Songs for a New World
First performed in 1995, Songs for a New World is a song cycle revolving around the moment of making a choice, whether that is to turn back or take a stand. The numbers explore various examples throughout real and imagined history, from a captain onboard a ship in 1492 to Mrs Claus taunting her neglectful husband. The actors don’t play the same characters throughout, but they do follow narrative arcs that could be seen as linear.
Lambert Jackson’s version was filmed remotely on the performers’ phones during the 2020 lockdown. Viewers see the singers in their own homes, sometimes using their sofas or stairs as props, while footage of the events of 2020 (the closed theatres, Black Lives Matter marches, and one of Trump’s speeches about China) is woven in. While the concept is over 20 years old, the reasons for reprising it in the current situation are clear: today’s audience is, quite literally, living in a new world, straining to see a glimmer of hope in the distance.
The performers are all first-class singers and they remain dynamic throughout. Rachel Tucker (Woman 2), in particular, shines in her character-driven numbers, and truly commits to the various emotions and personalities. Shem Omari James (Steam Train) is also compelling in his renditions. The cast use their homes in innovative ways – a deliberately positioned picture, their own clothes as costumes, and even a sofa as a window ledge. Timely video footage is incorporated where appropriate to highlight the parallels between the songs and current events. The fact that the recordings were all made separately is particularly impressive, because they are seamlessly harmonised together.
This production of Songs for a New World is almost a love letter to the theatre: it highlights how much the industry has been hurt, and how many different people with different roles to play (from front-of-house to set designers to conductors) have been affected, but ultimately leaves a message that this will pass and the world will be together again.
Unfortunately, try as it might, a full-length musical filmed in actors’ homes doesn’t provide enough visual stimulation to hold attention for the full hour and 40 minutes. At the beginning and during the intermission, viewers are presented with a still image of an empty theatre, while an audio track of an audience talking and laughing plays. It’s a nice idea to make the performance feel as “real” as possible and provide the heart-jolting nostalgia of what it was like to sit in a live theatre, but these sections go on for ten minutes each and feel excessive. The songs are good, but Songs for New World works better as a background playlist than a piece of engrossing theatre.
Songs for a New World is available to livestream via stream.theatre from 21st February until 28th February 2021. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.