville

COST — $5-$20


Categories: Theater