“boldly aims to define the new normal, but unfortunately you won’t find anything here that you wouldn’t get from just listening to the album”
Well, here we are in ‘the new normal’. With so many theatres closed indefinitely while social distancing remains untenable, many venues and companies have been finding new ways to adapt. There have been plays performed via Zoom and actors playing to empty auditoriums in the Old Vic as producers scramble to safely recreate the theatrical experience. Musicals, of course, present an even greater challenge with having to sync the vocal performances with the musicians, which events such as Signal Online have made huge steps forward in. But does this production of Songs For A New World fit into, well, the new world?
It certainly frames itself as such. The show opens with newsreel footage of the likes of Rufus Norris and Nicholas Hytner speaking on the state of the industry post-COVID, panning through sombre shots of closed theatres, while the four performers (Rachel John, Ramin Karimloo, Cedric Neal, and Rachel Tucker) sing about being on the precipice of a moment when everything can change. It’s fitting, if a little heavy-handed. Songs For A New World is a little unconventional in its structure in that it’s more of a song cycle than a musical: the sixteen songs written by Jason Robert Brown are all self-contained narratives working within that same theme of the opening number – that of people hitting the point where vital choices have to be made. As such, there’s no over-arching story to tamper with by recontextualising the show through the lens of current affairs.
However, Brown’s USP is that he’s a very narrative lyricist. A lot of the songs feature characters in specific circumstances making those aforementioned vital choices, and so there are detailed stories that need to be told within the songs. The newsreel gimmick is repeated often throughout the show, which can sometimes flatten and obfuscate the nuance of the material. ‘On The Deck Of A Spanish Sailing Ship’ is intercut with footage of Black Lives Matter protests, for example, which the song was clearly not written for as lyrics about not being strong enough seem to undermine the defiance and urgency on display in the footage. Setting this precedent, ‘The River Won’t Flow’ features video of Trump being confrontational at a press conference at its start, which then has no bearing on the song itself. This poorly thought out recontextualisation ultimately rings hollow and meaningless.
If you can ignore that, however, then what remains is four exceptional performers (with an exquisite guest appearance from new graduate Shem Omari James in ‘Steam Train’) with seismically beautiful vocals and hair-raising harmonies in here. All of Brown’s deliciously complex music is given a pulsing energy by Josh Winstone’s musical direction, although Séimí Campbell’s direction doesn’t seem to trust the actors enough at times, giving them too much ‘business’ to do. The number of times the actors pointlessly fondle props or hold drinks during a song is baffling, taking the focus away from the arcs of the songs themselves, although standout performances such as John’s ‘I’m Not Afraid Of Anything’, Tucker’s ‘Surabaya-Santa’, and John and Karimloo’s duet ‘I’d Give It All For You’ manage to transcend those trappings.
For a show about making choices, Lambert Jackson’s production of Songs For A New World seems strangely on the fence: its use of intercutting with real world footage seems like it’s trying to attain a cinematic quality, yet the performers are self-recording in their kitchens and lounges which creates a dissonance with that. Meanwhile, the direction makes broad general strokes of the zeitgeist on material that demands nuance and specificity. This production boldly aims to define the new normal, but unfortunately you won’t find anything here that you wouldn’t get from just listening to the album.
“The youthful bias offered the huge plus point that the show was bursting with energy”
Godspell is a 1971 musical written by Stephen Schwartz. Based on a series of Bible parables, it has been revived countless times and seen by millions. A successful film version emerged in 1973, the same year that Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar also hit cinemas. Directed by Dean Johnson, this semi-staged version by the British Theatre Academy saw those popular songs performed by a huge ensemble of teenagers (representing a community of disciples) and a handful of West End and TV star guest singers. Their renditions were interspersed with scenes of the younger folk partially acting out the teachings of Jesus.
The youthful bias offered the huge plus point that the show was bursting with energy. But on the downside, some of the vocals were better than others and the sound was at times painfully shrill. There was no set to speak of, but visual interest came from the bright neon technicolour clothing (Day-Glo tops, tie-dyed T-shirts, rainbow-striped leggings) and sparkling accessories. A five-piece band (coordinated by musical director James Taylor) played with gutsy efficiency, but the sound was fairly muddy from where I sat (eight rows back).
Although the songwriting and the overall concept retained a very dated early-1970s feel, there were admirable attempts to modernise the material. For example, it was a nice touch that the show began with seven of the performers wielding mobile phones, texting and scrolling as they debated religious philosophy. A less successful contemporary element was the moment in which, if I’m not mistaken, a Donald Trump impersonator was condemned to Hell by a group of Mexicans he had wronged.
Jesus was surely one of the most charismatic men who ever lived. It’s difficult to reconcile that image with Luke Bayer’s slightly underwhelming figure reading out his lines from an iPad. There must have been an awful lot of lines to learn, it’s true, but you’d expect these words to emerge from deep within his soul rather than be cued by an interchangeable gadget anyone has access to. It eroded any sense of the commanding presence such a figure would exude.
The production also suffered from the lack of a narrative arc or any real emotional complexity. Despite ending with the crucifixion (and controversially not the resurrection), the bulk of the ‘story’ is just a series of simplistic preachings – lively, unrelated episodes that could have been delivered in any order without changing the overall effect. And the much-needed flashes of wit (a parable rendered as interpretative dance, children pretending to be goats and sheep) are little more than temporary diversions from an unrelenting sequence of moral lessons. How much you can take away from those lessons is a personal matter, of course, depending on your theological stance. But if you know the teaching of Jesus already, do you really need to hear them presented this way? And if you aren’t aware of them, is a loud rock/gospel musical the best way to take on board that guidance? Beyond the hordes of clearly delighted parents in the hall (enhancing the feel of a well-presented school play), I wasn’t sure who this show was intended for. Christians might consider it too flippant and irreverent. And non-Christians are unlikely to have the patience to sit through so much of the New Testament, however catchy songs such as ‘Day by Day’ might be. In 2019, religion is a divisive, often contentious business, so a more nuanced treatment of the topic would have been welcome.
The best parts were when they kept it low-key and immediate. When one of the performers rapped over a rhythm built from the ensemble’s perfectly coordinated claps and foot stomps, there were a few seconds of real dynamism. And there was an endearing interlude in which a member of the audience was brought on to the stage without warning, handed his lines on a prompt card and made to play the part of Lazarus.
No one can deny the sincerity and goodwill behind the production, nor the obvious vitality of the cast, but Godspell came across as a wearyingly one-dimensional affair. Sadly, it was very much a case of preaching to the converted.